9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

More Than Just 9-1-1: Specialization in the Field of Public Safety Dispatching & Reliability

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2010
Written by Christopher Blake Carver, MPA - Mr. Carver has 17 years of experience in public safety communications.

Sometimes lost in the use of the term 9-1-1 dispatcher or communications technician is the reality that, within many agencies or communities, the role of a telecommunicator requires a significantly greater degree of specialization.  The degree may be based on workload, number of agencies dispatched for, telecommunicator skills and other operational realities.  These specializations, although essential, contribute to the complexity of the job of a telecommunicator and serve to highlight the often opposing skill sets they require.

This summary of these specializations is intended to serve as a guide for those new to the field or those who may be involved with communications from a consulting or political prospective, without a thorough, on-the-platform knowledge of what makes up a telecommunicator's daily workload.  For the communications manager or supervisor, this list is intended to identify possible ways to improve workflow and agency affectiveness -- especially during times of heightened activity.

One of the first areas in which specialization occurs for telecommunicators is by area the telecommunicator is responsible for.  In many cases, a dispatcher may be hired by one town and dispatch all of the agencies in that one community (police, fire, EMS).  These single-dispatcher environments remain a relatively common occurrence in the U.S.

Specialization by geographic area may also occur in a larger center, in which one telecommuicator may be assigned to cover services for one particular area on a regular basis for a special-event-related geographic area for a shorter duration.  Many new CAD systems also allow the user to create temporary areas for dispatching, such as an area affected by a storm.

There are many positives to this approach -- especially if all the responders have interoperable radios, can use compatible radio procedures and are empowered to share information.  Having a single dispatcher (or single dispatch group) manage a disaster-stricken area will ensure effective sharing of information and improve the effectiveness of the response.

The second tier of specialization is in assigning telecommunicators to be responsible for certain agencies -- and this is often the first level of growth in public safety communications centers.  Having one telecommunicator dedicated to fire/EMS and another to the police function is a logical step in workload management.  At this point, it's also required to point out that this is the first point of identification of the different skill-sets required to dispatch fire/EMS apparatus vs. dispatching police units.  Training for telecommunicators should acknowledge these differences in approach and ensure that telecommunicators who will be undertaking both roles are aware of and able to adjust to both sides of the floor.

Given the distinct differences in fire/EMS and police dispatching, the functions by role are also related to the overall agency function that a given telecommunicator is assigned to.  Based on the size of population served, agency policies and preference, and workload, the functions of telecommunicators in the communications center may be organized along what role they are playing in the dispatching flow-chart.  It should be noted that one telecommunicator may serve the same role for different agencies in the center (i.e., there may be one records dispatcher for multiple agency radio dispatchers or one fire-ground dispatcher for the various primary fire/EMS agencies that are dispatched in one center).  It may also be possible for one telecommunicator to handle specific roles during non-peak periods of activity and that roles by expanded during periods of high activity.  During a storm, for example all of the roles may be filled by specific telecommunicators, while at 3 a.m., one telecommunicator may have two or three roles.

In most cases, however, telecommunicators should not be responsible for handling more than one or two channels at the same time -- and only more than one channel or talk group if the channels are not that active and the dispatcher isn't busy with other tasks or responsibilities.  Expecting one tactical dispatcher to monitor two or three fireground channels is a potentially very unsafe practice and could result in degraded fireground or incident safety -- particularly if your agency requires the dispatcher to monitor every fireground transmission.  A good rule of thumb is to limit the number of potential channels or talk groups that units can operate on to the total number of dispatchers on shift in the communications center.

  • 9-1-1/phone answering and alarm processing -- Self-explanatory, but needs to be identified, especially if your agency provides emergency medical dispatch and associated pre-arrival instructions
  • Incident assignment/response coverage -- Fire/EMS dispatchers (often separate from calltakers) are responsible for ensuring the appropriate response is sent to incidents and adequate fire protection is maintained in the event of a serious incident or period of high activity.
  • Dispatch/communications with units out of quarters -- One dispatcher will need to be available to communicate with units that are not in quarters to not only ensure they are responding to calls, but also to respond to messages from those units, such as changes in status, reports of emergencies they witness or other messages.
  • Dispatch to in-quarters units/firehouse alerting -- Although this process can often be automated with such products as Locution, in many agencies alerting to firehouse PAs or intercoms remains a dispatcher function.
  • Notifications dispatcher -- Many incidents will result in units on scene requesting the response of another agency (e.g., electric company, gas company, police) or notification to a hospital, such as with a cardiac arrest patient.
  • Incident dispatcher -- In departments where dispatcher are required to monitor fireground communications to receive requests and information from the incident commander and to relay messages from the communications center to the scene, this is a critical function that requires a dedicated dispatcher.  Often, these dispatchers are an essential element of safety on the fire or emergency scene - monitoring for emergency buttons being depressed (the ID of the potentially in-trouble unit is displayed on most modern radio consoles) - and ensuring timely reports on member accountability (PAR).  Incident dispatchers also enter in narrative descriptions of the event, acess building information from available sources and confer with the incident assignment dispatcher should additional resources be required.
  • Calltaking dispatcher -- Often, the 9-1-1 element of the communications center and in many agencies the same calltaker for police, fire and EMS incidents.
  • Assignment/radio dispatcher -- Most agencies are divided into geographic areas, where one dispatcher serves as the radio and assignment dispatcher for the given area.
  • Records/leads dispatcher -- Many larger agencies utilize a separate channel and dedicated dispatcher to handle more involved requests for criminal records checks, report numbers or other functions that would overload the main dispatch channel if done there.
  • Tow dispatcher -- Some very large agencies have dedicated dispatchers to manage requests for tow trucks and/or other outside agencies.
  • "Back-channel" dispatcher -- Some larger police agencies staff an extra dispatcher on a non-primary channel to manage other requests, handle tactical incidents or other functions, such as special events.
Understanding  the manner in which job functions in the 9-1-1 center can be organized facilitates not only a greater understanding of the complexity of the role of the public safety communications professional, but also serves as a potential roadmap to the operational and training needs inherent in the operation of 9-1-1 centers.  Regardless of the size of a 9-1-1 center -- or the number of agencies served, these basic roles and functions are what telecommunicators across the U.S. do every day -- whether they are alone in a small town police department radio room -- or sharing those functions with hundreds of other telecommunicators in a footfall field size 9-1-1 center in a major American city.

Using these understandings to develop a scalable model based on workload, agency requirements, staffing and other factors permits local community leaders and 9-1-1 managers to ensure that their 9-1-1 center meets the demands of its customers both on normal days and during peak periods.  Fortunately, new CAD systems and modern radio systems support these types of configurations, as well as allowing certain processes -- such as notifications and firehouse alerting -- to be automated, freeing up personnel to perform the valuable tasks of incident monitoring, ensuring effective response coverage and further improving the ability of communications centers and their personnel to perform the essential parts of their jobs that are beyond 9-1-1.

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