9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

From the Chair: Dispatching is Simple - It's Just Not Easy!

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, 5/4/12
Written by Paul D. Bagley, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher, published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, past president of New Hampshire Dispatchers Association, editor and publisher of the association's monthly newsletter, "The NHEDA Broadcaster."

Among the fundamentals of emergency telecommunication is the ability to understand the basic elements inherent in each type of call.  Just as there are similarities that exist in any diverse collection of activities, emergency and non-emergency calls can be categorized, classified and organized.  It's a mathematical certainty that things will occur in virtually the same predictable pattern within each of them.  Doing the next most-logical thing makes a dispatcher indispensable; knowing what comes next is what makes that dispatcher a true professional.

Sometimes it helps to think of dispatching as though you're playing a board game.  In a game you need to know how each piece moves in order to be any good at it.  Also, like a game, knowing what comes next can often be the key to keeping the play orderly and organized.  Experience in The Chair is the most common technique for acquiring such understanding in dispatching, and it is certainly a tried-and-true method of acquiring knowledge.  It can also be the most demanding, dangerous and heartbreaking way of learning the ropes.  Difficult and complex dispatching situations confront all dispatchers, even those with limited training and experience.  How can they obtain the savvy to handle those calls without risk?  Simply stated:  they can't.

One age-old way of learning is known as the Socratic Method; self-learning through exploration, trial and error.  Law schools and medical schools use this method all the time.  Individuals who aspire to the demands of dispatch, and who eventually excel at it, are those who take the time and energy to learn the intricate elements of the job outside of a formal training setting.  From learning the topography of their jurisdiction to unraveling the jargon of field personnel, emergency dispatching calls for a dedication to learning that reaches far beyond any classroom.

The term "rehab" is used by fire and ambulance personnel, and it has nothing to do with fighting a fire and everything to do with looking out for the life and well-being of the firefighter or medic.  Walking around with an additional eighty to one hundred pounds of protective clothing is, in itself, a demanding chore.  Strap on a Scott Air-Pak and walk into a burning room where the mean temperature is well above the boiling point of water and it's easy to understand why firefighters sweat profusely.  Fighting a fire is a physically exhausting endeavor and dehydration is an anticipated result of the work.  This is why ambulances are routinely sent to active fire calls.  Providing firefighters with fresh drinking water during a much-needed time-out is often the key to firefighter survival.  This is "rehab."  For those fire departments that don't employ the automatic response of an ambulance to working structure fires, the wise dispatcher handling such calls should consider prompting the on-scene commander to call for a "bus" in order to safeguard the lives of those fighting the blaze.  In some jurisdictions, "bus" has become another colloquialism right out of the emergency responder's dictionary meaning ambulance.

Working The Chair during a hot police call involving a barricaded subject with a firearm requires knowledge and understanding of what the possible outcomes might be.  First and foremost are the life-safety issues; those involving the responding personnel and civilians who might be caught in harm's way.  Knowing the area around the building where the event is taking place isn't enough.  A good dispatcher needs to know the alternate routes available for field personnel to get to and from the call safely and what avenues of escape may exist for the bad guy.  Also, knowing where to stage an ambulance and fire apparatus is essential.  Why fire and ambulance to a police call?  Well, there's the obvious issue of a possible exchange of gunfire between the armed "perp" and the police (perp being a police-shortened version of the word perpetrator).  Gunfire often results in gunshot wounds.  The quicker such wounds are treated, the stronger the likelihood the victim will survive.  Whether it's bringing someone to justice or saving the life of a police officer of some civilian caught in the line of fire, having an ambulance nearby becomes a necessity, not a luxury.

What about the fire department?, I hear you ask.  Tear gas is a non-lethal option available to police in dealing with individuals who have only threatened violent behavior.  Lobbing tear gas through a window can extract the subject from the building while simultaneously protecting hostages that may be inside.  The problem is tear gas is an incendiary device and it will likely set the building on fire.  Having firefighters on hand before gas is used not only seems a prudent strategy; it could likely be considered a compulsory precaution for those in charge.  If a delayed response by a fire department results in extensive damage due to fire to adjacent structures or in injury to anyone other than the suspect, the civil law suits could go on seemingly forever.  Besides, it is comforting to have a B.R.T. (Big Red Truck) on scene to block roads or shield emergency workers from oncoming traffic.  Knowing such things dispatchers can be better prepared to plan for what happens next.

Handling any call is more than a reaction to a given stimulus.  It means that the initial assessment of that call is the key to the eventual outcome of it.  Dispatchers must conduct an assessment, evaluate the information available, know in advance the controlling policies and protocols, employ common sense based upon training and experience, and dispatch the call accordingly.  Certainly this isn't too much to ask, is it?  But, given the time constraints and the very nature of emergency calls, this is where the skill of the person in The Chair makes the difference.

Dispatching is certainly simple enough; dispatchers take information from one source and give it to another -- simple!  But anyone who has ever endured the rigors of a mutual-aid structure fire, an armed robbery in progress, or had to handle pre-arrival instructions of a full cardiac and respiratory arrest while simultaneously having to direct police, fire and ambulance personnel to the victim's location is painfully aware that there is nothing easy about it.

While field personnel concentrate their training on their specific calling, constantly narrowing their focus, emergency telecommunicators must broaden their training efforts to include anything that they might encounter on their watch.  In simple terms it means dispatchers must grown into being the true generalists of our society, becoming all things to all people - a lofty goal, if not an impossible one.  While telecommunicators might not need to know how to treat a sucking chest wound, they should know that it's a life threatening condition and that the  most probably cause was a bullet from a gun.  This means that a threat in the form of a sniper may exist to the medics being sent to such a call, so maybe it would be judicious to send along a significant contingent of police!

All the classroom training available within the entire field of emergency telecommunication cannot adequately prepare an individual for the rigors of a single shift in The Chair.  Seated at a console, working with a telephone, or handling a radio is like enduring a hangover; you can explain to others until you're blue in the face what it's like, but until they've experienced a hangover for themselves they have no idea what you're talking about.  But the shock and awe that accompanies that first solo shift in The Chair can be minimized by proper training and by exposing the newbie to the more common things they might expect to encounter.

We've all listened to commercial radio since as far back as we can remember.  ..But a radio that talks back -- that is interactive, so to speak -- that takes time to get used to.  Talking back to units in the field is easy; saying the right thing at the right time is something else.  Fortunately most dispatch centers don't toss fledglings into the deep end of the shark-infested pool until it's determined they possess the ability to swim.

Formal training provides emergency telecommunicators with the basic tools of our profession.  And let's be clear; dispatching has quickly grown to be a true profession.  A profession is defined as an endeavor where an ever-changing and ever-widening body of information, policies and procedures must be absorbed and employed by the practitioner toward the accomplishment of the stated objectives of that profession.  Just like doctors and lawyers, who must read and absorb constantly in order to practice their professions, dispatchers must do the same.  The array of topics to be studies includes every aspect of the human experience.  There isn't anything that man has done, can do, or will do, that isn't germane, and the more a dispatcher knows the more likely they will understand and handle each call in such a way that the outcome benefits all involved.

If there is a board game that teaches the rudiments of dispatching it is probably the game of chess.  Like dispatching, chess is a highly complex endeavor with an assortment of pieces each of which has a unique way of moving about the board.  Knowing how each piece moves and what potential each possesses is fundamental for the player.  Chess is strategic and, at the same time, tactical.  And, like dispatching, a strategy that isn't working may have to be abandoned for another based upon ever-changing and evolving circumstances.  Thinking several moves ahead of the play is how one wins at chess.  Thinking several moves ahead of the action in dispatch is how emergency telecommunicators save lives and property.  In competitive play, chess has time constraints, just like dispatch, and moves must be completed within specific increments of time.  Dispatching is a  timed activity as well; the clock is running form the instant the phone is picked up and the call for service is taken to the time when the field units finally clear from the scene and command is terminated.

Obviously some calls require quicker action; those in which lives and property are in immediate danger.  Again, like chess, the dispatcher needs to possess a sense of what prompts immediate action and what things can be placed on hold for a moment.  Where the game of chess differs with dispatching is in the moves themselves; each player, in turn, moves one piece at a time.  In emergency communications, dispatchers could be moving multiple units, in fact multiple departments, simultaneously.

A good chess player is one who can see the entire board and understand how the pieces interrelate.  The same is true for dispatch.  Being able to take a broader view of a given environment and see how seemingly incongruent elements fit together to create a single and discernible mosaic requires and intellectual individual who can think and understand in the abstract, but function properly within the confines of the practical.

Playing chess helps sharpen the senses and raise the consciousness of the player.  For this reason it is the ideal pastime for emergency telecommunicators.  For those who can't find an opponent of equal or superior skill, chess is one of the basic games included with Windows 7 software.  Unlike dispatching, you can even preset the level of difficulty when you're playing chess against the computer.

Even if dispatching remains just another job in the minds of those outside of it, for those of us on the inside it is truly a profession.  Because this is so, the practitioners have an obligation to engage in the age-old methods of raising their own standards in order to serve the demands of their profession.  Taking training classes, reading, riding along with field units, and learning as much as possible about the people and businesses to be served are all ways in which we improve.  Because the tasks of our profession are simple, the perception is that what we do is easy.  Those who've ever sat in The Chair know otherwise.

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