Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Nextel Phones and Other Annoying Things CSIs Deal With

It’s a funny thing but when I hear a Nextel phone squawk I get an instant urge to bash the little black box with a sledgehammer. Overkill? Maybe, but these feelings have been conditioned into me from years of call-outs. Some criminalists work shifts (usually days, mids, or graves) and aren’t routinely subject to call outs. They work their eight or ten hour shift and then they head home turning the baton over to the next shift. Other criminalists, like me, were on call. That means that if a crime occurs after hours you’re jolted from your sleep to schlep out into the night.

Criminals don’t keep an outlook calendar so it’s hard to predict when a call out may occur. That uncertainty can lead to a restless nights sleep. A CSI may work a 10+ hour day, go home to deal with issues around their house, and an hour after putting head to pillow that damned Nextel erupts like a screeching owl. Hence my urge. I was reminded of this the other day when visiting some former colleagues in their lab when one of their Nextels went off. I was surprised that, even after three years absence from law enforcement, those old emotions bubbled up from somewhere deep inside me.

The reasons are deeper than simply losing a well deserved night’s sleep. After all, call outs should not come as a surprise to CSIs. We know what we are signing up for and we accept the fact that we may be called out at the most inconvenient times such as holidays, birthdays, important events, and intimate moments. What erodes our morale, in part, is when the call out is for something petty or simple. Imagine getting called to respond only to place an article of clothing into an evidence bag. Something every fifth grader could do. In one case I had a patrol officer dust for prints, develop a print, place the lifting tape over the print and then called me out to lift the tape off the item because they were suddenly overcome with fear that they would damage the print if they proceeded.

I’m not bringing this up simply to complain. All law enforcement professionals have to deal with things that annoy them and CSIs are no different. I merely suggest that authors take note of these issues and incorporate them into their story lines. Authors are pretty good at incorporating the “big” conflicts law enforcement professionals deal with like getting shot at, divorce, or crashing cars. As in life though, many of our most trying moments don’t come from the one big event but from the accumulation of the little conflicts.

Think of events in your own life. You may be able to handle a blown tire, having a valid credit card denied, or accidentally knocking over a large display in the grocery store and still have a pretty good day. But stack all those things together and your mood can go from pleasant to pissed in no time at all. Little things that can annoy the criminalist include spilling an entire jar of fingerprint powder onto a victim’s nice carpet, locking your keys in a crime scene vehicle, and hearing the squawk of your Nextel at midnight! So when laying out your story consider how these “little things” might affect your character’s demeanor.


  1. Excellent post. I especially love the line "the accumulation of the little conflicts." All those little events can be a great trigger for a character's unexpected reaction to a big event.

  2. It's these precious gems from you that we can use to really give our stories some grit and turn them into gold.

    Once again Tom, you score 100!

  3. I'm often accused of having low-tolerance to most things. I'm easily distracted, easily annoyed, and those Nextel walkie talkie phones drive me insane. It's bad enough having to listen one side of someone's conversation, but both? And amplified?

    Having said that, I agree with what you're saying here. It's the small details that add depth to a story--even the annoying ones.

  4. A great post, Tom. Essentially, our fictional characters should remind us that we're all human, with all the quirks, emotional responses and small failings common to everyone, regardless of what we do for a living. Thanks!


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