9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

From The Chair: A Column for the Dispatcher

Taken from 9-1-1magazine.com

Date: 4/23/12

Written by Paul D. Bagley; published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher. He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association's monthly newsletter, "The NHEDA Broadcaster."

Where to begin? The late writer and television commentator Andy Rooney was once asked how he came to choose his profession and his reply was, "It's indoors and there's no heavy lifting." In some ways I suppose I gravitated back toward emergency dispatch after pursuing a law enforcement career for the same reasons. Nothing could be further from reality, though. True, dispatch is indoors; mostly these days. But the no lifting part is where the similarity abruptly ends. Metaphorically speaking those who work in The Chair do more heavy lifting than anyone standing outside the confines of the call center could possibly imagine. It's not a job for wimps. But then, neither is writing.

Preparing a monthly column for 9-1-1magazine.com will be nothing at all like dispatching. It isn't the old stimulus-response routine that one gets when they are seated in The Chair and fielding emergency calls. It's more like being called into the chief's office after a rough-and-tumble overnight shift and told to explain in detail why you handled a call in a way other than the method prescribed in the agency's standard operating guidelines (SOGs).

Despite the many obstacles that commonly stand in the way of an emergency telecommunicator being able to communicate effectively, I'll give it a shot. I am told the purpose of this column is to reflect the thoughts and views of an average contemporary emergency dispatcher. I suppose I meet the criteria, if such a thing actually exists. Frankly, I've never met an "average dispatcher" in my life. Just as every human being is unique, so is every emergency telecommunicator. True, we may all talk in a similar fashion and act alike in given circumstances. When the rubber meets the road, we all handle emergency calls in pretty much the same manner. Where we differ is in how we individually perceive the world in general and how we deal with the stress that is part and parcel of the job. And I shouldn't have to sell any dispatcher on the notion that there is stress in dispatching; face it, this is one of the most stressful jobs on the planet.

Regardless of the call center where one is assigned, there are times when you find yourself in the proverbial "weeds" and unable to see that dim light at the end of that long dark tunnel. It's easy to think that you're the only one who understands what it's like to be in those particular weeds. At one time the center where I've done most of my dispatching had twenty-two incoming phone lines (six of which were the old standard 9-1-1 lines; pre-enhanced), nine radio frequencies, and it served a diverse population of some 60,000. We dispatched for all of the police, fire, ambulance, public works and emergency management agencies for six different towns, we had some four to five hundred varied alarms that were monitored, and we were individually trained and responsible for performing emergency medical dispatch (EMD) while handling other calls. At best we had two dispatchers working at redundant consoles at any given time. During the majority of the hours of each day all that responsibility was heaped upon the narrow shoulders of a single dispatcher.

I once met a girl during a training seminar who was complaining about being overwhelmed in her call center. "Sometimes I have to answer the radio and both phones...at the same time!" she said. "Wow, both phones and a radio? How do you manage it?" I asked sarcastically. Okay, I was guilty of not showing empathy for a fellow dispatcher. But I had no idea what the call volume was like at her center, or even the level of responsibility being levied upon her. But, in time, I did learn a valuable lesson from that brief conversation so many years ago: every dispatcher gets overwhelmed at some point...it's the nature of the beast. Overwhelmed is a relative term though; relative to the norm at your center. Had that girl been dumped into my workplace during a quiet time she would have been shellshocked in a matter of minutes and run screaming into the streets to get away. But the same probably would have been true had I been dumped into her center without familiarization or training. The level of stress experienced by each dispatcher is directly proportional to their level of training, experience and familiarization with the specific dispatch environment in which they work. Even the best trained, most experienced of us get stressed when a crescendo of calls suddenly develops into total pandemonium. While all those around us are losing their heads, we are still expected to remain calm, cool and collected. We don't contribute to the chaos; we simply remedy it.

Let's get back to this notion of dispatchers being average. There is nothing average about someone who is willing to work nights, weekends, and holidays, who survives on coffee and take-out food, and who makes their living dealing with people who are at their absolute worst. Ridiculously low pay and little chance of promotion, often long hours due to under staffing by an unsympathetic management, lousy chairs to sit in, lousy lighting conditions, lousy diet, a climate-control system that never controls the climate, and an inability to ever finish a sentence of a bite of food, or even go to the restroom when you need to: these are but a few of the commonalities of most, if not all, emergency dispatch centers. The average person could do that in a heartbeat, couldn't they? Right!

If those managing emergency call centers are not experienced in The Chair they have no point-of-reference and undoubtedly lack the requisite understanding for supervising the operation properly. If they honestly believe that virtually anyone can be plopped into dispatch these days then they need to be reeducated. That is a task that likely falls to line personnel to make the boss acutely aware of the truth. Not only can the average person not handle dispatch, the average cop, firefighter or paramedic can't do it either. Sure, they may be rugged firefighters who can take down a working structure fire single-handedly; or some he-man cop that can run down an armed robber without breaking a sweat. As a paramedic they might be able to cure a patient of TB simply by looking at them. But as dispatchers, they'd all fail miserably, and putting them in The Chair would be tantamount to handing over a loaded .357 magnum to a five-year-old and telling him to have a nice day.

The primary reason field personnel have difficulty with dispatching is that they're trained and programmed to use all five of their senses in order to ascertain problems and resolve them. Dispatchers are limited to only one of those five senses: their hearing. The ability to listen is the most vital tool in the dispatcher's arsenal. Nature gave us two ears and only one mouth, and experienced emergency telecommunicators have learned that those instruments need to be utilized in that same ratio -- two to one. Listening to what's going on in the background of a call is often just as important as what the caller is saying or doing. Sometimes the key to understanding what's really going on at the other end of the line is what isn't being said or heard.

Effective dispatching also requires a keen understanding of human nature, the ability to cut through the rhetoric to get to the heart of a matter, and often the ability to stall for time. Dispatchers need to know when to check on personnel in the field, regardless of what the CAD timer is saying. They need to plan in advance and anticipate what the next move will be so that when the field commander calls for something it's already available or on the way. Dispatchers need to be true triage artists and, because of those two ears and that one mouth, they are actually the first responder on the scene of every emergency call and the first to assume command.

Dispatching is completely misunderstood as a profession by anyone and everyone that isn't an integral part of it. Just like an iceberg, only ten percent of what emergency dispatchers accomplish can be seen or heard outside of the communications center. Whether it is listening to recordings of the radio and telephone traffic involved, only a small fragment of what that dispatcher was actually hearing, seeing and experiencing shows up for analysis by the Monday-morning quarterbacks. It's fine to listen to a single phone call on tape to see how it was handled. But until the recording of that call is overlaid with all the other recorded traffic in real time, the listener can't possibly begin to fathom all that was going on inside that center. It's always been my contention that the actions of the dispatcher should rarely be second-guessed because an after-action review can't begin to fully recreate all the conditions that existed at that critical point in time when the dispatcher was making those split-second decisions.

My father-in-law used to say you can help a thousand old ladies across the street, but kick one dog and that's what you'll be remembered for. Those who serve on the front lines in dispatch know that sentiment well. I'm reminded of one of Charles Schultz characters - Linus, I think - who said once that, "Doing a good job around here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit, it gives you a nice warm feeling for a while, but nobody notices!" Sorry to say, that comes with the territory. The public only notices dispatchers when they do something wrong.

The iceberg theory also explains the lack of understanding from field personnel and why they get so anxious when they aren't answered instantly. "What could that dispatcher possibly be doing that's more important than answering me?" That's what's running through those minds out there, and maybe it's understandable to a degree. After all, most emergency operatives find themselves in precarious situations removed from the safety and security of their stations or offices, and their only exposure to dispatchers has been via the phone or radio; they haven't a clue as to the complexities of the job or of the overwhelming cacophony of noise that the average dispatcher must endure during a single shift. Just like the public, they only see a small fraction of what we do.

So, where to begin? I chose to begin this regular column by first acknowledging that my fellow emergency dispatchers are pretty special people. Each possesses some amazing talents that they can use for the greater good of mankind. In that sense, dispatchers are altruistic in the strictest sense of the word. I'm proud that I am an emergency telecommunicator, and I hope all of my compatriots feel the same way. My career began in The Chair, with a side trip through law enforcement and back into The Chair. I understand the many and varied demands placed upon dispatchers and both empathize and sympathize with them. I shall endeavor in this forum to uncover some truth in a public arena where the whole truth can quite often be obscured. I will attempt to offer ideas and suggestions on how to make this absurd career choice of ours more tolerable and simultaneously elevate it to the term profession which it so richly deserves. I encourage and welcome your thoughts and ideas and I will do my best to incorporate them into the mix as we move along.

It has been said all too often that dispatchers are some of the unsung heroes of our society. Heroes; possibly...unsung; certainly! But, if you had been looking for glory, you weren't likely to find it by taking a seat in The Chair.

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