Dispatch in the Post-COVID Era

by Joseph Courtemanche & Felipe Rubim

Almost every encounter for our Fire, Rescue, and Police first responders starts with a call taken by the first responders of dispatch/911/communications. In many ways, they are the tone-setters for what will eventually happen on the street.

Dispatch (for want of a more comprehensive and simpler term) is the node that all of the others interface with, and is the primary point of communication by citizens in need.

Having evolved from telephone operators passing along information to the local police office, it has come a very long way. The modern dispatch centers of the new age are computerized and data driven in every respect. No longer does each hamlet have an operator that calls the police and fire units out to work. Instead the call centers of many departments, municipalities, and sometimes an entire region, is connected by a sophisticated communications node. Forms of communication include clear-voice radio, encrypted radio, secure data links, cellular calls, and complex series of alert tones.

But the caller doesn’t see that when they dial 911. What they experience is simply a voice at the other end of the line, or a TTY operator, who gathers information, calms the subject, administers initial first aid, and is the personal presence of the next wave of responders.

Once they have sorted the basics with the citizen, they in turn relay that information to the appropriate agencies, often selecting specific units for the call and trying to set priority and threat levels. During all of this, more calls are coming in, and they are trying to remain in touch with the caller if it is an evolving situation.

How is this going to change because of recent events involving pandemic illness and civil unrest? The situation has brought out failings in our system that need to be addressed immediately, as they are foundational problems upon which the entire system rests.

One of the greatest challenges is to have a uniform level of communications competence in the initial training of dispatchers. Current training is limited in terms of real-time scenarios that put a stress on the dispatcher. Some departments excel at this process, others are more concerned with the ability of the trainee to type accurate notes, keep patrol/fire/EMS units updated on the screen, and respond to radio traffic. Unfortunately, the initial information gathering stage of the contact is often lacking, and language recognition/translation is not a major item for smaller departments. There are available assets that can help in this area, and less than 8 hours of additional training will help dispatchers narrow the linguistic choices. Prerecorded questions that advise the caller in a number of likely languages (like any Voice Recognition Unit) to press the appropriate button can be played to the caller by the dispatcher, and will bring on a translator to aid in the dispatch. Without this sort of help (available for many years now) we slow down the system, and place additional stresses on all involved. This is particularly problematic when it is taken under consideration that stressful working environment, with the concurrent exposure to challenging situations is experienced, often leads to burnout (Fjeldheim et al., 2014). With so little training, and almost no training focused on emotional health, the additional stresses takes its toll on dispatchers, whose work already exposes them to a diverse range of traumatic and demanding conditions (Adriaenssens, De Gucht, & Maes, 2015). It is not surprising that, in a study with 91 emergency dispatchers, around 15% of them met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD (Steinkopf et al., 2018). Recent research has shown that emotional training that builds psychological resilience assists dispatch workers in having a better professional quality of life (Miller, Unruh, Zhang, Liu, & Whaton, 2017). Hence, training in psychological health is essential for this population, especially since decreased organizational support is a main factor that contributes to burnout, dissatisfaction and stress (McCarty & Skogan, 2012).   

How can this be remedied? Perhaps the initial medicine for the problem rests on the early stages of becoming an emergency dispatcher. Instead of a reliance on written exams to determine competence for the job, scenario related testing is vital. It cannot be simply one or two scenarios in an interview, but a more complex simulation that evolves over the course of an hour – or two. This will place a greater burden on agencies in their hiring, but throwing a multiplicity of issues at the potential dispatcher will help see what they can do in the hard times that will inevitably come.

A second failure of the system is a lack of encryption for traffic. During periods of civil unrest, it is vital to protect the movement and location information of both callers and units responding. The last thing a caller should be concerned with is identifying information about them being broadcast to everyone on the planet with an internet scanner service. Members of the profession don’t pay close attention to how much information is actually distributed over the air. Nonetheless, it is profound, putting both responders and complainants at potential risk. By utilizing encryption, it increases safety to all concerned.

A third item, that is not quite a failure, is that equipment in the field needs an upgrade to provide GPS location of each unit, including the personal ones carried by the responder. In the event of an officer down, this is sometimes the difference between life and death.

Other items that are emerging in our systems, and are of benefit, are the synthetic voice dispatch protocols. Instead of a dispatcher keying the microphone, collecting their thoughts, and broadcasting to the force, they instead type in a short item that contains address, unit to be dispatched, nature of emergency, and contact information. This ties up less air time, has less variance from one voice to another, and is calming in moments of crisis. While not ideal with some of the voice models selected, a wider variety of dialect influenced speech synthesis is something that can be pursued, and plugged into the existing systems.

Next, it is beyond time for our dispatch force to be trained to deal with medical emergencies on a deeper level. In times of crisis, their ability to triage makes a huge difference in response. But with the spartan knowledge given to them, it is a tough battle. Some of this can be done by plugging symptoms and complainant information into synthetic diagnostic systems that are available now. There are even mental-health modules that will expedite the decision on who to send: an armed police presence or a more medical approach. While it is wise to send both, it is better to know if it is a mental health issue before arrival, which can always help with not burdening an already constant burdened emergency system.

Finally, given the increased training and equipment needed above, administrators must acknowledge that our dispatch force are true first responders, and should be accorded the same respect and care. Burnout, PTSD, and other emotional damage come with being the first link on the line to taking care of the people who call. We cannot view them as “safe” in an office when the mental health toll is showing itself to us so clearly. It is high time that emotional training focused on the psychological wellbeing of dispatchers need to be implemented in their initial placement training, as well as ongoing training during the span of their careers. In addition to psychological training based on current scientific research, educational programs and peer-support programs are effective in reducing burnout and aids in building resiliency (Smith, Holmes & Burkle Jr., 2019).

Dispatch has come a long way. It is time to bring it into the 21st century.

References

Adriaenssens, J., De Gucht, V., & Maes, S. (2015). Determinants and prevalence of burnout in emergency nurses: A systematic review of 25 years of research. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 52(2), 649-661. doi:10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2014.11.004

Fjeldheim, C.B., Nöthling, J., Pretorius, K., Basson, M., Ganasen, K., Heneke, R., Cloete, K.J., & Seedat, S. (2014). Trauma exposure, posttraumatic stress disorder and the effect of explanatory variables in paramedic trainees. BMC Emergency Medicne, 14(11), 1-7. doi:10.1186/1471-227X-14-11

McCarty, W. P., & Skogan, W. G. (2012). Job-related burnout among civilian and sworn police personnel. Police Quarterly, 16(1), 66–84.

Miller, A., Unruh, L., Zhang, N., Liu, X., & Wharton, T. (2017). Professional quality of life of Florida emergency dispatchers. International Journal of Emergency Services, 6(1), 29-39. doi:10.1108/IJES-01-2017-0001

Smith, E.C., Holmes, L., Burkle Jr., F.M. (2019). Exploring the physical and mental health challenges associated with emergency service call-taking and dispatching: A review of the literature. Prehospital & Disaster Medicine, 34(6), 619-624. doi: 10.1017/S1049023X19004990

Steinkopf, B., Reddin, R. A., Black, R. A., Van Hasselt, V. B., & Couwels, J. (2018). Assessment of stress and resiliency in emergency dispatchers. Journal of Police & Criminal Psychology, 1–14.

Many people suspected that the rioting, looting, and danger to first and field responders would somehow stop them from doing their jobs. Quite the contrary, my friends. This week we are joined by Captain Todd Messer, aka Big Sexy, a true first and field responder. Listen in as he shared the perspective of the dispatchers, EMTs, and Firefighters he leads and serves alongside as we discuss the reality of serving others first in Minneapolis. The men and women in uniform supporting their communities refuse to back down – they are the picture of courage under fire.

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