Published Wednesday, June 27, 2012
| From the August 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Dear Nozzlehead: We recently had a discussion in our department regarding response times. One “faction” said the response time starts when we get our first staffed apparatus on the road to the fire. Another said it starts when our tone alarms are activated. Honestly, I don’t think anyone really had a solid understanding of the issue—and neither do I. Personally, I think it’s from the time we leave the fire station until we get to our call. I would appreciate your thoughts and any details related to response times.
—Clock-Watcher in Colorado
When you’re with that special someone you’re intimate with, when does the “love-making” technically start? Is it the first time you gaze into their eyes? Is it when you start holding hands? Is it huggy-kissy time? Is it when you get that funny feeling in your tummy (not from the pizza, you clown—the other kind of feeling) or is it during the fabulous and furious 30-45 seconds that follow?
When it comes to love-making, the start time is whatever you want it to be. However, when it comes to genuine fire response times, it has nothing to do with what YOU want; it’s about what’s best for the person who’s actually experiencing the fire.
Firefighters—myself included—often say “we had a fire” or “we had a crash” or “we had a bad one” or the ever-popular “we had a really good one.” In truth, WE had nothing! The customer who called us had something. They simply made the decision to dial 9-1-1 and invite us to fix their problem.
At this point, everything related to our ability to respond and operate is now being tested. Sometimes we pass and sometimes we fail. The question: What part of passing or failing can your department impact right now? The answer: all of it, as far as I’m concerned.
When someone dials 9-1-1, they are generally having a really bad day—sometimes the worst day of their lives—and we have a shot at helping them. So when we talk about response times, we need to look very closely at EVERY SECOND related to the call.
Let’s assume a caller dials 9-1-1, and the phone is answered. START THE CLOCK NOW! This is absolutely when response times start.
But what if your department isn’t the dispatch center? That means nothing; the dispatch center is representing your department. Unfortunately, some dispatch centers forget that they’re in the business of customer service! Customer service? Yepper. Further, fire departments sometimes have to operate based upon what’s expected of the dispatch center, as opposed what’s best for the customers.
To be clear, departments can’t expect dispatchers to follow/know the different AND VERY DIVERSE policies for each department; that often doesn’t make sense—and it puts the dispatchers at a high risk of failure. This should not be that hard. There are numerous central dispatch centers across the USA that dispatch for numerous “independent” fire departments and, through head-spinning miracles, have actually been able to agree that a fire in one town is just not that different than a fire in another town. Sure, some departments have different services and equipment that requires some modified dispatch protocols. But if we even it all out, a 2,500-square-foot house fire in town A should have the same dispatch operations for towns B, C and D.
However, in MANY communities that share dispatch centers, the departments may have to “pay the price” for the way a dispatch center operates.
Here’s an example: The ABC Fire Department is dispatched by the Generic Public Safety Dispatch Center. The GPSDC adopts a new way of handling calls that requires the dispatchers to spend a lot of time getting details, as opposed to just the essential details and then getting the call dispatched ASAP. Now I’m not against dispatchers helping callers, and many lives have been saved by some outstanding communication center pros. BUT if someone calls up and says their house is on fire, the next questions should involve getting the address and a phone number and then BEEEEEE BOOOOOP! Tones, bells, sirens, pagers or whatever—GET THE COMPANIES ON THE ROAD!
If the fire is in the kitchen, we DO NOT need to know where specifically in the kitchen or if it is an appliance fire or anything else like that initially. Get the companies dispatched. Then, once that is done, it may be possible to ask additional questions. But DO NOT delay the call for the sake of using a system that makes you ask questions first—questions that steal precious response time seconds.
So in case you missed it, response times start when the call is answered, and then are measured as follows:
- Call-taker determines essential information from the caller.
- Call is processed, getting the information to those responsible for responding (directly or through a dispatcher).
- Call is dispatched and stations are alerted/turned out (aka BEEEEEE BOOOOOP!)
Firefighters/company/equipment turnout is from the time you know there’s a call to the time your apparatus is staffed and physically moving to the call. Apparatus response time is from the time you start moving your rig until you arrive on the scene or at the staging center.
And that’s response times in a nutshell. How long should it take? From step 1 to step 3? Less than a minute. Thirty seconds is preferred. Some may whine and not like that I wrote that. Some may say they need to spend more time on the phone with the caller—sure, but it depends what the call is. Is it a house fire? If the caller tells you their house is on fire and it’s in the kitchen, then why do we need to spend any more time on that call before turning the companies out? Simply ask what YOU want when your loved one has a life-threatening emergency? Pretty simple. BEEEE BOOOOP! And then get more info, based on the conditions.
So where are the Achilles’ heels? Everywhere.
Training for 9-1-1 dispatchers and call-takers is a huge part of this issue. Because dispatchers and call-takers are really the true first responders, they need to work in good conditions, have excellent leadership and get applicable training. Some dispatch centers have gone with priority-type dispatch systems that guide personnel on what questions to ask. My response to that: Is this system helping the caller get the desired results? Is this system getting the firefighters/medics and their equipment to the scene as quickly as possible? Are the dispatchers spending too much time on the phone because they MUST ask specific questions before the system “allows” them to get it dispatched? Again, you figure that out. But more importantly, understand WHY you need to know this information. The answer is simple: What do you want for your loved ones when they dial 9-1-1 and need your department’s services?
Further, do your stations with staffed companies have minimal turnout times, or do they take their sweet time when the calls “sound” like nothing—but then drive like lunatics to get to the scene? Do you belong to a “come from home” unstaffed department that takes four, five, six, ten or more minutes to get out? Is there a better way to operate that department since the community has grown?
Like just about anything we do in this business, so much depends on the conditions and our resources—and this is no different. What I urge chiefs and commissioners to do is to regularly listen to the recordings (calls) of your call-handlers, and determine if the actions meet the needs of your community. Additionally, look at your department turnout and response times. How’s that working out? Good? If not, it’s time to sit down and figure out some stuff based upon what’s best for the people having that really bad day. After all, it’s not your fire, but it is your call.
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