City of Sarasota, Florida
The newspaper ad just said dispatchers wanted and to apply in person at city hall. Nothing was said about police dispatching or the police department. I thought they were talking about utilities or public works or the water department. So, I decided to check it out. First, however, I had to get directions from my family to city hall in Sarasota.
I got there late in the afternoon, barely a half hour before closing. The woman in personnel was very nice. She gave me a short card to fill out to indicate my interest in the job. Still no indication of what kind of dispatching was entailed. She looked at the information on the card, picked up the phone, and asked for the personnel sergeant. She had someone with experience standing in front of her. Could I come right on over to the police department for an interview. Sure, if you can tell me where the police department is.
I had to do a polygraph and tell the sergeant my life story. I met with the deputy chief because the chief was on vacation. Within barely a few days, I was employed by the City of Sarasota Police Department as a civilian dispatcher.
Sarasota is a city of some 50,000 souls on the west coast of Florida about an hour south of Tampa and an hour north of Ft. Myers. It is the county seat of Sarasota County. The city boasts a beautiful white sand beach on Lido Key, an upscale yuppy shopping area on St. Armand’s Key, a slightly shabby but still nice downtown area a block from Sarasota Bay where boats dock at the marina and Bay Front Park allows people to walk or bike along the water’s edge. It used to be the home of the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus. When I started working at SPD, the circus still maintained its winter home in Venice in the southern part of the county. Sarasota also has Jungle Gardens and the Ringling Art Museum.
It is the retirement capital of the United States. Almost everyone up north has a grandmother or great aunt who retired and went south to Sarasota.
There were 3 shifts in communications. Each shift had 6 people counting a shift supervisor whose badge, for some reason I still don’t understand, said “Desk Supervisor,” like she supervised a room full of desks or something. We were all civilians. The three shift supervisors reported to a uniformed lieutenant who was also in charge of the Records Division. We wore uniforms with embarrassingly minuscule badges.
Two dispatchers would be working the radio, one talking with the officers on channel one and the other talking with the civilian aides, also on channel one. One dispatcher would be downstairs behind the front desk working teletype, one would be answering the switchboard, and one would be answering the emergency lines. The supervisor would pick up on any overflow phone calls.
There was no 9•1•1 system in Sarasota County when I started at SPD. This would be the last place I worked or lived that did not have a 9•1•1 system. People in Sarasota had two numbers with which to call the police in the city: 366-8000 for administrative and non-emergency calls, and 955-7171 for emergency calls to the police. The fire department had different emergency and non-emergency numbers for fire and medical calls.
All calls into the police station except emergency calls came in through the switchboard. No one in the building had their own phone number, so whether you wanted to talk with a records clerk about getting a copy report of a report or whether you wanted to talk with the chief, your call came in on the switchboard and the dispatcher answering it would punch in a 3-digit extension to route you to the person with whom you wanted to speak. It’s a pretty inefficient way of doing things, but a lot of places had exactly the same system.
We had no CAD; instead, we used 80-column cards to record status changes and to take calls. We had a belt that was too noisy to leave on all the time, so we would drop the card in the track and flip the switch until the card went the few feet into the radio room. This would be my last dispatching job where I did not use a CAD system.
The department operated on two radio channels. One was the primary dispatch and working channel. The second was for information-type transmissions, e.g., tag checks, warrant checks, DL checks. The two people working radio were inside a small room at the front of the communications center on the second floor. They were separated from the ringing phones by a plate glass window and doors that were supposed to be shut but often were not.
We normally had around 20 units on the air, depending on the time of day. The city was divided into 10 police patrol zones with a patrol car nominally assigned to each zone. Sarasota PD ran one-officer units except for Zone 3 in the north part of the city where they assigned two officers to the patrolling unit. There tended to be a lot of disturbance calls and foot pursuit calls in that part of town, hence the two-man car.There was a Zone 11; that’s what SPD called its police boat. Why not just Marine 1 or some such thing, I never knew, but that’s what they called it.In addition to the 10 zone cars, there would typically be a north floater and a south floater. Sometimes, especially on evening shift, there would be two zone cars assigned to the downtown area. During day shift there would be a couple of motorcycle officers out and perhaps a couple more traffic units in unmarked patrol cars. Evening and night shift would include a half dozen or so tactical units in unmarked vehicles.
Going to Work
My first day on the job was taken up with getting in-processed and collecting my ID card and uniforms. The second day, I went to work. I sat on the switchboard with the only other male dispatcher then employed by the police department.
I spent the morning listening to the other dispatcher answer. That afternoon we reversed the roles, and he listened to me answer. The next day, I was on the switchboard by myself. My introduction to the emergency lines came a bit more directly. We were shorthanded one day. An incoming emergency line was ringing and ringing; one of the other dispatchers just pointed to it. I answered it. Never did receive any other training on the phones.
My training on the radio came one day when I was sent into the radio room to sit at the second position. My trainer, an experienced dispatcher with only some 2 years or so on the job but who was very good at the job, listened to me handle the low call volume for the civilian aides. These aides handled radio calls that did not require the intervention of a sworn officer, e.g., traffic control, parking lot accidents, minor vandalism reports. We did that for the first four hours, then we switched places. I handled the busier channel while she worked the slower one and listened to me. The next day, I was on my own.
When I started, the communications center was on the second floor next to the men’s locker room. Sometime around 1984-85, the city built a new center on the first floor. It looked like something from Star Trek — at least, a lot of people thought so. Like the old center, it had no windows. They added a couple of them after I left. I was working day shift when we made the migration from the old center to the new one. I got to be one of the first to use the new equipment. I had already been the first dispatcher to transmit over the new equipment; I had participated in testing the facility a couple of days before. Being the first to use the new radio consoles — that’s about the extent of the distinction of my career at SPD.
I enjoyed working at SPD for the most part. It wasn’t a place that put much stock in its dispatchers, however. As I remarked to one of my supervisors one day in the parking lot, I could come in there and become the best dispatcher the department had ever seen and no one in the department outside of communications would have cared one bit or probably have even noticed. We took a lot of grief from the patrol officers and from some of the detectives. There was little support for the dispatcher, even if the dispatcher was in the right.
The pay was also bad — real bad. My starting salary was $10,000 a year, and this was in 1981. When I left 4 years later, I was making $12,000 a year. A raise of $2,000 in four years isn’t exactly something to get excited about. I left, moved to Washington, D.C., and received a larger raise my first year on the job there than I had received my entire time with SPD.
I met some nice people, made a few friends with whom I stayed in contact. But I’ve never missed the place.
The Communications Division of the Sarasota Police Department ceased to exist in January 1996 when its dispatchers stopped being city employees and became employees of the county sheriff’s office. In April that year the Division’s functions were transferred to the county’s new consolidated 9•1•1 center.