Saturday, October 17, 2009
Written by Bob Smith, director of strategic development for APCO International
It's 0300 hrs, and you're the senior person on duty when that dreaded call comes in: "This is Mike from day shift, and I'm not going to be able to make it in today. I'm sick." At this point, several things run through your head. Who's on call? Who's in charge of dayshift today? And most worrisome of all - will I have to work a double?
Shift work is a fact of life in public safety comm centers. The services we provide aren't restricted to Monday through Friday 0800 to 1700 hrs but must be available around the clock. In the fast-paced, dynamic world of today's comm center, it's important to ensure enough people are on duty at any given time. Understaffing is a risky business. It affects the ability of an agency to handle telephone and radio traffic, increases liability, decreases quality of service and affects staff in a multitude of other ways.
So how do we prepare for those calls? How do we ensure that we have adequate staffing on a shift even if someone calls in? And how do we do this without breaking the bank in overtime?
Well, one way to prepare for these types of situations is to establish a "Call-In" policy. A policy that dictates who will be called when an employee calls in or otherwise fails to show for work without prior notice. There are different variations of this type of policy, including:
On-call policies: This type of policy designates a person or persons to be on call for a specific period of time to come into work when someone calls in sick. This person or persons can be issued a pager or cell phone so they can be easily contacted during their on-call period. This position can be rotated among employees to spread out the responsibility and to ensure one or two people aren't bearing the brunt of the burden.
Previous shift call-back: Many agencies have a policy that requires off-going shifts to be available for call-back for a designated period of time. Example: If your agency works three eight-hour shifts designated day, evening and night shifts, then the day shift staff would be on call for evening shift call-ins and evening shift would be available for night shift call-ins and so on. This option can be troublesome because fatigue can be an issue for people assigned to work double shifts. This can be further complicated in agencies that work 10- or even 12-hour shifts.
Random call-back: This type of policy is quite common. It basically designates all off-duty personnel as available for call-in at any time for any shift. Employees may be issued pagers or required to have 24-hour contact information on file with the agency. When someone calls in, a roster of off-duty employees is produced and someone begins to go through the list until a "volunteer" is found to cover the shift. This type of policy is only effective if off-duty personnel answer the phone or return calls. It can also be abused by routinely starting with the people who are most likely to come in or the ones who will be easiest to contact.
Double shifts: The least popular method to cover call-ins and the one policy most likely to increase staff burnout and liability due to fatigue and decreased staff morale. This method requires that an employee on the current shift stay over to cover the oncoming shift shortage. Again, there are several shortfalls to this method and if it is used, it should be a last resort.
Regardless of which method is used to cover call-ins, the person selected as a stand-in must be carefully chosen. Often, the thought process is such that any body in the seat is better than nobody at all. This isn't necessarily true. A person with inadequate experience, training or skill level can indeed be more troublesome than having a hole in your staffing for a particular shift.
Often, the person selected is the lowest person in the chain of command. This isn't always a wise choice. Can a newly hired employee effectively cover this shift? Can they handle the workload? How much of a learning curve will there be if a night shift person is called in to work day shift? All of this must be considered when drafting a call-in policy.
The bottom line: Illnesses and family emergencies happen. People will need to miss work, and usually it will be with little to no notice. Agencies must be prepared to handle these types of events. Whether your agency uses one of the examples listed here, a combination or something totally different, a policy must be in place to ensure that staffing levels for all shifts are adequate every day. Any holes in the schedule can increase liability and affect the delivery of service to the community you serve.
Written by Anthony Oliver, MPH, Public Health Fellow in the Department of Transportation's Office of Emergency Medical Services (Washington, DC) and Richard Alcorta, MD, state EMS Medical Director for the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems and a Board Certified Emergency Medicine physician
9-1-1 facilitates single point access to Emergency Medical Services (EMS), law enforcement and fire services. Including 9-1-1 in planning and response efforts is essential to maintaining the Nation's health and safety during an influenza pandemic. A pandemic will likely cause 9-1-1 systems to experience increased demands for services while facing strains on resources (e.g. increased employee absenteeism, supply chain disruptions). The Federal government and others have developed resources to assist 9-1-1 communications centers prepare for a pandemic.
The public has been trained to call 9-1-1 when help is needed, whether the problem is small or large, urgent or not. The PSAP is a trusted source of information for the public and will be inundated with calls for help during a pandemic. Plans need to ensure that PSAPs have current, factual information regarding the events affecting their communities, that they have resources to update that information as changes arise and that they can effectively communicate that information to the public.
Influenza (also known as the flu) is a contagious illness which causes more than 200,000 hospitalizations and about 36,000 deaths annually. Influenza viruses can change into new and mutant viruses, against which no one has immunity, making the entire population susceptible, even if previously vaccinated or infected with other strains. Seasonal influenza outbreaks usually cause large increases in the need for medical care. An influenza pandemic occurs when a new strain develops which can easily be transmitted from person-to-person in a population with very little or no immunity. A pandemic is a worldwide disease outbreak, occurring in many different countries. If a pandemic occurs, there will be a surge in the demand for both hospital and prehospital resources. One way to reduce the flu's impact is the development of plans to lessen the demand for services on hospitals and prehospital systems.
History has shown that an influenza pandemic has the potential to seriously impact the Nation's health care system, economy and social structure. Recognizing the importance of 9-1-1 in accessing the nation's healthcare, and its potential to reduce the resource demand during a pandemic, the White House Homeland Security Council directed the creation of guidance to assist 9-1-1 call centers in preparing for pandemic influenza in May 2006. The National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza: Implementation Plan instructed the Department of Transportation and its Federal partners to develop model statewide protocols which address (1) the provision to information to the public, and (2) facilitation of caller screening and (3) assistance with priority dispatch of limited EMS resources. The Office of Emergency Medical Services and the National 9-1-1 Office worked with the National Association of State EMS Officials to develop and disseminate two documents: EMS Pandemic Influenza Guidelines for Statewide Adoption and Preparing for Pandemic Influenza: Recommendations for Protocol Development for 9-1-1 Personnel and Public Safety Answering Points (available at www.pandemicflu.gov and www.ems.gov) first made publicly available in May 2007. Additionally, more than 6,500 CD-ROM copies of both guidelines were disseminated to PSAPs nationwide in January 2008.
Is Your PSAP Prepared?
Scientists believe that an influenza pandemic is inevitable - a "when" not an "if" proposition. To provide adequate 9-1-1 services during a pandemic, it is necessary to prepare, just as 9-1-1 prepares for other mass casualty incidents. This preparation may be particularly important for a pandemic because once an entire region or state is affected, mutual aid may not be possible. It behooves each 9-1-1 service to prepare itself, and to become actively involved in its local and State pandemic planning process.
Implementing infection control practices along with influenza-like illness screening can also result in decreased PSAP absenteeisn. Anecdotal reports from PSAP directors in Washington State showed a 60 percent reduction in sick leave after infection control procedures were instituted. One manager commented that it was the first time staff had available sick leave going into summer, and that employees did not have to use vacation time in lieu of sick leave. Additionally, one manager noted that the cost of infection control supplies was recovered in a reduced need for overtime.
Preparing PSAPs for an influenza pandemic is a critical component in ensuring demand for healthcare services is met for the community. Planning and preparing for pandemic influenza can reduce absenteeism in the emergency services workforce, distribute resources effectively and decrease demand on 9-1-1, EMS and hospital resources. Is your PSAP prepared?
Written by Hal St. Clair, Director of Advanced Technologies for Dialogic Communications Corp.
By exercising a few simple emergency notification guidelines, public safety operations can dramatically improve any crisis communications strategy.
For today's public safety operations, emergency notification technology is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity. As more sheriff's offices, fire departments and emergency management agencies implement these communications systems, so too are they seeking guidance to ensure their effectiveness. This article will provide six crucial steps for improving the integrity and reliability of any emergency notification system, whether on-premise, hosted or hybrid.
#1. Educate People on Your Use of the Technology
You and your family sit down to dinner. The phone rings. You pick up, only to hear an automated, "hello." Assuming it's another telemarketing call, you hang up. It's a common scenario. Only this time, the call is from your PSAP's emergency notification system, attempting to let you know of a hazardous materials spill out on Route 9.
To know emergency personnel and local residents will react appropriately to these calls, educate them on the system's use beforehand. Activate "sample" notification scenarios, letting people hear how calls sound and ways to interact with them. Broadcast information about your use of the technology on local public access TV channels and radio. Launch an all-out public awareness campaign by mailing flyers community-wide and encouraging locals with unlisted numbers or cell phones to register for notifications during community events or online.
As simple as it sounds, also train people to say "hello" when they receive a call from numbers inside your area code or directly from your operation. Most emergency notification systems are programmed to recognize a standard ring-back tone and "listen" for an actual voice before delivering the message. When these systems encounter silence, they assume no one is on the line and terminate the call, often resulting in non-delivery.
#2. Conduct Partial and Full System Tests on a Regular Basis
An emergency notification system is only as good as the data that resides within it. Therefore, it is imperative for public safety operations to routinely carry out both partial and full system tests. As a general rule, select a small group of people, preferably your own personnel, to automatically notify once each month via all designated methods (e.g., home phone, Blackberry, e-mail, etc.) in order to determine any data errors or potential communications issues. If possible, also conduct regularly scheduled tests to small geographical areas throughout your community. Finally, conduct a full system test once per quarter, or at a minimum, twice each year. Together, these measures will help your operation correct any potential hardware, software or telephony issues before they arise.
#3. Avoid the Blacklist
During the course of a week, you probably receive hundreds of unwanted e-mails regarding special events, company promotions or worse. Fortunately, the companies and/or individuals behind these campaigns often find themselves blacklisted, slowing, suspending or rejecting their access to certain e-mail servers. However, for public safety operations that send a large number of notifications via e-mail, this poses a potential problem.
Typically, the first sign of trouble comes with "bounce-back" e-mails. Often these include technical reasons for the return, but others will not. It all depends on your IT department's setup and software.
If you suspect you have been blacklisted, there are a number of resources online from which you can run automated tests against your IP address. These include www.spamhaus.org, www.spews.org and www.dsbl.org. You might also consider directly contacting the domain blocking your e-mails in order to resolve the problem.
To avoid being blacklisted in the future, confirm the validity of the e-mail address in the "form" field of your e-mails. Also, continually remove invalid e-mail addresses from your contact data, as too many can cause Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to flag your e-mail account as a source of SPAM.
#4. Know Your Communications Capacity
It's Mother's Day. You pick up the phone and dial your mom's number, only to hear "We're sorry. All circuits are busy. Please try your call again later." The same holds true during large-scale disasters, where your area's phone grid may become overloaded or even completely shut down. Do you know how many simultaneous phone conversations your particular community, office or county is able to support? Do you fully understand the availability (or lack) of cellular service in your area? Did you know there are limitations to the number of SMS/text messages providers can support at any given time? Clearly, there are a number of factors influencing or limiting your ability - or capacity - to communicate during certain situations.
For public safety operations using an on-premise emergency notification system, it is imperative to strategize on the front end in order to avoid any issues on the back end. This includes allocating a certain number of inbound and outbound phone lines or toggling between the two, shortening a call's duration (i.e., greeting, message, prompts and farewell) and determining the most effective sequence for contacting certain groups of individuals (e.g., page first, then e-mail, call home, etc.).
For those operations using offsite (hosted) emergency notification services, the amount of phone lines available is determined by the vendor. While this number is generally far greater than those associated with on-premise systems, capacity is still limited by your area's communications infrastructure. For example, a small town may only have 200 phone lines in its entire grid. During peak hours, 150 of them could be in use at any given time, leaving only 50 available for emergency notification.
To counter this potential problem, consider using alternative means for communication, including cell, e-mail and SMS/text messaging. But remember, these methods have limitations too. Also take into consideration the restrictions of your own PBX, voicemail system and paging service. Multiple attempts will more likely ensure the delivery of your message.
Finding a balance may be tricky, but as evidenced by the technology's widespread use, it is certainly not impossible.
#5. Have a Backup Plan in Place
Depending on the situation, your telecommunications infrastructure may be severely impacted or rendered inoperable. As with all public safety systems, redundancy measures should be in place for your operation's emergency notification system. This will enure communications with first responders, area residents, local authorities, community volunteers and others do not fail, even in worst-case scenarios.
Redundancy is most often delivered through remote hosting center. These facilities provide public safety operations secure access to hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of phone lines 24/7/365. Use of this infrastructure, whether for secondary or primary purposes, may be subject to a subscription fee, per-call charges or both.
Another option for redundancy involves the shared use of emergency notification systems between local or regional operations. Though less costly, this method does require a great deal of communication, collaberation and coordination on behalf of the participating parties. It may also not be feasible in the event of a large-scale disaster affecting two or more groups.
#6. Open the Lines of Communication
In an emergency, you must not only be able to push information out and into the hands of personnel and the community-at-large, but also manage the influx of calls post-notification. The use of an inbound "bulletin board," if available with your system, will easily address this communications need.
As part of your notification message, briefly instruct recipients to call a designated phone number for additional incident-related details. Record and update this information as often as necessary. Activate subsequent notifications as the situation escalates or improves to keep everyone in the loop and further reduce the number of incoming calls.
The Bottom Line
The benefits of adopting the six steps identified here are two-fold. First, public safety operations using emergency notification technology will improve the efficiency and reliability of their system. Second, they will reap the numerous benefits of knowing they have taken all the right steps to ensure their communities are safe and informed.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Written by Susan Fichter, Manager at DTN/Meteorlogix specializing in business-to-business weather solutions. She has more than 17 years of experience consulting with businesses on how to best manage their weather-related risks.
Major disasters can happen anytime, anywhere, and weather events affect the decisions and response times that ensure public safety. The 911 call center is the first line of defense for managing a major incident. Addressing a major incident involves three processes: planning, response and mitigation. By the time a weather disaster strikes, call centers should already be prepared to deal with a rapid spike in call volume. Public safety departments rely on advanced weather technology to help determine staffing needs in call centers and around the community. In addition, the same services monitor when severe weather passes, so public safety officials can lead recovery efforts during and after an event.
When it comes to addressing a major disaster, communications is key. Establishing communications channels among city departments and workers proves crucial to reducing delays and response times. This includes keeping all departments in the loop - especially when weather extremes are a factor.
Custom Weather Service
Agencies can conveniently and accurately monitor weather conditions by implementing a real-time, location-specific weather service. This service can alert multiple departments to user-defined weather threats. Some proactive centers also use this information to alert various community organizations, such as nursing homes, schools and businesses, of the risk for severe weather conditions.
There are multiple reasons for using a weather information service as a risk management tool in the disaster plan. First and foremost, when it comes to mitigating major incidents, lives are on the line. Many decisions are made surrounding incidents that directly affect community safety. Having accurate weather information takes the guesswork out of decision-making and allows call centers to dispatch personnel in a safer manner.
Weather technology also helps keep the community's assets out of harm's way. Call center personnel can manage risk and improve response times by using a service that provides consultation from a meterologist during major incidents that involve weather. Some services make this as easy as posting a question on an online message board. In any case, early warning notifications distributed by weather service providers allow call centers to stay ahead of changing weather conditions and threats to their community.
Lightning is the weather threat most commonly misunderstood. Too often people rely on their senses - sight and sound - to monitor lightning. What may surprise you is that lightning injures more than 360 people annually in the U.S. and can strike up to 10 miles outside of a storm. A weather service that displays real-time lightning strikes serves a a valuable safety resource. Call centers can set user-defined advisories and warning zones for lightning strikes to alert officials and the public in at-risk areas. These boundaries can be scaled as needed for the varied evacuation times of different facilities or city events.
Monitoring real-time lightning as it approaches assists call center personnel position spotters. Moreover, a weather service can provide "all clear" alerts when the lighting risk diminishes.
Call centers can also monitor and be alerted to storm corridor activity when using a weather service. By focusing on storm corridors, dispatchers can track storms to detect mesocyclone and tornado activity. Storm corridors provide information about the direction of a storm and its intensity, so call centers can proactively notify teams on high or critical alert and safely position storm teams in the field. Also, it's crucial to have a system in place that shows recent storm corridor history to support post-event analysis.
In addition to lightning and tornadoes, advanced weather services help dispatchers mitigate other weather risks, such as flooding, severe winds, snowstorms, ice and extreme hot or cold temperatures. The main weather concerns in the public safety spectrum lie within the extremes; sub-zero temperatures, torrential downpours and straight-line winds are just a few examples of weather occurrences that often place call centers on heightened alert.
Although major incidents cannot always be forecast, having an advanced weather service in the call center will greatly improve public safety response and recovery efforts. As the first line of defense for mitigating disaster, dispatchers must have access to such tools as advanced severe weather warnings to keep public safety personnel and community members out of harm's way.
Written by Frank J. Kiernan, Director of the Meriden Emergency Communications in Meriden CO
A caller reports a robbery and describes the suspect. We ask about a weapon: gun, knife; displayed or implied. The neighboring jurisdiction radios that it's in pursuit of a suspect wanted for assault and escape and known to fight with police; we get the vehicle description, suspect identity and description, any known weapons, and we give this to our field units. We do this in our sleep. We know what we need to do to protect ourselves and our field units in these situations, but what about in the unexpected or routine events that occur every shift?
Responder safety is one of the most important responsibilities of public safety telecommunicators. I have the unique experience of working both sides of the microphone, and will say that each training program - fire, police and EMS - should include an eight-hour shift in the dispatch center, 4-12 on a Friday or Saturday night would be best, or even 8-4 on Monday or Tuesday after a long weekend, but any time "in the cage" would help.
Rule No. 1 for telecommunicators: Don't keep secrets! What we know, they know. If we consistently give out all the information we have, the field units will get used to it, and this will result in less radio traffic repeating information.
I mentioned above the high-risk calls for which we almost automatically ask questions, but what about this scenario? Police pursuit, crash with injury. We're now sending fire rescue and EMS to an MVA with injury. It would be smart to let them know that this was a police pursuit, just as you do when they're responding to an injured party as the result of an assault. Are police on scene? Does EMS need to "stage"? (Note: A word of caution on staging EMS, make sure everyone knows that EMS is to stage and where. I have walked into family violence incidents in which EMS arrived first, and things blew up once the police arrived.) How about the fire department responding to a residence for smoke in the garage? We should ask about exposures. Is the garage attached to the house? Is a car in the garage? Are pool chemicals or fertilizers stored in it? We can help ensure the scene is safe by asking questions and giving out all known information.
Now let's get more mundane. Do you give weather updates to your units? I know this may be difficult if your center was similar to one I once worked in. We lovingly called it "the cage" because there were no windows to the outside world, but we could be watched by police supervisors and officers in the building. I was reprimanded because I, in my block-walled, no windows center, did not tell the shift, who were outside watching the sky get dark, that a storm was coming. We soon had a television with the Weather Channel installed in the center to correct that problem. I know what you're thinking: "My patch says Communications or Dispatcher, not Weatherman!" But we need to keep our field units safe; we want everyone to go home at the end of tour.
I will tell this story of a friend and police officer if the town I grew up in. I was on the local ambulance corps, and we used to joke about the quiet little hamlet we were serving. In July 1991 a storm came through town, blowing down limbs and trees and causing the general havoc associated with a storm of that size. During the storm, my friend was on routine patrol and came across a downed tree limb blocking a road. He exited his vehicle to clear the roadway, unaware that a power line had also come down. His name is James Martin; end of watch July 24, 1991. Every year I attend a golf tournament in his memory.
Now let me talk about us. We tend to overlook our safety. We are responders also; we are the first responder. We listen, collect information, dispatch the proper agency and move on to the next call without a chance to decompress. Stress is a silent killer that lurks in the background and will sneak up on us without notice. We need to watch ourselves and our crew, and be aware of what assistance is available for stress relief.
Critical Incident Stress Debriefings and Management after a major incident needs to include telecommunicators. If a CISM team for dispatch is not available, start one. If your bosses aren't sure there's a need, check some back issues of this magazine. I'm sure you'll find a number of articles regarding stress in the comm center. If that doesn't work, have them sit in the center for eight hours.
I don't want to go to any more memorial golf tournaments.
Written by Alicia Ihnken, RPL, training course instructor for the APCO Institute
The responsibility for responder safety rests on the shoulders of everyone involved. As telecommunicators, you share a great deal of that responsibility by being tasked with such important duties as information gathering through post dispatch and beyond. For the purposes of this article we will focus on two types of incidents: structure fires for fire rescue responders and disturbance calls for law responders.
Structure fires include public buildings, dwellings, mercantiles, manufacturing and other miscellaneous buildings. Dwellings include both single and multiple family homes, apartments and condominiums, hotels and motels, as well as mobile homes or stationary trailers.
Mercantiles are places of business and can include office buildings, restaurants, warehouses and stores.
Factories provide unique challenges to firefighters. They are classified as manufacturing structures, which include textile or fabric works, metal works, wood works, chemical and flammable liquids, as well as gas works. Generally speaking, most manufacturing structures have some type of hazardous material on site, and most have some flammable materials in or around buildings. (Note: Department stores, which would be considered an example of a mercantile, also have the potential to contain hazardous chemicals.)
Examples of miscellaneous structures would be lumberyards, bulk oil or gas storage sites, gas stations and garages not attached to dwellings. These structures normally have their own unique fire plans. Some are required by federal and/or state law to have fire safety equipment in place.
Structure fires offer a much higher loss and casualty potential than any other classification of fire incident. In addition to concerns about hazardous materials that may be on site, there are other safety concerns. Often in the case of a large structure fire, a crowd gathers to watch. Responding personnel need to be concerned for the safety of these bystanders, as well as ensuring that the bystanders don't interfere with the safe performance of their duties.
Once inside the structure, there are several hazards. Structures may become unstable; thus communications between those inside the structure, as well as communications with those outside the structure, are critical. If one area of the building begins to collapse, firefighters in other parts of the building need to be made aware of it. Knowing the location of gas shut-off valves and other utilities is also important to responders.
Dehydration is a concern faced by those responding to a structure fire. When involved in a high-intensity activity, such as fighting a large fire, it's easy to lose track of time. Resonders should rehydrate every 30 minutes. Failure to do so can have severe health consequences.
As you can see, structure fires have the potential to include many different hazards. These tend to be high risk calls, with the potential for large property loss and human casualties.
What You Can Do
Structure fires are one of the highest risk situations a responder can face, and telecommunicators play an important role in the safety of responders.
The first role the telecommunicator plays is to give responding personnel as much relevant information as possible to aid in the safe performance of their duties. Exact locations are crucial. Street or road addresses are vital if available from the caller. If the incident is occurring at a place of business or commercial property, obtain the name of the business and/or the business type or building name. Dispatching apparatus to a fire at the Chevron gas station at Main Street and Orchard Boulevard is much more helpful than a "structure fire at 1056 Orchard Boulevard." The potential for risk is relayed to the responders by the mere fact that the fire is at a gas station.
Not only is city or town important, but so is a cross street. Remembering that we attempt to start with the "big picture" for resonding units, a cross street greatly assists them in zeroing in on a location. The caller may be able to provide a cross street or nearby landmark, and most CAD systems reference cross streets by address.
The name of a subdivision can be helpful in getting the responders to a specific address. At times you may have a call at an unnumbered building under construction or a subdivision where street names have not been posted. Don't assume that every building has an address and every street has a name. Remember, too, that your CAD or 911 system may not have any reference to a building under construction.
Depending on your dispatch configuration, identifying the city or town may be critical information in determining jurisdiction. Fire dispatch centers that serve many municipalities often have towns with the same street names and addresses. At times, callers assume they're speaking directly to the fire station down the street and become confused when you ask in what town the fire is occurring.
Many fire reports are made by people who are not on scene, but are calling from another location away from the actual fire. In these cases, verification of the displayed 911 information becomes vital to locating the fire for response.
We have discussed the importance of obtaining accurate information for locating the report of a fire. We also need to address the importance of a location within a location for an actual fire. Determining what part of a building is burning can help determine the severity of the fire, as well as the chances for escalation. Knowing this information beforehand can help responders prepare and plan.
Structure fires, especially nonresidential structures, should be identified by the calltaker so that knowledge of the building contents and the surrounding area can be determined. If the caller is knowledgeable, the calltaker should ask if there are any materials in or around the building that could be considered hazardous.
Asking about the type of business in the building can indicate the presence of hazardous materials. Almost every manufacturing plant contains flammable liquids, cleaning fluids, oils and fuels, and other materials. Even retail stores can have hazardous materials on the premises. It's also important to determine what other businesses are located nearby, and what they do there. All of this information must be conveyed to responding units. The caller should also be directed to meet responders and point out the location and nature of stored hazardous materials. If there's any question about whether or not materials are hazardous, assume they are.
When hazardous materials are received at a site, the business is required to fill out a Material Safety Data Sheet. These MSDSs should be placed in a company master file, and each department should be made a copy of the MSDSs for the hazardous materials located within that department. Some agencies require that every employer in the county provide a copy of the master file to be entered into the county's database. This information may be accessible to the telecommunicator, or even at the hands of responders via mobile data computers.
Other resources may be available to telecommunicators as you assist responding personnel. There may be a listing of utility shut-off valves and even copies of floor plans for area businesses. Large complexes, such as shopping malls, schools and sports arenas, should have information on file. Be sure to know where it is and how to access it quickly.
Everything discussed this far pertains to giving information to responders. Telecommunicators, however, also play a role in communication once responders are on scene. Occasionally during a structure fire, people inside the building may have difficulty communicating with other people in or outside the building. This is generally due to the equipment or the background noise involved in a situation. The telecommunicator is in a position to aid communication. All communication sent should be acknowledged by the receiver. If the telecommunicator hears a message that goes unacknowledged, the telecommunicator can relay the message to the intended party. This is a vital role, especially when communication of critical events is taking place.
As a safety precaution, the telecommunicator could also remind responders to rehydrate. Responders should rehydrate every 30 minutes. The incident commander usually takes care of this, but during a large-scale structure fire, this is easily forgotten. Reminding responders is a courtesy, as well as a safety precaution.
Policy & Procedure
No agency can have all the resources it will need for every combination of incidents that may occur. For this reason, agencies have agreements that establish professional relationships. These agreements are known as mutual-aid agreements.
Mutual-aid agreements are negotiated in advance of major incidents and provide a framework for supplying assistance when needed. Situations that may require mutual aid include a single, large structure fire or many small incidents that commit most or all of a jurisdiction's response resources.
In the case of a single large incident, mutual aid may include the use of specialized apparatus, such as aerials, hazmat units or specialized pumpers. Agencies agree to share high-cost apparatus and specially trained crews when needed.
If an agency commits most or all of its resources on a particularly active day, mutual-aid agreements may provide for units from adjacent jurisdictions to physically move staff to stations to cover calls. While these arrangements are normally temporary, they provide protection regardless of call volume.
Mutual response is a type of automatic mutual aid. This concept is best explained by an example: City A has a large oil refinery within its jurisdiction. City A Fire Department knows that it must have help when fighting a fire there. Through a written agreement, adjacent City B has agreed to respond with City A to major fire incidents at the refinery. This mutual response is planned in advance, so if it happens, both fire departments know what to do. In some cases, there may be agreements with Cities C and D to provide coverage in Cities A and B during mutual response.
Mutual aid and mutual response agreements differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Telecommunicators must be aware of the existence and provisions of these agreements, because they are the ones who will be placing the calls for assistance.
Responding to Disturbance Calls
A disturbance call can involve two or 200 people, but several factors are common. Threats to an officer's safety come from a number of different variables. Generally, if an officer is sent to a disturbance call, at least one person is arguing with at least one other person. These combatants pose several threats to responding officers. The combatants may not realize an officer is present, and if the officer steps in to break up the disturbance, one combatant may lash out at the officer thinking the officer is another combatant.
The combatants may believe if they come into contact with an officer, they'll be arrested. This may be due to previous contact with officers, an outstanding warrant for their arrest or confusion about the law or police procedures. They may feel compelled to escape either before the officer is on scene or escape through the officer.
When combatants are fighting, they are fighting with each other. The other person or combatant is the enemy. When the officer arrives, the officer can become the enemy of both combatants. If the officer tries to arrest one of them, the other may either attempt to free the person from the officer or deliberately attack the officer.
This also occurs with onlookers. Crowds that form around disturbances may include family and friends of the combatants. They may be merely watching the fight to ensure it's fair. When an officer steps in, these onlookers may jump in to allow the combatants to finish the fight or to keep the police from taking a friend or relative away. In either case, a friendly crowd can be turned against the officers by only a few instigators.
With disturbances, the possibility of weapons is always present. If the disturbance is in a home, lamps, kitchen utensils, books, tools and many other items can be used as makeshift weapons. These items can be used to strike, slash or puncture a person. In an office setting, staplers, pens, paperweights or chairs can also be used as weapons against a person.
If a disturbance occurs outside, several items can usually be converted to weapons with little thought or skill. Bottles, bricks, trash cans, buckets, fence posts, rocks and even automobiles can be used as weapons. Such items can be found just about anywhere there are people. While makeship weapons are usually used by one combatant against another, these same weapons pose a significant threat to the safety of responding officers.
When a call is received about a disturbance - two people fighting for example - you can take steps to make the scene safer for the responders. If the call comes in after the fighting is over, you can try to reduce the risk of having the fight start again. Ask someone on scene to separate the fighting parties. Tell the caller to have someone take one of the parties outside into the yard, for example, while someone else accompanies the other party into the living room.
If the people who were fighting are together when the police arrive on scene, an "us vs. them" mentality may develop. Prior to police arrival they were fighting with each other. Now, with the police present, they realize that both may be in trouble. They may try to work together to escape the consequences of their actions. Think of it as similar to brothers fighting. They will fight each other like cats and dogs, but if an outsider tries to fight with either one of the brothers, that outsider now has both brothers to fight against.
To keep this from happening, a key element is to get a number of officers on scene so this does not appear to be an option. A number of officers on scene may also be necessary to disperse a crowd and prevent the crowd of onloookers from becoming a threat to the safety of the officers.
When you are speaking to the caller, try to determine if any weapons are involved or can be put into action. Asking, "What was the person hit with?" or "Are there any guns in the house?" may provide the officer with key pieces of information that will alter the officer's response and approach to the location.
Policy & Procedure
Many calls for law enforcement officers can be handled by a single unit. There are calls where many officers are sent to ensure a safe and swift conclusion to the incident. Knowing in advance the calls that require a multiple officer response will allow you to quickly and decisively dispatch the proper response to a call.
This knowledge should come from your policy and procedures manual. This manual should state the conditions for dispatching one, two or more officers. This will provide both you and the officers a reference for what types of assistance are available when a particular incident does occur.
Written by Raphael M. Barishansky, MPH, Program Chief for public health preparedness for the Prince George's County (MD) Health Department. He is a frequent contributor to various public safety publications.
Have you ever noticed that morale at your communications center has hit rock bottom? Do your employees show up to work wearing raggedy uniforms, uninspired to communicate with the various units in your system and just generally un- or under-motivated? Do you feel like the supervisors aren't communicating with you anymore? What's happening? Read on, comm center manager.
One of the most influential concepts of modern policing is referred to as the "broken windows" theory. In an article titled "Broken Windows" by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which appeared in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, this theory was elaborated on. A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, said the authors, is to fix the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time - say, a day or a week - and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be lower). Problems don't escalate, and, thus, respectable residents don't flee a neighborhood. The title comes from the following example in the article:
"Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."
In effect, when what seems to be relatively minor evidence of decay appears in a given neighborhood (e.g., a broken window, accumulated trash, graffiti on building exteriors) and is allowed to accumulate over time, the people who live and work in the area feel more vulnerable and begin to withdraw. They become less willing to intervene to maintain public order (e.g., attempting to break up groups of rowdy teens loitering on street corners) or to address physical signs of deterioration. Sensing this community dissociation, the local criminal element becomes bolder and their unlawful activity increases. As a result of the rise in crime, residents become even more afraid and withdraw further from community involvement and upkeep. This atmosphere then attracts offenders from outside the area, who now see that the neighborhood has become a less risky site for more insidious and violent crimes, such as drug dealing and robbery. This theory has been field-tested in major cities throughout the United States, including Los Angeles, Seattle and New York.
Comm Center Applications
Although it may seem like a strange connection at first, this same theory of progression may be applied as a cautionary tale to the realm of communications center supervision and management. Once evidence of decay in our system (e.g., sinking employee morale, chronic equipment problems and unaddressed protocol deviation/violations) appears, our employees, like the residents of the cities mentioned above, begin to withdraw. They become less willing to communicate personnel and operational problems to those who have the potential to act on them.
There's also a correlation to employees coming to work late and showing up in untidy uniforms or with unkempt appearances. And you may see a spike in personnel callouts or even no-shows. Additionally, the level of customer service - toward both internal and external customers - begins to decline. Sensing this, the more disgruntled comm center employees take the opportunity to become more verbose about their occupational dissatisfaction, but usually in a surreptitious manner and not in a constructive manner by bringing the now-emerging issues to management for resolution. The cycle feeds on itself until, ultimately, there's a mass exodus of employees - including those at the supervisor and manager levels - from the system. Additionally, the distinct lack of a positive customer service-oriented corporate culture can destroy what was once a functional dispatch entity. This can result in the loss of long-held contracts or negative attention in the media. In either case, the organization essentially implodes.
Identify & Empower
To prevent going down this path, we must be able to define what the communications center's "broken windows" are so that we may better gauge when problems, even seemingly minor ones, are occurring and act to correct them immediately. This can include appropriate backing from supervisors and managers when difficult decisions need to be made, ensuring that the proper equipment is in place for employees to effectively do their jobs and making sure that other entities don't harass your dispatchers or other employees.
In addition, we need to empower field training officers, supervisors and line personnel to intervene and make them feel safe in their work environment. As managers, if we see something broken or in a state of decay - be it morale, operations, training or even another facet - we have to ascertain what occurred and why. Don't look to assign blame. The effort should instead be aimed at finding out the why and then getting to work fixing it, with input from all levels of employees.
This concept of progression may be abstract, but it's definitely reasonable that sensing the smaller cracks in the facade of a communications center is an integral part of a manager's job. If these seemingly minor problems aren't repaired early on, they have the potential to grow into larger problems that can affect the organization in any number of ways. By resolving what may seem like a relatively unimportant annoyance today, you can prevent it from causing the crisis of tomorrow.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Written by Dave Colter, WA1ZCN, CEO of Northmark Communications, a manufacturer of field-deployable telephone and radio communications systems. He has more than 30 years' experience in public safety as a firefighter, EMT, emergency management director and disaster communications coordinator. He is also a licensed ham radio operator and member of APCO.
Disasters don't discriminate. Many public safety answering point (PSAP) facilities can be destroyed or damaged just as easily as any other building in the community. Older PSAPs are often located in buildings not specifically designed for survivability and could be rendered useless when needed most. Even modern, well-hardened facilities can suffer damage from fire, lightning damage, earthquakes or flooding. When a disaster occurs, an increasing volume of 911 calls must still be taken and help must be dispatched, even if the primary PSAP has been damaged or destroyed. The public expects you to be there, no matter what. Your agency must have a contingency plan in place to deal quickly and effectively with any loss of functionality. Many PSAPs have a sister facility in a neighboring jurisdiction to which they can shift calls in an emergency. But what happens if the emergency has affected them as well?
Most smaller agencies simply can't afford to set aside valuable space and funds for a permanent backup PSAP facility. Fortunately, there's a simple way to solve to problem without breaking the budget. It's called the "PSAP in a Box." When a primary 911 PSAP has been destroyed or becomes unsafe, a portable "PSAP in a box" can help ensure continued emergency response. Storing all required supplies and equipment in sturdy containers allows them to be moved and set up at a safe location quickly and efficiently. Contingency PSAP sites should be chosen carefully, based on safety, suitability and access. Radio, telephone and Internet communications are critical to success and should be well thought out and regularly tested. The entire portable PSAP should be used and tested in an annual full-scale drill.
When disaster strikes, simply take your portable PSAP and move to a predesignated alternate location. Here's how it might work for you.
The Bare Bones Approach
Relocating or duplicating 100% of your PSAPs capabilities may not be possible. For one thing, the ANI/ALI data feeds can't be easily rerouted or forwarded to an alternate location. Your full computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system probably isn't portable either. However, the most important functions during a disaster are to take calls and dispatch units in the field. For that, you need only to be able to answer 911 calls and communicate via radio. Those two functions are more easily relocated at a moment's notice.
Packaging Your Portable PSAP
You might call this the "PSAP-in-a-Box" approach - well, a number of boxes really. The boxes will contain all the equipment, supplies and materials necessary to open and operate the PSAP at a temporary location. Boxes should be clearly labeled, and the contents updated at least once each year. They can be stored in any easily accessible, safe, secure location.
The boxes might contain some or all of the following items, depending on your needs:
- Hardbound log books (for last resort event and call logging);
- Official stationary;
- Empty three-ring view binders;
- Legal pads;
- PSAP door and direction signs (laminated);
- Standard copy paper;
- Three-hole pre-punched copy paper;
- Pens, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners, rulers, scissors, 3-hole punch;
- Staplers, pushpins, staples, paper clips, cellophane tape, etc,;
- Dry erase markers and erasers (or chalk and erasers, as needed);
- Desk calculators;
- Battery-operated wall clock(s);
- Spare batteries for everything that needs them;
- Generic self-inking rubber stamps (Confidential, Copy, Faxed, Time/Date, etc.);
- Multiple copies of your emergency operations plan;
- Maps with clear plastic overlays;
- Local and nearby telephone directories;
- Disaster resource contact information;
- Departmental telephone directories;
- Emergency call-up lists with home/cell phone numbers of all elected officials, employees and other key community members;
- Portable PBX telephone system;
- Portable two-way radio base stations for each agency, with antennas;
- Laptop computers, network switch, connecting cables;
- Copies of key software, data bases, forms and other data on CD-ROMs or removable hard drives;
- Ink jet printers and spare ink cartridges;
- Fax machine (plain paper type), extra toner cartridge;
- Extension cords and plug strips, small task lamps;
- Keys to the facilities, including exterior doors, utility rooms, breaker panels, etc,; and
- Emergency food and beverage starter supplies.
The list looks long, but the contents should fit into several large plastic storage tubs, depending on the volume of supplies. Avoid the temptation to leave out certain items using the logic that you can use materials already stocked for daily use at the temporary PSAP site. Remember Murphy's law? If you need it they'll have just run out, or it will be locked up in a supply closet. During an emergency, you don't have time to reorder or hunt for supplies; you need them now.
Likewise, avoid planning to put certain items into the portalbe PSAP boxes at the last moment. Chances are that they'll be forgotten, locked in someone's office or simply not found. If you must do this with certain items, be sure a list of the items and their locations is firmly secured to the cover of the box in a plastic sheet protector. Clearly label the list "MISSING ITEMS" in large, difficult to miss letters. In fact, it's a good idea to tape a contents inventory checklist (in a plastic sheet protector) to the cover or end of each box. At least once a year, inventory the boxes to be sure everything is there and in good condition, and update any information or materials. Although no one should ever raid these boxes for supplies, it does happen.
The best boxes are the heavy-duty soft plastic storage tubs with solid snap-on lids, such as those by Rubbermaid, Sterilie and TuckerTote. These will help keep the contents clean and dry, and can be safely stacked. Plastic boxes with hinged split lids are not as durable and won't keep out dust and water. Cardboard file boxes, while cheaper, are not strong or durable enough.
All PSAPs depend on computers for their daily work. This is no different during an emergency. The simplest solution is to use one or more laptop computers, preloaded with any required software. The computers can be used on a daily basis (but should remain in the office and never go home with anyone) or be kept in ready reserve. Critical files and static databases that would be needed during an emergency should be regularly backed up onto CD-ROMs and kept with the laptops or in one of the portable PSAP boxes. Dynamic databases (those that are continually updated) can be mirrored to a portable USB hard or flash drive and taken with you. If passwords are required for computer access, be sure all key personnel know the passwords or keep written copies in a sealed envelope in one of the boxes. Remember Murphy? If only one person knows the passwords, that person will be unavailable the day the storm hits.
Choosing Temporary PSAP Sites
One or more locations should be chosen and prepared well in advance. It might seem obvious, but sites that are near rivers or the coast, in flood plains, on steep hillsides or are difficult to reach are probably not good choices. Road access is also critical; could flooding or mudslides also isolate the site?
Buildings should be structurally sound and able to survive most likely disasters. Good candidates include school classrooms, conference room, fire department training or meeting facilities, and even nongovernment facilities, and even nongovernment facilities, such as church and hospital meeting rooms. These rooms often have items needed for a PSAP, such as white boards on the walls, tables, plenty of chairs and, sometimes, a kitchen and showers. If possible, avoid rooms with outside windows exposed to prevailig storm winds or find ways to quickly board them up. Be sure that at least two independent emergency exits are available.
A permanently installed backup generator with a large fuel supply is a real plus because it saves time bringing in and hooking up portables and running extension cords. Many schools and government buildings already have them. Be sure the generator actually powers the lights and outlets in the areas you'll need to occupy, the life safety systems and any IT or other systems you might need to use, because many generators power only a limited number of critical circuits. Also, find out if it's large enough to handle all of your needs in addition to its normal load. Any permanent or portable generator must be regularly tested under full-operating load, serviced at least once ayear and supplied with adequate fuel.
Telephone landlines should be preinstalled at each potential PSAP site, because the odds of getting the telephone company to intall them at the last moemts with a disaster in progress are near zero. Lines should be installed to jacks in the PSAP room, preferably in a lockbox to prevent unauthorized use. Keys or combinations for the lockbox should be kept in one or more of the portable PSAP boxes. Depending on local phone company tariffs, you may be able to pay a minimum "keep alive" fee, with the ability to quickly convert to full service with a phone call.
Non-public telephone numbers should be distributed to any agency or person who will need them well in advance, but not published where the public can find them. An appropriate number of lines in a hunt group can be designated for 911 trunks. Other lines can be designated for administrative and fax calls. When the temporary facility is to be opened, a call to your telephone company's emergency operations center will allow your calls to be redirected to the temporary site's lines. Prior planning and coordination with the telephone company is vital; don't assume anything will just happen.
If you aren't already signed up for the FCC's Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP) program, do it today. Just being a 911 center doesn't guarantee a fast response from many phone companies. But with TSP, your calls for emergency service are automatically moved to a high-priority pool. Signing up is easy, and the recurring cost is low, so don't delay. To get started, call the National Communication Service TSP Program Office at 866/627-2255.
A portable PSAP telephone system, such as the Northmark Communications DTS1824P, MPRI Sherpa, or Zetron 3200, lets you have office-style telephone features almost anywhere. On-site set up can be done by one or two people in a few minutes. For a very low-budget approach, you can simply plug in a bunch or regular phones, one per line. You won't have intercom, or the ability to transfer calls, or to put calls on hold, but it does work.
If the operation of landlines can't be adequately ensured during a disaster, consider purchasing special cellular or satellite phone base stations. These are designed to connect to either a PBX system or a regular telephone. Examples include the Telular SX5c CDMA/GSM cellular base station and Northmark Communications Sky Connect II Iridium satellite base station. Cellular service can work well if sites outside the affected area can be reached with high-gain Yagi antennas or if the emergency is of a limited scope. Telular cellular base stations are available in rack mount banks providing up to eight lines, fed with a common antenna. Although cellular service might work for 911 backup in certain circumstances, satellite service would be far too costly at up to $1.50 per minute plus long-distance charges. The primary use for this service is last-resort interagency communication, such as for calling the governor for help or contacting telephone repair. Handheld satellite telephones are not a great alternative for PSAP use, because they require the user to stand out in the weather to make and receive calls. No one wants to stand in the storm waiting for a call back from the governor's aide.
As with landline telephone service, cellular and satellite accounts and service need to be established well in advance of any need. Last-minute service activations are nearly impossible, especially on nights and weekends. The minimum annual fees are cheap insurance that the service will be available on a moment's notice.
If you're considering voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephones or trunks for your PSAP, be sure you have a number of trained IT technicians on staff. Contrary to many people's expectations, these are not simple plug-and-play devices that can be set up quickly by anyone under adverse conditions. Internet connections are also among the first to fail during a major disaster. Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) is far more robust and often keeps working even when all the other utilities are long dead.
The PSAP boxes should contain both agency-specific and interoperability radios, as dictated by your emergency communications plan. The simplest setup includes a suitable mobile radio attached to an AC power supply. Some AC power supplies, such as the Astron RS-12ABB, provide for the connection of a marine deep-cycle backup battery to keep radios operating during generator refueling. Several firms offer portable radio dispatch consoles, custom built for your application. For antennas, choose lightweight, medium-gain models that can easily be disassembled and stored in a rugged carry case. Readily available PA speaker tripods use with sadbag ballast or parachute cord guy-lines make excellent portable antenna suppors. Antennas and cables can also be permanently installed at each potential PSAP site to save time. Be sure to space antennas as far apart as possible to avoid interference. Consult with a radio professional regarding the best equipment choices for your application.
Use a separate radio for every agency so that each channel can be monitored full time, and calls responded to quickly. Channel-scanning arrangement on multi-channel radios may save money, but will result in missed calls with potentially serious results.
If the temporary site has a wired or wireless Ethernet, work with the site's IT staff to be sure immediate access will be possible without further action on their part. Wireless network access or security codes should be pre-programmed into all PSAP computers and tested. DSL or TI service will be more reliable during an emergency than CATV broadband due to the way the distribution systems are powered. If the site's service is likely to fail during a disaster, consider alternate means, such as a portable satellite earth station. Commercial-grade low-and high-speed service is available from a number of providers, but like telephone service it needs to be contracted for well in advance.
Storing a Portable PSAP
The best location would be one that is as invulnerable as possible to sudden damage. If your primary concern is tornadoes, an easily accessed below-ground shelter might be best. In a flood-prone area, that might not work. In areas where the primary danger is from storms (e.g., hurricanes and the like), which provide plenty of reaction time, the choice of storage location isn't as important. Storing your PSAP in a box in your regular PSAP facility won't work if your facility is damaged without warning, such as by fire or tornado. Ensure that several trusted people on each shift have access to the storage area to ensure that you can get it quickly when needed. Spare keys should be kept at locations other than the primary PSAP.
Drills & Maintenance
The portable PSAP should be periodically tested under realistic conditions as part of a full-scale drill. Not only does this help ensure that you have packed everything you need, but it gets your staff used to operating under emergency conditions using your agency's emergency operations plan and equipment, and that your plans and procedures work as intended. Just before the drill, any electronic equipment in the portable PSAP should be tested and maintained, and any problems fixed before returning it to storage. Don't forget to keep batteries charged year-round, and replenish any supplies you use during drills.
Written by Bob Smith, Director of Strategic Development for APCO International.
If you ask any comm center director or supervisor in the country, you'll find that one of the most difficult parts of the job is fielding complaints about their agency's staff or level of service. Whether those complaints come from the public or from field agencies, complaints are a common occurrence. Some are valid, and some are not. Either way, they all warrant an investigation and follow-up.
Every agency should have a formal complaint investigation process that includes how complaints are received, how they are investigated and what is done with the findings. Below, some tips for developing (or updating) a formal complaint process:
Step 1: Document it. The policy should require the complainant to complete a form or submit some type of documentation to kick off the investigation. Investigative complaints made only verbally should be avoided to prevent a sense of rumor-chasing within the agency, which could negatively impact morale. If someone has a formal complaint and feels that an issue needs official attention, then a requirement to submit documentation won't influence their decision to request action.
The policy should also address how someone interested in filing a complaint can obtain access to this paperwork and how and where the filing party should submit the documentation. Submission should follow a formal, recognized and documented process that ensures the request for investigation is routed to the appropriate person within the agency and does not languish in someone's in-box.
Step 2: Designate a point person. Who should receive the complaint? Agencies should have a formal chain of investigation that determines who investigates complaints. This should include general complaints received by the agency and any internal complaints regarding operations from within the agency. The policy should also address an escalation process and a delineated process for investigating complaints filed on personnel at every level of the organization.
Who investigates complaints filed on telecommunicators? Shift supervisors, maybe. Who investigates complaints filed on shift supervisors? Deputy directors, maybe. Who investigates complaints filed on deputy directors? And so on. Every level of personnel in the organization could potentially be involed in an incident that calls for some level of complaint investigation. An agency's policies and procedures should address this.
Step 3: Collect Information. Investigators should gather as much information as possible when investigating complaints. That includes CAD records, radio logs, audio recordings, witness statements and, most importantly, a statement from the employee or employees involved in the incident being investigated. Investigators should allow the employee to relay events as they saw them and describe how the incident developed, including why and how they were involved. As this questioning session takes place, it's important to remember that this is not the time to chastise or praise an employee for their actions or inactions. There is an appropriate time and place for that when all the details are known and all information has been evaluated. At this point in the investigation the point is to listen objectively and record information as it is received.
Step 4: Act. Which brings us to the final component of the investigation: what to do with the findings. An agency's policy for complaint investigation should ultimately have a component for releasing the findings, if appropriate, after the investigation. Whether the information is released only internally or delivered to the filing party should be spelled out, including who within the organization perfoms that follow up.
This section should include how findings are addressed withing the organization. Comm center staff will usually be aware of an ongoing investigation, especially in smaller agencies. For this reason, it's important that some type of outcome - whether positive or negative - be made known to them. If the investigation finds fault or error, then the agency should use the opportunity to emphasize and reinforce the relevant policies or procedures. This should not include individual names or information because this will negatively impact morale. It would be more appropriate to use the opportunity as a team learning experience.
On the other hand, finding that are positive or uncover evidence that someone has gone above and beyond the call of duty are an excellent opportunity to praise the individual and agency staff alike. Remember: Criticize in private, but praise in public.
Above all else, the investigation should conform to the agency's policies and procedures and strictly adhere to the progressive discipline process. Further, the process should ensure that employees at all levels are confident that complaints are competently processed regardless of incident type, complaining party and/or outcomes.
The bottom line: A formal, objective process for the receipt, processing, investigation and follow up of complaints is imperative to agency customer service levels and successful operations. Investigations of this type will help locate any deficiencies within the agency and spotlight instances of exceptional performance. A documented process for complaint investigation will enhance an agency's overall perception in the community it serves.
Written by George S. Rice, Jr.; APCO's Executive Director
Professionals in the field of public safety communications have a keen understanding of the value of mobile communications and, to be sure, many of the perils. To the latter of these points, the issue of location accuracy for emergency calling from mobile devices, for example, has been a major concern as cellular telephones migrated over the past three decades from curiosities to luxuries and on to day-to-day commodities. The value represented by these devices continues to unfold as new applications are developed and additional capabilities are explored and implemented. The cycle then returns to an examination of the perils yet again, as public safety agencies address often unforeseen difficulties associated with advanced functionality delivered to the public by these devices. And the cycle repeats...
Voice Vs. Data
Voice transmissions carried by mobile devices were traditionally the primary focus of functionality for mobile communications. Obviously, in more recent years, e-mail, text, data and video have been more equal partners in the arena of mobile communications capabilities, launching even more applications and creating additional concerns. Placing the issue of non-voice information distributed to a communications center aside for the moment - which has its own potential pitfalls - let's examine the subject of data collection itself.
The proliferation of mobile communications devices throughout our society has been the impetus for myriad considerations regarding their collective use as information-gathering tools. Obviously, any data pushed from one point to another will have had a moment in time when it was gleaned from a public or private domain. Based on laws, agreements, regulations and even national security, a monumental amount of data can be, and often is, passively or deliberately collected and sent to another point where it is then processed and disseminated. These data utilization efforts are generally developed for very specific needs and are highly focused.
But what if the vast armada of mobile communications devices in the public domain were harnessed in a collective and voluntary manner to gather data from many sources, which would then be used to inform emergency planning and service delivery?
The Data We Use or Could Use
Telematics systems available now in many automobiles provide privately run communications centers with crucial details, many gathered automatically, that help advisors understand and address emergency situations for their customers. This level of personal service, with data collected to serve a singular user, would be financially and logistically improbable for the full public. But the idea of data collected at large and used at large, without user intervention, may have merit.
Readily available sensors, embedded in the mobile devices of an array of volunteers in a given geographic area could be brought to bear as passive collectors of such information as temperature and humidity, which can then be automatically sent to emergency managers to aid in tracking dangerous weather systems. Such "geospatial ground-truthing" could be significantly valuable in confirming, refuting or updating data and, thus, enabling emergency managers to prepare for evacuations or sheltering.
Transportation planners do an excellent job of using an array of visual and fixed-sensor data collection devices to determine how best to route and manage traffic. With additional information gleaned from mobile volunteer data collectors, optimizing flow through often congested areas might occur with greater ease, and with real-time accuracy.
On the more deliberate front, another set of volunteer information gatherers could be supplied with mobile applications into which they would enter specific data sets in fields. The information, subsequently sent to a public sector authority, would be aggregated to assist in completing the picture available to planners and managers.
As is the case with most communications schemes, the technological components represent the most straightforward and easy-to-manage aspects. The many privacy regulations and inter-agency agreements that require adherence to, or development of, signify the more difficult parts of such a system of information gathering and dissemination.
'1984' in Redux?
Many areas of Western society are experiencing an increased use of electronic monitoring, which can conjure up images of Orwellian supercomputers tracking each and every aspect of our lives. Although we must indeed remain vigilant with respect to our civil liberties, a volunteer-based data collection and dissemination program that serves public safety and emergency management has far too many positive aspects to be dismissed without serious consideration. If the 21st century is truly to be the information age, then unique uses of information for the good of the public can make this brave new world a safer and more prosperous one for us all.
Friday, September 4, 2009
Written by Kim Rigden, principal consultent of KRB Consulting of Waterloo, ON, teaching 911 dispatchers and training internationally on customer service, managing 911 callers and dispatcher stress. She has been in Emergency Medical Services for 18 years. She worked in the field as a Paramedic and Paramedic Instructor, Emergency Medical Dispatcher and EMD Trainer, and Communication Supervisor. She now provides consulting services to communication centers in the areas of quality assurance, customer service and stress-reduction, as well as teaches and consults for Priority Dispatch Corp. and the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch
Help Wanted: 911 Dispatcher. Applicants must be easily irritated by 911 callers; phone slamming and swearing an asset. Preference will be given to candidates able to complain about their workload while receiving calls. Must be able to survive on donuts for breakfast, greasy takeout food in the wee hours and gallons of coffee. Punctuality and good attendance are not required, but working overtime is essential. The successful candidate should expect to be bullied by annoying senior co-workers. Remuneration: not nearly enough to put up with all this.
No one would answer this job posting. People are attracted to 911 dispatching to help people, to be part of the exciting world of the emergency services, to make a difference. Yet, if you have every worked in a 911 communications center, you will have witnessed some of these behaviors in other 911 dispatchers and possibly even in yourself. So what happens to change an empathetic, hardworking 911 dispatcher into the person described above? Stress!
Stress is an epidemic in our 911 centers. Not the garden-variety stress of life (though it can be tossed in for good measure), but the stress associated with listening to someone else's worst day - every day - as a routine part of the job. This is the kind of stress that builds up over time (cumulative stress), and slowly erodes our ability to feel empathy (compassion fatigue). It is the stress that drops in like a sledgehammer when you hear the voice of a frantic mother screaming into the phone that she has found her son hanging in the garage (critical incident stress).
As stress increases, the 911 dispatcher puts up barriers in an effort to protect himself from the "cost of caring." The frustrations of call taking become the caller's fault (they are "stupid," they "don't know what a real emergency is," they are "rude") or the co-workers's fault ("they don't pick up their share of the 911 lines," "the lights are too bright in the dispatch center") or the boss's fault ("what does he know about this job? He never even comes in the room!").
911 dispatchers carry a heavy load. They must be ready to answer any call, to help unappreciative callers, or callers who abuse the system. But without recognizing the symptoms of stress and focusing on self-care, a good 911 dispatcher can become frustrated, irritated and stressed-out. He no longer enjoys his job and he is not very effective as an emergency 911 dispatcher. More and more 911 tapes are being released to the media. How many of them have recently featured a rude dispatcher? How much would you like to bet that the rude dispatcher is always a stressed-out dispatcher?
How Does This Happen? What is Stress Anyway?
Stress is insidious and can sneak up on the best of us without our realizing it. Not surprisingly, there are many forms of stress; everyone is affected by it and deals with it differently. All people experience stress in one form or another. There is the stress that is a normal and healthy part of life and then there is stress that is destructive to mental and physical health. A great deal of stress reduction is being able to identify the signs and symptoms of stress in your life and to take action to reduce that stress and minimize its effect on your body.
Picture a tall water glass. Into this glass goes all of the drops of stress we encounter every day - some big drops, some little drops. On a day when we encounter normal amounts of stress, this glass never gets full, yet if we experience increased stress in our personal lives and we have a high-stress job, the glass gets fuller. If stress-inducing events are not recognized and dealth with, the negative effects of stress spill out all over our lives in the form of physical and mental ailments.
General stress is the normal stress of daily life. It is a state of physical and mental arousal, a demand for action. It is a necessary part of life. We would die if we didn't have some stress in our life. Stress helps us make choices; it helps us get out and do the things we need to do; it can help us develop plans, change behaviors and begin new activities. Stress is a routine and normal part of our day. Stress is good when it is controlled. People deal with it, they learn from it, they recover from it and they may actually grow from it.
Those in the emergency services deal with compassion stress which is the natural behavioral and emotional response of wanting to help people. This is why a lot of 911 dispatchers choose the jobs they do. It feels good to help people. As members of a helping profession that is faced with the suffering of others, 911 dispatchers empathize with the people they are assisting. They are subject to compassion stress, but in return, they receive compassion satisfaction from their actions. It is compassion satisfaction that keeps many 911 dispatchers in the hot seat shift after shift.
Critical Incident Stress
Believe it or not, even the effects of a Critical Incident Stress (CIS) exposure are normal. According to Jeff Mitchell, Ph.D., CIS is "any situation faced by emergency service personnel that causes them to experience unusually strong emotional reactions which have the potential to interfere with their ability to function either at the scene or later." Even for emergency personnel, these events are outside of regular emergency workplace experiences. CIS is a normal, but painful response of normal healthy people to an abnormal event.
When properly diffused and debriefed, CIS is a temporary, albeit painful, form of normal stress. 911 dispatchers need to be reminded that their normal day at work is actually abnormal. Hearing about people's pain, suffering and fear for 12 hours is challenging and it is okay to have an emotional reaction to your work. However, it is imperative that this reaction is not ignored. This can be a challenging thing for 911 dispatchers who are used to dealing with other people's problems, not their own. 911 dispatchers can feel that they are not supposed to be affected by critical incident stress. "I wasn't even there. I just talked to the guy on the phone."
It is when stress is not acknowledged or treated that it becomes destructive. CIS exposure is a work place injury just like a back injury or needle stick. There should be no stigma or shame if a call "gets to you." Recognition of CIS and its management is part of emergency services for police officers, fire fighters, paramedics and ER staff, but the dispatch personnel are too often forgotten in diffusing and debriefing sessions. Emergency 911 dispatchers are the first tier of emergency services - the access point - and must not be forgotten.
Secondary Trauma Exposure
911 dispatchers may experience Secondary Trauma Exposure - exposure to traumatic events experienced by others as a result of your work (counselor, emergency room employee, public safety telecommunicator, etc.) 911 dispatchers are removed from the events and only experience them through voice and description; yet they are often present - through the phone call - as the events are happening. She is on the line with the terrified girl as someone is breaking into her home; he is giving CPR instructions and listening as a wife pleads with her husband to wake up; she is telling the trapped people how to put towels in front of the door to keep the smoke from coming in the room as they wait to be rescued. These interactions place 911 dispatchers squarely in the middle of the crisis. Sometimes, the 911 dispatcher is the last person to talk to the caller alive. Sometimes the caller can't calm down enough to follow the 911 dipatcher's life saving instructions. Sometimes the 911 dispatcher is privileged enough to hear a baby's first cry. These are all stressful events and the 911 dispatcher needs to be allowed to process them. Just the simple act of taking a 10 minute break after an intense call to drink a glass of water and walk around the block will do a great deal to relieve workplace stress.
Cumulative Stress has no obvious trigger and may be harder to recognize. This is the buildup of stressors over time. Our minds don't compartmentalize stressors, so when the 911 dispatcher arrives to begin her shift, that tall water glass may already be half full from personal life stress. It then takes less work stress for it to start to overflow. Without taking steps to manage this buildup of stressor, the cumulative effects will start negatively affecting the 911 dispatcher.
Taking a Pro-active Approach to Your Health
Unresolved and untreated stress has a number of negative manifestations, including Compassion Fatigue, Burn Out, and in its most serious form, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. How can you tell if stress has become destructive? There are a number of red flags that could indicate that stress is having a negative impact on your life. They can manifest in six different areas of our lives:
- Physical: Fatigue, headaches, back pain, insomnia, nausea, indigestion, cramps, fainting, constipation, diarrhea, sweatiness, sleeping too much or too little.
- Mental: Forgetfulness, poor concentration, boredom, paranoia, poor teamwork, perfectionism.
- Emotional: Irritability, depression, anxiety, anger, fear, mood swings, apathy, increased sensitivity to criticism.
- Relational: Loneliness, withdrawal, intolerance, relationship problems.
- Behavioral: Substance abuse, eating problems, risk-taking, hyperactivity, overwork, procrastination, missed deadlines, anti-social behavior.
- Spiritual: Emptiness, loss of beliefs and sense of meaning, cynicism, compassion fatigue.
By simply reading this list, it is easy to see how a person who is suffering from the effects of destructive stress could turn into the perfect candidate for the "help wanted" ad at the beginning of this article. Anyone suffering from any of the above symptoms is encouraged to talk to their healthcare provider. Being pro-active about your own health - and stress is a health issue - is of the utmost importance. Many Employee Assistance Plans (EAP) have stress management resources such as counseling and educational materials available to employees. It can be hard to take the first step and ask for help, but the benefits of keeping stress in the normal and healthy range will make a profound difference in quality of life.
Self-care is an important part of stress management and should be a routine part of healthy living for every emergency 911 dispatcher. It is difficult to take care of others when suffering yourself. To avoid becoming like the description ad, keep that water glass from overfilling! Make the pneumonic S.T.R.E.S.S. part of your daily life. It can help remind you of how to practice self care every day.
S.T.R.E.S.S. Self Care
Do not use alcohol or drugs to cope. Drugs, and particularly alcohol, are powerful reaction suppressers - they numb the pain but they don't solve the problem. Talk it out - work through the problem - don't medicate it.
Diet is an important factor in reducing the negative effects of stress. Even though you may not feel hungry, eat something and make sure it's healthy food. Refined sugars, fats and excessive salt elevate stress levels. Avoid anything with caffeine in it - caffeine is a stimulant and elevates blood pressure and heart rate and creates an increased need for oxygen, it stimulates the cardiac muscle and central nervous system. It causes nervousness, sleeplessness and irritability. Drink water! Stress dehydrates and dehydration can increase feelings of anxiety and stress.
Time to Enjoy Life
You must take care of yourself - that includes doing what you enjoy. Take time for leisure activities. Active ones are particularly helpful. If the incident happened at work, and if you are very traumatized, it may be necessary to take time off from work; working while being emotionally vulnerable puts you at risk for an acute stress reaction. On the other hand, you may be someone who finds that being back on the job is just what is required. Assess your situation carefully. If you feel ready for action, return to work. If you feel vulnerable, request time off but seek professional help.
Rest and Relaxation
If we don't sleep we can actually develop psychotic symptoms. Everything seems worse when we are not sleeping well - if your sleep is affected seek advice from your doctor and implement healthy sleeping techniques (having a dark and cool room, white noise, avoiding caffeine, not eating two hours before bedtime, keeping the bedroom for sleeping and sex, not working or watching TV). Most of us breathe from our upper chest and don't breathe deeply; deep breathing is one of the most effective relaxation techniques for emergency personnel. It can be performed anywhere anytime. Learn some relaxation techniques and visual imagery.
Exercise and Education
Exercise is critical to cleansing the body of the negative consequences of stress. Get some good exercise within 24 hours of the incident. Do not stop with that. Keep up regular activity, whether it's a tennis game, a run, or a brisk walk. Expect the incident to bother you; take comfort in knowing that the incident is unlikely to bother you forever. Though you will never actually totally forget the incident, remembering it does not have to cause extreme emotional distress. Your goal should not be to totally forget the incident. Rather, it should be to heal. You know you are healed when you are able to think of or talk about the incident without profound emotion. Get a book on traumatic stress and learn about it. You need facts about what you are going through. Through reading you will feel less abnormal and learn ways to assist in your recovery.
Social Support of Family, Colleagues and Friends
Many people react to psychological trauma by keeping it inside. Often the trauma may seem so great that life seems meaningless. By withdrawing, you keep yourself in the dark causing the incident to become larger than life. Though you may need some time alone, eventually get to talking.
Satisfying Expression of Self and Spirituality
Do the things that you love to do and find ways of fulfilling your feelings of self worth outside of the job. Balance home life, recreation and work. Care for yourself and your family, your spouse, and your friends. Seek your spiritual center. Talk to spiritual leaders and seek guidance.
Being an emergency 911 dispatcher is more than a job, it is a calling. Those brave and empathetic enough to answer 911 calls everyday need to be thanked way more often than they are. So I say, thank you for always being there. You make a difference. Be well and stay safe.
Speaking in Any Language: Working with Professional Interpreters To Meet Today's Communication Challenges
Written by Greg Holt, Government Markets Manager of Language Line Services in Monterey, CA. Provides language solutions to 911 centers, ambulance, police and other local and regional first responders.
We all know that a catastrophic technology failure can bring emergency communications to a grinding halt. 911 professionals have trained for this possibility. Managers have developed redundant systems and specific protocols to guard against the potential effects of a digital glitch. As a result, in municipalities across the country, every possible step has been taken to keep communications between callers, dispatchers and first responders on track and in order.
But there is another kind of catastrophic communications failure that is more prevalent and, in many cases, less understood. The failure in question is language. It results from the fact that our nation is becoming more and more linguistically diverse every day. As emergency communications professionals know from first-hand experience, the number of limited-English proficient (LEP) callers is on the rise, and population data suggest that - in both large urban areas and small rural outposts - this number will increase even more rapidly in the years ahead.
Like technology malfunctions, language issues can interrupt calls, delay responses and create confusion. Recognizing the linguistic gap, emergency communications managers have made great strides in implementing procedures to quickly handle LEP calls. Some municipalities have increased the number of bilingual dispatchers that they hire. Many offer "survival-level" language training for dispatchers. Recognizing that more than 176 languages are now spoken in the U.S., many agencies have prepared for the unexpected and have contracted with telephone interpretation services that can quickly connect dispatchers with professional interpreters in virtually any language. However, while progress has been made, few standards exist for processing LEP calls and, in some cases, cross-cultural training for dispatchers who must work with language interpreters in limited or lacking.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires organizations that receive federal funds, like 911 centers, provide "meaningful access" to services, regardless of language spoken. How this plays out locally is the result of local demographics as well as budgets. Bilingual staffing plays a key role. However, it is a challenge with the increase in linguistic diversity. In situations where a professional interpreter is available, there are some basic steps that dispatchers can take to keep calls running smoothly in any language.
Background: Understanding Language Diversity
According to U.S. census data, more than 47 million people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home, and nearly 24 million are LEP. The number of foreign-born individuals in the country has now reached an all-time high of 38.1 million, according to the Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey. It has also predicted that minorities will comprise the majority of the country's population by 2042, with the demographic shift being driven by greater diversity and increases in immigration.
Population and language changes are not just impacting the largest urban areas. Cities and towns across the country are becoming increasingly diverse, and emergency dispatch centers are helping callers who speak languages that might have been considered rare only a few years ago. For example, in Arlington, VA, there is a need for Krio interpreters; Krio is the language of Sierra Leone, Africa. Denver needs Karen speakers; Karen is spoken in Thailand. In Seattle, interpreters are needed for Oromo, a language of Ethiopia. In Phoenix, Dari is spoken; Dari is a language of Iran.
Tips: Working with an Interpreter
As the numbers clearly demonstrate, 911 centers can expect more calls in a wider array of languages. As a result, it is increasingly likely that dispatchers will be working with professional interpreters in the days and years ahead. Professional interpreters trained in the procedures of 911 calls can be available immediately, via the phone, in most languages or dialects spoken in the U.S.
Interpreters can be a vital bridge between the caller and the dispatcher. They do not work alone or handle emergency calls by themselves. Instead, language interpretation is a three-way conversation between the dispatcher, the caller and the interpreter, where the interpreter becomes a critical part of your team.
When working with a telephone interpretation service, call takers can make every call more effective by following a few important tips:
- Brief the interpreter - Identify the name of your organization. Give clear instructions. Also, be specific about what information you need or what needs to be done. "What is your address?", "Is this an emergency?"
- Speak directly to the caller - Communicate directly with caller, not the interpreter. Rather than saying,, "Tell him to give you his address," say "What is your address?" The interpreter will relay the information and then communicate the caller's response directly back to you, ensuring a smoother call flow, and saving critical time.
- Group your thoughts - Speak in short sentences. Your interpreter is trying to understand the meaning of what you are saying, so express whole thoughts, if possible. Interpreters may ask you to slow down or repeat. Pause to make sure you give the interpreter time to deliver your message.
- Offer clarifications - If something is unclear, or if the interpreter is given a long statement, the interpreter may ask you to repeat or clarify your statement.
- Ask if the LEP person understands - Do not automatically assume that the LEP caller understands the interpretation. In some cultures a person may say "yes", not because they understand but rather so they can try and follow the conversation. Also, keep in mind that a lack of English skill does not necessarily equate to a lack of education.
- Do not ask for the interpreter's opinion - The interpreter's job is to convey the meaning of what is said - not to inject personal opinion. Do not ask the interpreter questions (i.e. "Is the caller intoxicated?"). Rather, ask the caller directly if he or she has been drinking.
- Avoid side conversations - Whatever the interpreter hears will be interpreted. If you feel that the interpreter has not interpreted everything, ask the interpreter to do so. Avoid interrupting the interpreter.
- Avoid jargon or technical terms - To facilitate the interpretation, use simple English. Classify unique vocabulary, and provide examples if they are needed to explain a term (i.e. HAZMAT, EMS, etc.)
- Expect longer conversations - An interpreted conversation may take longer, compared with an English conversaton. Many concepts have no equivalent in other languages. The interpreter may have to describe or paraphrase. It is important to avoid interrupting the interpreter while he or she is interpreting.
- Dealing with incoherent callers - If the LEP caller is incoherent, the interpreter may not be able to convey the caller's message. The interpreter may resort to rendering the exact words heard, although the words may not be part of a cohesive message (i.e. simply "knife," "weapon," "wound," etc.)
- Work around cultural issues - Professional interpreters understand differences of culture and customs. An interpreter may clarify cultural issues for you. If a particular question is culturally inappropriate, the interpreter may suggest that you rephrase the question or ask in a more appropriate way.
- Closing of the call - The interpreter will wait for you to end the call. When appropriate, the interpreter will offer further assistance. Remember to thank the interpreter for his or her efforts at the end of the session.
Preparing for the Challenge
Today, there is a growing chance that when a call comes into an emergency center, it will be in a language other than English. Population statistics, and the trends that drive them, say a great deal about how our nation's linguistic makeup is changing. With this in mind, emergency communications managers are taking steps to make language proficiency a priority. Those on the front lines, including dispatchers and first responders, must also take steps to prepare for the language challenge. Learning how to work with interpreters, and understanding as much as possible about the cultural issues attached to various languages, are important first steps.
Professionals who work in the interpretation field are also moving to make the partnership between emergency services personnel and language experts as successful as possible. A solid interpretation organization that supports emergency services agencies has staff trained to understand the priorities and procedures of this vital service. Like the emergency center itself, the best interpretation services have a comprehensive disaster recovery plan that is regularly tested, independently verified by authorized key third parties, and consistently updated - so access to interpreters is there when you need it, under all conditions. In the end, a tigher working relationship between emergency officials and interpreters will result in greater efficiencies for call takers and improved public safety for everyone.