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I walked into the building at 7am, July 5, 1994, for the first time as an employee.  Communications Operator I.  Three months of training lay ahead, and a year’s worth of probation.  The place was the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, the room was in the basement, in a space originally designed to be a gymnasium / weight lifting room.  As of today, I’ve put in 20 years in that cramped space.

A year or two prior to being hired at Tulare County, I had landed a volunteer position at Visalia Police Department, to become a “reserve” dispatcher.  That didn’t go well, training to be a dispatcher does not lend itself to once-a-week training sessions.  It was very unstructured, and in a few weeks I was told I wasn’t being kept in the program.  The training officer told me at that time that I “didn’t have what it takes to be a dispatcher”.  I did not include that tidbit of information in my application to TCSO.  No sense letting someone else decide for them that I couldn’t cut it.

I had been applying for dispatcher positions for almost ten years at that point, and I almost didn’t apply this time.  Each time I had, whether it was at Visalia PD, Tulare County, or Kings County, it seemed like I always got hung up by the interviews.  I always scored in the top percentages in the written tests, but was never hired.  I saw the ad in late 1993, or early 1994, and initially passed on the idea of trying again.  One day I was driving near the County offices, so I stopped in and picked up an application, just for the heck of it.  I took it home, and let it sit on my desk until just before the filing deadline.  (no online application processes back then!)  I went ahead and filled it out, and turned it back in, figuring it was another exercise in futility.  Of course, the tests were easy, I had done them several times by then.  Since I was convinced I was wasting my time, when I was called in for the interview I went in completely relaxed, not at all concerned or nervous, because I already knew it wasn’t going anywhere.  I was surprised as hell when they called me back for a second interview!

That hadn’t happened anywhere before, so it was both surprising and nerve wracking.  Now it was more real than at any time in the past, and I dared to let my hopes get raised, at least a little bit.  Long story short (too late?), they hired me.  Surprise surprise.  And I almost hadn’t applied!

Getting the job turned out to be the easy part.

Back then, the training program was three months, sink or swim. (now it’s anywhere from 6 to 9 months, and it’s still too short)  It was rough.  In fact, if I’d had a job to go to, or the prospect of finding one quickly, there were three moments in that first three months where I would have gotten up, walked out, and not looked back.  Since I had nowhere else to go, I stuck it out.  When I went into the job, I had thought being on the radio would be easy.  I already knew almost all the codes, I was familiar with most of the county, and I was completely at ease talking on radios. I was very nervous about working 9-1-1 phones, though.  That really scared me as I first went into the job.  Turns out the phones were the easy part, but the radio kicked my ass, big time!  To my surprise, I passed training, and was “released” to be on my own.  It still wasn’t easy, and I actually dreaded coming to work for almost two years, because I was not at all comfortable with my being able to handle the job.  How things change!

I’ve read that it takes two years to become comfortable as a dispatcher, and I believe that.  Of course, now it’s been ten times that, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.  Well, astronaut, but NASA ignores my calls, so what can you do?

In my 20 years, I’ve handled the full range of 9-1-1 calls, from shootings to stabbings, domestic fights to drownings.  I’ve been talking to someone on 9-1-1 while they’ve been in the middle of a shoot-out, and heard the retorts from the caller’s weapon as they fired back at the suspects.  I’ve dealt with losing a Deputy in an automobile accident while on the radio, officer involved shootings, and a teenager finding his father dead from a shooting.  There’s no telling how many times I’ve said “10-4″ (or “10-9″!) or “9-1-1 Emergency”.  I’ve even handled a 9-1-1 call while off duty, when a ham radio operator called in a drowning in Sequoia National Park, which I responded to after pulling my car off to the side of Highway 99 to call 9-1-1 on my cell phone.  It was a bit odd being on the other side of the call.

When I applied and was hired, I was deep in both the closet, and in denial.  Since then, in a rather lengthy personal journey, I’ve stepped out of the denial and the closet, and am completely out.  Both in my personal life, and at work, I’m comfortable in my skin as a gay man.  I don’t care who knows, and it’s allowed from some really enjoyable times at work, when I can make a joke that I never would have in the past.  To the Department’s credit, they’ve never said anything to me regarding my LGBT advocacy actions, or my blogging.  Nobody has ever said anything to me in an attempt to keep me out of the public eye, and I have to say that I respect the Department for that.

So today marks twenty years.  I’ve gone from being the greenest green to second on the seniority list.  I did a few months as a temporary shift supervisor (not doing that again!), was selected as Dispatcher of the Year in 2005, and now that Fred has retired (for reals this time) I’m the “old man” in dispatch!  (how the hell did that happen???)  The county retirement program sent me a notice earlier this year, letting me know I’m eligible for retirement, but I don’t think that’s going to happen for a while yet.  Although, as much as I love the job, I could love it part time with no problem, if I could make my income work out…

Twenty years.  That just doesn’t seem right.  It can’t have been that long.  I think someone may be messing with the time stream.