Thursday, December 23, 2010

Flash Fiction: Guardians

Eric Holt didn’t need Bing Crosby crooning, a tree decorated with twinkle lights, or a calendar to tell him it was Christmas Eve.
All the twelve-year alarm control ‘lifer’ had to do was swipe his identification badge to enter the UL central station. Six operators, himself included, filled the room to capacity in order to process the rainbow colors of pending or active alarms that flashed on computer monitors, three at each workstation.
Eric nodded at his supervisor, Kara Scarlett, as he shrugged out of his jacket to hang it up on the row of hooks to the right of the door. He smiled at her attire for the shift, which took advantage of the relaxed holiday dress code. Kara wore sweatpants, Elmo slippers, and a sweatshirt with a snarling bulldog on the front under the words Bite Me.
“Hey, boss. Anything special going on?”
“No,” Kara said. “Just the usual.”
“Right.” Eric took the only empty station across from Kara and next to Colleen, a seasoned operator that had been with the team now for almost three years. The cougar was sucking on a piece of candy between phone calls and sang Christmas carols over and over again.
Eric logged into the SIMS application they used for monitoring on the right and center monitor of his station, while the left computer was reserved for the corporate network. Sliding a headset over his salt and pepper hair that looked like it’d been trimmed by a chainsaw, he carefully positioned the headphone over his left ear so it wouldn’t rub against a larger earring his mother had given to him as a present. He glanced up at the flatscreen television mounted on the wall in the center of the room. Northwest Cable News was covering highlights of the week, including a pair of bombers that’d been sentenced to death.
“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” Eric heard the hot blonde, Lizzy, at the station behind him comment into her headset microphone.
He paused at plugging his own headset in to swivel around and peek at the computer monitor she was typing real time comments on to glimpse the words ‘dead body’.
That sucks, he thought, then turned around to plug into his phone and log in to start taking calls. The incoming call light blinked like a heart monitor machine reading a patient with a heart attack in progress. He pushed the button to find twenty plus clients on hold for help with their alarm systems and it wasn’t even six p.m.
Eric pressed the Available button and took his first call.
“Alarm Control, this is Eric. How can I help you? OK. Fred Meyer South Salem.” His fingers typed the information on the keyboard as if he was breathing fresh air on a tropical beach. “Happy holidays to you too, Tom. Five minute break for the photo electronic fire exit to make sure its secure. Got it. No. Sorry. It’s too late to change your employee door break times for temperature checks tomorrow. Talk to you later.”
Call number two. “Your alarm won’t set. Is the front door closed? Yes. Close that. Good. Keypad still says ‘Not Ready’. OK. Put in the alarm code and press enter twice. The display reads ‘Motion’. You still have balloons hanging up? Yeah. Take those down. Put them in the bathroom or something. Why? They’re blocking the motion sensors.”
At the workstation diagonal from Eric, Max Grove finished chomping on a potato chip, then said, “Hey Eric. I bet I know where you really wanted them to put those balloons.”
Eric gave the fellow sarcastic operator a whimsical smirk.
His attention focused on the emergency cell phone hooked to the paneling of the central station’s rack which housed the receivers and servers for alarm signals. The ringtone sounded different, until he realized it was Theresa’s cell phone.
“Sorry, everyone,” the earth mother said. “Excuse me, but I’ve got to take this.” Snatching her flip phone, Theresa left the room, but not before reminding Eric that there was plenty of food the company had bought for the team in the test kitchen fridge.
“Thanks Teri,” Eric said. “If that’s your daughter in boot camp, tell her hi for us.”
“I will sweetheart. Thank you.”
The sound of Kara’s voice at being annoyed brought Eric’s attention back to the thirty pending events on the monitors.
“If you don’t have the code to set the alarm there’s nothing we can do,” she was telling a store employee. “You’ll have to call your manager. No. We can’t turn it on for you.”
One hour later the largest chain of one-stop shopping centers in Oregon and Washington were all trying to leave their stores in the space of thirty minutes. Two hundred locations calling six people in a room smaller than a corporate office restroom. Do the math if you want to.
But Eric already envisioned what the call stats would be. Ninety-eight percent of the calls would be answered in under twenty seconds, a golden standard for a central alarm station.
Colleen burst into laughter. “Merry Christmas to you too,” she giggled in a little kid’s playful voice. “You’re the last employee out. OK.” She dispositioned her operator comments in the Employee Door account for Tacoma Pacific Fred Meyer with a C: Data/Info Entered. A few minutes later when the employee entry door alarmed and reset on the screen, indicating the employee had opened and closed it to leave, Colleen cleared the alarm off with a B: Authorized Break.
“Lizzy?” Kara called out over Eric’s head to the youngest operator in the room who’d just turned twenty-three. “Tell me what happened at that Smith’s store in Downtown Utah.”
Putting her phone on work, Lizzy swiveled around in her chair. The Grinch adorned the front of her sweatshirt.
“Probable drug overdose, Kara. Grocery PIC was doing a bathroom check and found the guy slumped backwards over the toilet with a syringe dangling from his arm. Gross. I called the Loss Prevention Manager.”
“Good work,” Kara said.
A yellow signal indicating a burglary alarm began to flash at the top of the screen and Eric clicked Enter to grab it. It was a garden center rollup door at Tacoma Pacific Fred Meyer. He picked his line and dialed police dispatch.
“I’ve got a silent alarm at the Fred Meyer on Tacoma Pacific. Last employee left about twenty minutes ago. Yes, I’ll call a responder right away. Incident number? OK. Anything else you need from me? Right. Thanks.”
Eric contacted the store director and interrupted the man’s family dinner. Oh well, that’s retail. It sucks. Tough shit.
Twenty minutes of babysitting ones and zeroes later, Eric was told to pick a call from Tacoma Pacific’s store director.
“Where the hell are the police, Eric?” the director whispered.
“I dispatched them right before I called you. Why are you whispering?”
“Because I’m laying low from the two assholes dressed like Santa Claus looting my store.”
Eric called dispatch again and gave them an update. A little while later the director called back with joyful relief.
“They got ‘em, Eric. They got ‘em with the dogs.”

*     *     *
For my work family of operators, programmers, and service co-ordinator in Kroger Central Alarm Control. Merry Christmas.

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