9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Brief History of Public Safety Communications

Excerpts from "Managing the 911 Center, A Book for Public Safety Communications Managers" 3rd Edition
Written by Eric Parry, ENP

Our history is a fascinating one. Some people can still remember a time when there were no two-way radio communications systems serving emergency services. Back then, metropolitan beat cops would periodically use call boxes to check in with the local precinct. If a call had come in that required police attendance, the beat patrolman (there were only guys back then) would be told the nature of the call and the address. He would then walk to the call location and deal with the people and events as he saw fit. Later, larger police departments switched to one-way radio transmitters that broadcast in, or just above, what we know today as the AM radio band. Patrol vehicles were equipped with AM radio receivers and would tune to the dispatch frequency to listen for calls. The dispatcher, usually a senior police officer, sat behind a monstrous radio transmitter. When a call for assistance came in, he would throw the switch and start reading out the information. He had no idea whether or not anyone had heard the transmission, but it worked. This is where the oft-used expression, "Calling all cars, calling all cars..." originated. Calls were broadcast in this fashion, and units would respond.

In some rural areas, the local telephone operator took calls for assistance. If a police officer was needed, the operator would activate a red light atop a tower (often the town water tower). The patrol officer would periodically check the tower, and if the light was on, go to the nearest telephone and call "central." The telephone operator would provide the details of the call, and the patrolman would investigate.

Other emergency services were not as sophisticated. Early ambulance services were often operated by funeral homes using converted hearses to transport the injured. In larger cities, hospitals or fire departments operated the ambulance service. Their communication methods were simple: the phone would ring, details were recorded, and a crew would go out. In those days, this is how it was, and it worked.

Fire departments operated in the same way, except in smaller towns, where volunteers did the job. In such towns, the volunteer fire department was summoned by ringing a bell, usually located on the roof of the town hall. Later on, these bells were replaced by pole-mounted sirens activated by whoever answered the "fire-phone". Upon hearing the bell or siren, volunteers would head to the fire-hall, where someone hopefully had scrawled the location of the fire on a chalkboard. The volunteers would then board their fire truck and head out into the country to try to save someone's farmhouse. In those days, instructions to callers (commonly known as "post-dispatch and pre-arrival" instructions) did not exist or were often deemed inappropriate for call takers to give. As such, life-saving instructions or evidence-preserving advice was virtually non-existent.

As time passed, society grew and technology evolved, our emergency services were pressured to become more accessible. The public started to demand better service.

"When I phone the police, I expect someone to answer."
"When I call for an ambulance, I want to receive life saving advice before the paramedics arrive."
"When my house is on fire, I want the fire department to know exactly where my house is located."

The public was growing tired to having to dial a different seven-digit number for each emergency service. Telephone operators were busier with other business, and were not always as easy to reach. As a result, changes started to occur. Certain police officers were assigned to answer the phone and dispatch calls over the radio. Private ambulance services with trained crews, and dedicated call-takers trained to offer pre-arrival instructions began to appear. Fire departments delegated certain firefighters to be responsible for call taking. Our radio and telephone systems also advanced, and new technology provided emergency services with tools to be faster and more efficient. Emergency call taking was centralized. Structured protocols for emergency medical call taking and dispatch were developed. Simplified calling (911) was introduced, and everything started to go faster still.

But what about the people who operated the centers? Who were they and where did they come from? In the period before and after the Second World War, most people who took calls and performed radio dispatching cam from inside emergency services. They were police officers, firefighters, or ambulance personnel. Unfortunately, some were injured or disabled employees who had been determined unfit for active duty, and were summarily dumped into "telecoms."

In communities located near military bases, something else occurred. After the Second World War, military communicators who were getting prepared to leave the armed services began to apply to emergency service organizations as dispatchers. These people, as it turned out, would start a subtle revolution. They were, perhaps, the first professionally trained communicators to work as public safety communications dispatchers. They were trained to listen to radio signals. When the radio conditions were noisy, they could pull the signals "out of the mud." Most were experts at copying Morse code signals. In the military, these "sparkies" had spent hours with headphones on, sitting at an old typewriter, methodically typing out coded messages. As they heard each number or letter, they could automatically strike the appropriate key. Due to their military training, they tended to be tactical in their approach to emergency operations. And they were respected by the male-dominated, paramilitary emergency services.

These ex-military dispatchers broke many barriers. They proved beyond any doubt that agencies did not have to keep their field employees working in their communications centers, allowing much-needed police, fire, or ambulance personnel to return to active duty. The hiring of ex-military personnel continues today, and they continue to do the job well.

But life in public safety communications has changed drastically in recent years. Evolving technology has made the computer the master of the operation, reaching vast and varied pools of information. The days of pencil and paper and typewriters are fast disappearing, although we revert to them when the electricity fails or when our newest system has crashed. Today, the keyboard, mouse, and multiple flat screen displays are the tools of the trade.

So who is the modern public safety communications dispatcher? They are men and women from every corner of our society. There are few boundaries in this profession. If you have the right personality, the aptitude, the skills, and the desire to do well, you can do this job.

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