Written by Bob Smith, Director of Comm Center & 911 Services, APCO International
CAD systems, mapping software and other technologies have greatly enhanced the ability of comm centers to quickly locate an incident. But technology can fail, and the need for telecommunicators to learn geography the old-fashioned way, by getting out of the comm center and driving or riding around unfamiliar areas, still exists. That's where ride-alongs come in. They allow telecommunicators to leave the comm center, spend time with a field agency and actually see some action and areas of their jurisdiction.
Ride-along programs pair a telecommunicator with an experienced representative of a field agency for a specific period of time while the trainee observes the officer, firefighter, EMT or paramedic perform their daily activities. An alternative is to have the telecommunicator ride along with a supervisor. An advantage to this type of ride-along is that the supervisor can take the trainee to any working call and take the time to explain actions and drive around important areas without being distracted by the need to actually deliver medical care, fight a fire or be physically involved in a pursuit or arrest.
Law enforcement agencies normally operate within certain geographic areas defined by city, county or state boundaries. Telecommunicators should know these boundaries and understand cross-jurisdictional issues that may arise. Example: An officer's arrest powers may be affected when crossing jurisdictional boundaries.
Comm centers may receive calls slated for municipal police, the county sheriff's department and/or the highway patrol. So the telecommunicator should be allowed to ride along with all of the law enforcement agencies in their jurisdiction.
During law enforcement ride-alongs, ask about and visit:
- High-crime areas or trouble spots that receive higher call rates;
- Public gathering areas, such as parks, malls, community centers and civic centers;
- Areas that host special events, such as sports venues, concert halls and fairgrounds; and
- Important landmarks and such high-profile areas as schools, night clubs and tourist attractions.
Fire department service areas sometimes differ from the simple political jurisdictional boundaries of cities or counties. Arrangements among agencies may provide for mutual aid and mutual response under certain circumstances. Telecommunicators must understand these arrangements and be able to work effectively within them. During fire service ride-alongs, telecommunicators may visit:
- High-risk facilities, such as high-rises, historic buildings and industrial plants;
- Special occupancy facilities, such as nursing homes, schools, day-care centers and hotels;
- The closest hydrants to certain facilities in rural areas;
- Major intersections; and
- High-traffic areas, such as interstates and highways, including mile-markers and exit/entrance ramps.
EMS providers also have boundaries that may or may not conform to law enforcement or fire service boundaries. Coverage areas may vary not just by geography buy also by the type of service provided: advanced life support (ALS), basic life support (BLS), fire department based, volunteer, hospital based or private ambulance. During EMS ride-alongs, telecommunicators may visit:
- Special-occupancy facilities;
- Hospitals and trauma centers, and
- They physical location of EMS stations and equipment.
Regardless of whether your agency has a structured ride-along program or a system that allows telecommunicators to ride during slow periods or on their days off, it's important to document the ride-along. A good start would be a simple form that has an area for the telecommunicator to record what they experienced, including the agency, unit and personnel they rode with, locations and times, plus a section for the field agency representative to sign.
In addition to teaching telecommunicators about their jurisdiction and the areas their comm centers cover, ride-alongs allow telecommunicators to experience the operations of the field agencies they work with. They get to see the equipment and personnel in action and see what life is like on the other side of the radio.
The bottom line: Ride-alongs are an easy, cost-effective way to train telecommunicators about local geography and give them a taste of operational experience in the field. As with any other type of training, the more information, knowledge and experience a telecommunicator obtains in public safety the more effective and efficient they will be in their day-to-day operations and the better the service they can provide.