By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
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By Erin Sherbert
The San Francisco Fire Department's Communications Center is quiet this May evening, except for a low electrical hum and the sound of firefighters washing the dinner dishes.
Three dispatchers are watching Jeopardy on TV. Another is immersed in a thick volume of The History of the Balkans. One officer has gone downstairs to the basement of the building, located on Turk near Gough Street, to sleep.
Then a phone rings. A dispatcher grabs it:
"Fire Department, San Francisco."
Someone is unconscious on a Muni bus at Kearny and North Point. Engine 28 is sent. Television, reading, and sleep are undisturbed.
It's been an ordinary day at the dispatch center, which means things have been pretty slow. Earlier, a dispatcher went grocery shopping and brought back food for the evening's supper -- chicken breasts, mozzarella, zucchini, and vermicelli. Two other firefighters spent a couple of hours preparing the meal, chicken Parmesan and pasta. There were no major incidents to deal with, just a few coronaries, a grass fire, and several false alarms.
In an eight-hour period, the five dispatchers manning the Communications Center made a grand total of 73 dispatches.
During an emergency, Fire Department dispatchers manage dozens of calls almost simultaneously, sending engines, trucks, and battalion chiefs to the scene of a blaze. These dispatchers must ensure that the right equipment and manpower arrive at the right time to minimize the cost -- both human and monetary -- of disaster.
But most days at "Radio," as the Communications Center is known in the Fire Department, are slow days. Real crises just don't happen very often. And only a fraction of those crises are handled by the Fire Department. Police dispatchers answer all of San Francisco's 911 calls. Only the small portion of emergency calls that are fire-related are passed to the Fire Department.
The Communications Center dispatches an average of 164 calls a day, which works out to just slightly more than one dispatch per dispatch employee, per hour. Few of the calls are for fires. On average, 75 percent of calls deal with emergencies that aren't all that fiery -- car accidents, water leaks, and heart attacks among them. Most of these calls are for first aid.
Fire dispatchers work 24-hour shifts, usually followed by three days off. Between disasters, when times are slow, fire dispatchers fill those daylong shifts with reading and TV watching. They surf the Internet. They play computer games. They cook lunch and dinner. Between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m., they take turns sleeping: On a typical, five-man shift, two dispatchers "go downstairs" at 6 p.m. and sleep until they resume their posts at 1 a.m., when the three other dispatchers go downstairs until 8 a.m. Most nights, each person gets about seven hours of sleep.
There is absolutely nothing surreptitious about this literal sleeping on the job. The dispatchers rest until they are called upstairs to take their part of the waking shift, or to help dispatch a large fire. But interruption of sleep for emergency's sake is a rare occurrence.
Assignment to the Fire Department Communications Center is, by almost any honest calculation, a sweet deal. For a few hours of real work each month, a dispatcher earns a firefighter's wages -- as much as $70,000 a year in regular pay and overtime.
"Taxpayers are paying five people a lot of money to man the dispatch stations," says one retired firefighter who requested anonymity. "They're not paying them to sleep."
Most major metropolitan fire departments employ civilian dispatchers on shorter shifts, because doing so is less costly and just as effective as using firefighters on 24-hour stints. But the San Francisco Fire Department stubbornly favors round-the-clock firefighter dispatchers -- a system that pays maximal wages for minimal work.
Public records show that by working overtime, Fire Department dispatchers were able to increase their regular earnings by an average of 16 percent between 1991 and 1996. The top five overtime earners during that period supplemented their incomes by as much 25 percent each year. Over that six-year span, one lieutenant augmented his salary by a total of $74,000 -- essentially adding more than an entire year's pay to his regular earnings.
In 1991 alone, one senior dispatcher increased his earnings by nearly 60 percent -- just by working overtime.
Dinner is serious business at a firehouse. At the fire Communications Center, too.
A few minutes before 6 p.m., the dispatchers are watching the NBA playoffs; it's the New York Knicks vs. the Miami Heat. Patrick Ewing has just scored for New York, eliciting a frustrated, "Aw, come ON!" from the back of the windowless room.
One of the dispatchers emerges from the kitchen, shaking his head sadly.
"Did you see the chicken he got?" the blue-T-shirted firefighter sighs to no one in particular, assessing the groceries bought earlier in the day. "There's not enough."
Another dispatcher offers to shop for more chicken, but the chef says he will make do. In the apartment-size kitchen, the two men begin pulling skillets and spices from well-weathered shelves and cupboards. A dishwasher serves as a counter top. The cooking ritual has begun.
Dinner is just one of the firehouse practices that firefighters have carried over to Radio. In fact, fire dispatchers live just like regular firefighters -- they just don't actually fight fires.