For most dispatchers, the "big one" or event never comes. For others it comes quite frequently, almost every day. Yet just because your agency is small doesn't mean the critical incident cannot occur. The question though is not "IF" but "when" the "Big Call" or disaster hits, how will your communication's center handle it? Even more, how will you, the individual dispatcher handle it?
Jefferson County Sheriff's Office found out on April 20th, 1999, when at 11:19 am they received the first of many calls about an explosion in a field on the east side of Wadsworth Boulevard at Columbine High School. Within one hour 31 more calls would follow. Complainants reported, "multiple gunmen and explosions". By midnight of that day, the dispatchers received literally hundreds more calls, including more than 340 just from the media.
In the end these dispatchers performed admirably. Yet at the time of the call, just the normal manning was present. In fact, just a total of six personnel were in the communications center when the first call was received. I'm sure that none of them had a clue of what was going to unfold that day as they began their shift. However, none of them will ever forget how fast things can get overwhelming.
Our agency had Hurricane Andrew. Even though in Florida we live in the hurricane zone, we usually dealt with the "normal" of the storms we had seen to that point. Lots of wind, a little property damage, frightened people on the phone and long hours "camped out" in dispatch. But on August 24th, 1992, none of us were ready for that day. We actually lost the roof to the city building. Through a 150 mph storm that caused fifty-billion dollars of damage and left 500,000 homeless we learned a lot of lessons AFTER the fact. But who would have thought?
One might think there is no way to prepare for an incident like that. But I would ask why not? Why can't a communications center be prepared to handle even the most unlikely scenario? The answer is "they can", and since Columbine many agencies are re-thinking their disaster plans and training for "the impossible".
In most communications centers there are the usual spare batteries, handheld radios, flashlights and other equipment to be there when all hell breaks loose. But how about the dispatchers? Are they ready to handle any situation? How trained are the dispatchers to handle critical situations not only as individuals but each shift as a team?
When I was a career man in the Army I can tell you that even though the best training in the world cannot completely prepare you for real combat, even so, it didn't hurt either. Confidence in your job, your abilities come from KNOWING your job. Not just in the narrow focus of your particular agency, but KNOWING your job as a 911 dispatcher. Preparing yourself for every contingency can prepare you for that day when the phone rings, and the balloon literally goes up.
How can you do that? First, a self-education is better than none. Disaster training is one way to do this. Many agencies have mock drills for different scenarios, does yours? You might say, "We don't have the time" or "We're not that big of an agency". I say, "Read the paper". Even in the smallest of towns the biggest of incidents can occur.
Some centers opt for the "SOP blanket" The thinking; "It's in the SOP, so it's covered!" That is true. Yet how many dispatchers really read the SOP? They should, but even when they do there are usually more questions than answers. True, lack of resources can hamper your agency's ability to respond to a large-scale crisis. Jefferson County quickly found that their resources were being tasked. Yet quick thinking dispatchers and managers called in reinforcements. Other off-duty dispatchers were called in. In fact, many who heard the news through the media volunteered to help out. This quick thinking "saved the day" on a day when a very terrible situation could have leveled even the best communication's center.
Training for the impossible isn't hard. Yes, it takes time and a little imagination. But having an established contingency plan is the key. Here are some of the things your agency, no matter what the size, can do.
- Train for the impossible. No situation is impossible! Conduct training that uses situational role-playing. Yes, train for that shooting, that airplane crash, that hazardous waste incident. Why wait for the rain to fall to buy an umbrella. Recent weather reports have predicted storms and rain. Buy an umbrella BEFORE the storm and the rain. Train for the impossible.
- Have after-action critiques. Brainstorming sessions between managers and dispatchers and officers to discover weaknesses found during training and find solutions to them. No one involved in emergency communications should be left out. Fix the bugs in the system before an incident and they are less likely to occur DURING the incident.
- Establish a call-in procedure to shore-up manning in the event of an emergency. It was nice that the Jefferson County dispatchers volunteered their services, but don't leave it at that. Have a clear policy to have the communication's center properly manned when existing manning levels will likely be overwhelmed. A good way to do this is to draft Mutual-Aid agreements with surrounding agencies. In the case of disaster they would lend a helping hand, with additional personnel, reroute of non-emergency calls, etc. Establish a fair but precise procedure for calling in off duty personnel. While this "ordering of overtime" is usually a bug with some dispatchers, by and large when you have a large incident you won't like experience this happen. My experience? Real dispatchers LIVE for this. They are in the job to help people!
- Lastly, READ and LEARN from other incidents in other jurisdictions. There is a wealth of information on the web and in the media. When an incident occurs elsewhere, find out as much information about that call and how the communications center handled it. Learn from their lessons. If mistakes were made by them you can ensure your agency doesn't repeat them.
Need more help? Our seminar, "Stress and the Dispatcher" incorporates much of what you read here. As Mr. MrAtamney says, "Knowledge and Experience are KEY in managing job related stress. It is the unknown that leads to the fear that freezes initiative."
For more information on scheduling a seminar contact Headsets911.com today.