Understanding the Dispatcher’s Job

On an ordinary day, you’re at the station with your crew when the tones go off, followed by dispatch: “Engine 15, Engine 437, Wagon 12, Ladder 6, Ladder 15, Battalion 42A: Respond to an automatic fire alarm, 17328 Boysenberry Drive off of Kettleson Road ….” Engine 15, Engine 437, Ladder 6 and Battalion 42A all indicate that they’re responding.

Dispatcher: “Battalion 42A, this is for a first-floor smoke detector.” Battalion 42A and Ladder 15 indicate that they are responding, but shortly thereafter, dispatch redirects them to a larger emergency, a motor vehicle collision. Wagon 12 radios the dispatcher that they’ll be delayed; the dispatcher acknowledges the message.
Approximately 60 seconds later, an alert tone sounds over the radio, followed by: “Dispatch to Engine 437, Wagon 12 and Ladder 6, all units are being redirected to Route 295, westbound, between Route 14A and Smith Avenue for a motor vehicle crash with injuries.”

Engine 15: “Engine 15 to dispatch, we’re on scene at Boysenberry Drive, nothing showing, homeowner is inside the front door waiting for us.” Dispatcher: “Engine 15 on scene, nothing showing.”

Engine 437: “Engine 437 to dispatch, we’re only two blocks from Boysenberry; are you sure you want us to divert to Route 295?”

Dispatcher (after a brief delay): “Affirmative 437. Start out for Route 295 at Route 14A; we’re gathering additional information now.”  

Note: The communication between the Engine 437 officer and the dispatcher may be wasting valuable time and takes the dispatcher away from their primary duties: 1) to collect pertinent information and 2) to dispatch the closest available and appropriate resources to emergencies–all to be accomplished within a national time goal of 90 seconds.

What We Can’t See
After dispatching the automatic alarm, the lone dispatcher has simultaneously received a telephone call from the Central Station Alarm Company stating that the Boysenberry Drive homeowner set off their alarm while cooking, and also fielded a call from the State Police Highway Patrol stating that one of their officers just witnessed a high-speed multi-vehicle accident (MVA) on Route 295 with a roll-over, people ejected, a possible pin and multiple aided.

While the dispatcher is entering this information into the computer-assisted dispatch (CAD) system, they instinctively redirect the companies to what sounds like the more serious emergency. Although they’re unable to notify each of the units of all the intimate details of the MVA, the dispatcher follows established protocols and takes proactive steps to handle both incidents. When time permits, a well-trained dispatcher will forward the additional information to the responding units.

Credit Where Credit Is Due
Given the above scenario, let’s take a minute to recognize the significance of dispatchers, the crucial role they play in our lives and what an important asset they can be. Need an ambulance or ALS? Call the dispatcher. Need a police officer? Call the dispatcher. Need poison control, CHEMTREC, a helicopter, additional units, staffing, bulldozers, front-end loaders, an airtanker, ARFF, ammunition, an electrician, a politician, almost anything–call the dispatcher. Just tell them what you have, what you want, and where you want it. They’ll take care of the rest. They’re always there for us with a multitude of resources at their fingertips.

With that in mind, as company and chief officers, we need to give dispatchers their due credit and some professional courtesy. We should look at them for what they are–an invaluable resource–and what they do for us, which generally involves making our lives safer and easier.

Like all professionals, some are naturally better than others; however, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them. Stop to imagine what they must think of us sometimes as we press down the microphone button and open our yaps, blurting out some sort of message, without pausing for a second to think about what it is we’re trying to say. Let’s give credit where credit is due. Let’s look into the “mysterious life and times” of that voice on the other end of the microphone.

A Stress Test
A single dispatcher sits behind a computer dispatch console, working 12—16 hours, dispatching for multiple departments and jurisdictions or perhaps for county-wide firehouses all at the same time. Sound easy? Now think about those times when we’re running multiple calls, one after the other, such as during a severe thunderstorm or other extreme weather conditions. How easy would it be to dispatch multiple units from multiple agencies to multiple incidents (e.g., power outages, downed trees, etc.)? Think about the sheer number of surrounding companies/departments that would be responding to the same type of incidents at the same time (we know they’re being dispatched because we hear them on the air). Now think about that lone dispatcher fielding all of those calls, dispatching units, talking with us, logging each call and their dispositions, and making notifications to other agencies–all at the same time. Talk about multi-tasking! Sounds a little stressful, right?

In cases where bad weather is predicted, additional dispatchers may be brought in to staff the communication center; however, more often than not, this isn’t the case. Even where multiple dispatchers are working at the same time, each of them is responsible for a certain area or set of departments, and they can easily be overwhelmed.

A Trip to Oz
When was the last time (or only time, if ever), you and/or your crew visited the dispatch center? If you’ve never visited, you owe it to yourself to do so. You’ll honestly be amazed at what goes on there. In some instances, it’s like peeking behind the curtain and watching the Wizard of Oz in action. But, don’t go empty-handed; knock with your elbows! Bring some snacks, a fruit basket, a box of candy or maybe some breakfast rolls/bagels. Your gesture will go a long way in showing that you appreciate your professional relationship with them.

Most dispatchers will be happy to see you and will give you a tour and a short lesson on how they dispatch calls and turn out the companies. It’s truly an impressive process. You and your crewmembers will also come to understand some of the less-attractive characteristics of the job (windowless buildings or underground bunkers where the dispatchers work) and some of the challenges that dispatchers must work through (e.g., protocols, SOPs/SOGs, different dispatch procedures for each department/agency they dispatch for and the variety of personalities of responding company officers and chiefs). Once you see all that they deal with on a daily basis, you may start to appreciate what it is they do for us on every call. Perhaps you can also talk to them about some of your needs and what you’d like to hear from them. This exchange is how we build mutual respect and maintain professional relationships.

Bridge the Gap
Communication is often listed in line-of-duty-death reports as a contributing factor to the tragedy. Even though dispatchers do not, and should not, have commanding roles at an incident, they can play a vital role in the success of any emergency as an aide to the incident commander (IC). But to be an efficient aide, dispatchers need training in scene operations. Not only do they need to know how to answer the phone and enter calls, they also need to know what firefighters and ICs do on different types of incidents so that they know what information to listen for and can be as helpful as possible.

Including dispatchers in drills and training exercises (even if it’s just talking with them on your visit to the dispatch center or inviting them to the firehouse for a meal and drill period) will help bridge the gap between what we need and what they have to offer. The more familiar dispatchers are with every aspect of a call, the more assistance they’ll be able to provide, especially if something just doesn’t sound right or is missed by on-scene personnel. Remember: We couldn’t do our job without our trusted dispatchers. Provide them with the proper training, and treat them with the respect they deserve.

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