Walking while they work: Treadmill-desks installed for 911 dispatchers in Johnson County

OLATHE, Kan. -- If you have a desk job and spend about eight hours a day on your behind, what's happening at the Johnson County Communication Center may be something for the suggestion box at your place of employment.

They have added four new treadmill-desks there, so dispatchers dealing with 911 calls can relieve some of that stress.

"We don't really get a lot of breaks to get up and walk around. We're pretty much stuck at our consoles," said Heather Beabout, who has been a dispatcher for about eight years.

The treadmills move as fast as two miles per hour. The dispatchers can slow them down or step off of them if they get too busy or distracted.

"It takes a little bit to get used to walking and typing, but it's a pretty quick learning curve for most people," Heather said.

Heather has set a goal for herself, hoping to walk on the treadmill 30 minutes to an hour each day.

"It definitely makes the shift go a little better and gives me a little energy," she said.

The treadmills cost about $1,500 each, but Tom Erickson, public information officer for the  Johnson County Sheriff's Office, believes they are a good investment.

"Is it a good value? Are they worth the investment? What good would they actually do? And all of that research led to the conclusion that yes, they're well worth it," Erickson said. "We have had dispatchers that have actually died in their chair here at work. We don`t want that to happen ever again."

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  • Chad Estes

    While treadmills do offer an option for walking (or running) when real walking (or running) isn’t an option, they have a significant downside. Sitting for long periods of time often cause shortening of our flexors (the muscles on the “front” of us). Treadmills will exacerbate this issue. Why? When we walk normally (on a surface that isn’t moving) we have to propel ourselves forward for each successive step. When we are on a treadmill, the “ground” is already moving rearward. This leads to us not having to propel ourselves forward, but to quickly take the next step so we don’t fall on our faces. This will reinforce the over contraction (or shortening) of our flexors. Not good.

    • James


      There are a number of issues with what you’re claiming. Ambulation, regardless of whether or not you’re on a treadmill, is primarily driven by posterior-chain muscles, such as the glutes and hamstrings. When standing, the hip is in extension, as is the hip flexor. When the leg swings forward to taken a step, the anterior muscles contract, so you’re right, the flexor would shorten to assist in this motion. But to compare this acute contraction (or shortening) to the chronic shortening that happens to the hip flexor during 8-10 hours of sitting is complete silliness.

      Lastly (I know this wasn’t a claim of yours but rather was from other commenters) it has actually been found that the negative consequences of sitting cannot be undone by periods of activity later in the day. Does post-sedentary activity help? Of course! But prolonged sitting damage isn’t remedied by hitting the gym after work. Anatomy isn’t like arithmetic.

      People need to do even basic research before they knock something that can actively (no pun intended) save lives.

      • a dispatcher

        yes of course Kim, it sure would be nice to have time to do that, but a lot of dispatchers work an insane amount of overtime. Add to that a personal and family life and you have no time for exercise.

      • James

        It has actually been found that the negative consequences of sitting cannot be undone by periods of activity later in the day. Does post-sedentary activity help? Of course! But prolonged sitting damage isn’t remedied by hitting the gym after work. Anatomy isn’t like arithmetic.

        Don’t knock it til you try it, Kim. If you’re interested in the articles that I’m referring to I would be more than happy to send them your way!

  • 918 101

    As a recently medically retired police dispatcher/911 operator, I can tell you this is an excellent idea. I know several others that medically retired due to back problems, and almost every one of my coworkers had some back problem. The extreme stress of the job combined with the stress on your body of sitting for 8-10 hours with minimal breaks caused severe back problems and greatly contributed to me becoming permanently disabled. A small injury was never able to heal and was magnified by excessive sitting from my job. I now have a compressed spine, bulging discs, pinched nerves, and eventually developed torn discs and dried out discs. I’ll never be able to work again in any job, let alone the profession I loved. I’m in constant pain and can barely accomplish my daily living tasks (between medication side effects, dr appts, various treatments, and incapacitating pain). I’m facing spinal fusion and currently have damage to almost 1/2 of my spine. That’s not a fun outlook for someone in their early 30’s with their life ahead of them. Standing still isn’t much better than sitting, but walking is a great stress reliever and keeps the body moving, which it is designed to do. It also helps keep you awake at 3am.
    My only question is how they talk on the radio or are these only for 911 consoles? At my center, we talked on the radio using a foot pedal, so even standing while working was difficult because then you had to balance on 1 foot while operating 5 or 6 computer screens, 2 keyboards, 3 mice, working a phone and radio, and keeping track of 25+ officers. On the rare occasions I did get breaks long enough to do something besides pee and grab food from the fridge to take back to my desk, I’d try to go walk laps in our parking lot (in the ghetto at 2am…very safe). If this had been available I would have jumped at the chance (even before I started having back problems) and I know almost all my coworkers would do the same. Just the chance to move around and not sit constantly would be very welcome. Everyone thinks a sitting job is easy on the body. Ask any spine dr…its the exact opposite. That’s not what our bodies are designed for. Occasional sitting, yes…nonstop sitting, NO! They even paid thousands for our chairs to try and prevent back problems, but no chair in the world is going to make up for that.

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  • 918 101

    At 5’7″ and 115 lbs you nailed it! I’m definitely obese. So is my friend and coworker that was told she has to gain 20 pounds so she’ll be 120 lbs before they can do her back surgery. Sorry to burst your bubble, but the job really does cause back problems. There are some obese people at my center, but the vast majority are a healthy body weight and do work out regularly…and they still have back problems. But way to showcase your ignorance and prejudice!

  • 918 101

    Since you CLEARLY know so much about dispatching, I’m curious to know how you think we should get any physical activity while we are working. If its busy, we can’t even stand up due to the foot pedal needed to talk on the radio. When its slower and we can stand up, we cannot move more than 3-5 feet from our console due to the cord connecting our headset to the phone and radio. Every center I’ve known of has been understaffed. Assuming we have enough staffing and call volume is light enough that we can take breaks at all, only one person at a time can get up. So if I take my time wandering to the bathroom, walking in the parking lot, and getting some exercise, no one else can leave their console. Our breaks are not guaranteed. If it gets busy you are lucky to get a bathroom break….you just learn to hold it. And forgive me for having a family, but after working a 10 hour shift and rushing home to get the kids off to school, I’d much rather sleep for a few hours before the kids get home from school and I have to get up and cook, clean, supervise homework, and be a parent. I just LOVE getting to see my husband for maybe 30 minutes before I leave for work, and if I don’t work too much overtime on my days off, I can see him those evenings too (but I work weekends so my days off are in the middle of the week). Forgive me if I didn’t make it to the gym every day, only 4 days per week. Exercise was how I worked off the stress of my job, but due to my health problems I can’t do that anymore. But don’t worry, I haven’t gained any weight because I vomit almost every day….either from the sheer pain or from medication side effects. I would love to see you handle shootings, stabbings, drownings, childbirths, and horrific child abuse stories…40 hours a week for years on end and not have it affect you in some way. I’m afraid we can’t all be as perfect as you are, we have to settle for being mere mortals and having stress affect our bodies in negative ways.