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Dispatch Centers: Key to the Success of 911 Responders

By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

A successful emergency incident has many phases and involves many personnel to ensure a good outcome. However, almost every emergency event starts with a call to a 911 dispatch center. When the call is received, a call taker or dispatcher translates the hysteria of the 911 caller into clear information for first responders.

Depending on the area and the complexity of the dispatch center, this 911 response could involve setting off the alarm tones and announcing that a certain fire department has a call at a particular location. The dispatch center can also ensure that the proper number of engines, ladders, and medics are called to the 911 scene, which involves contacting numerous dispatch centers to ensure the correct number of first responders and equipment is achieved. No matter what type of dispatch center is involved in a 911 call, their interpretation of the caller’s information and translation to a correct dispatch is the first step in ensuring an emergency is properly mitigated.

Translating a Caller’s Description of a 911 Incident

Anyone who has listened to a 911 tape knows that most callers do not tell the dispatcher what is happening in a very technical and calm manner. Many times, a dispatcher may have to listen to the caller several times to determine what the 911 caller said.

As a result of training and experience, a dispatcher is able to calm down the caller and obtain the needed information. This task can be difficult, because the 911 caller often believes all of the extra questions are delaying the arrival of fire or police units.

But as we all know, that 30-45 seconds of questioning can make a vital difference. For instance, one 911 call could involve one engine for a car fire. Another call could require a full one-alarm response for that car fire being in the garage of a home or possibly double that response if the garage is a part of a mid- to high-rise building.

Sending three firefighters to a call that recommends four to six will need a great deal of time to find success, as the three firefighters sent to the scene will have to choose which of the 19 different tasks they will undertake for the mid-rise fire event.

However, some of the newest technology related to dispatch centers involves the ability to share photos from the caller’s cell phone and to access the location of a 911 caller’s cell phone when the caller gives permission. This technology could potentially be game-changing, since we often send too few or too many first responders depending on the culture of an organization.

These pictures, however, provide real-time information. As a result, first responders can react more appropriately to a 911 incident.

Dispatch Centers and the Correct Deployment of First Responders

Proper resource deployment is critical to the success of an organization. Most modern-day Computer Automated Dispatch (CAD) programs generate the proper resources to dispatch.

But depending on the configuration of the CAD system and the region served by the dispatch center, there may be much interaction with neighboring dispatch systems to generate the proper resource deployment. This interaction ranges from determining the availability and location of neighboring units to calling multiple dispatch centers or other organizations to query if additional units are available.

But that process adds many minutes to a 911 response and requires a dispatcher to correctly remember how many units were called, which units were called, and the type of units called. As technology increases, fire service leaders should push for a compliance standard in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1221 to ensure that all CAD systems can talk to each other and that this communication continues to occur as each CAD system is upgraded. This area currently lacks much interoperability compliance.

Training 911 Dispatchers to Provide Proper Information to First Responders

Public safety organizations need to work with their dispatch centers to identify the proper information that needs to be relayed upon dispatch. Some organizations may only want the event type and the address, while others may desire more detailed information such as the radio channel to use and the location of cross streets. In my career, there has always been a debate as to the amount of required information versus the amount of time needed to relay the information.

Consistency is also an issue. If you do not have a policy to dictate what information to give and the order in which that information is given, there will not be any consistency because it will be left to the dispatcher’s choice.

One piece of technology that allows for consistency is the Locution dispatch system in which a computer-automated voice provides dispatches based on the field in the CAD system. This system ensures that each desired field of information is given in an agreed-upon order, which also frees a dispatcher to start making the needed calls to neighboring dispatch centers or to gather additional information from the caller to update units as they respond to the 911 call.

Dispatchers and Following Units to the Fireground

One area that is often debated between fire agencies and dispatch centers is the dispatch center listening to the fireground on a specific operating frequency. The debate often centers on the amount of personnel staffing the dispatch center, as this practice requires one person to monitor the operating frequency. If that person is also monitoring the primary dispatch frequency and/or answering phones, then the ability to actually listen to activity at the fireground is difficult.

However, statistics from Don Abbott’s Project Mayday research shows that a large percentage of mayday calls by operating companies are heard by the dispatcher rather than the incident commander. That probably occurs because the dispatch center is only listening to the channel and not distracted by thinking of a strategy, watching the building, and performing a whole host of other activities that occur at the fire scene.

Legislation has been introduced to Congress to make dispatchers public safety officials. Dispatchers should have already had this designation, as these personnel are the first interaction with the community for emergency calls. They are also the people who will set up an event for success or potentially short-change the public. Be sure to have a positive relationship with your dispatch center, and train together to ensure that the handling of 911 incidents starts well and ends successfully.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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