9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, September 18, 2009

No Such Thing as TMI

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2009
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.

Weather Watch

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.

Telecommunicator Safety

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.

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