Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Top Ten Scary Events for a Dispatcher

What scares a dispatcher?

I have made a list of events that are bothersome, that ‘stay’ with us after the event is over. This is from my point of view, so here we go. This list isn’t a ‘let’s screw with the dispatcher’s head’ type of list, it’s a ‘try-not-to-put-yourself-in-these-type-of-situations’ list. From the first day I sat behind the radio, instead of out in the field, I made it my goal to not call it a successful shift if the same number of personnel didn’t return to quarters at the end of my shift that were there (allowing for shift changes and miscellaneous incidents).

1) As a trainee, screwing up. That’s pretty universal, but we have all been there. When dispatchers take that first phone live phone call, you bet they have a stomach full of butterflies dancing in their belly. The trainer is plugged in next to them, or maybe sitting in the next station, listening and taking notes. Forget to ask a key question, miss an important fact and you’re off the call with the trainer taking over. Didn’t get that traffic stop location – you’re toast. What did that firefighter say? Nothing feels worse than knowing you had to be relieved by your trainer in the middle of an incident. By the way, my first live call? A silent alarm that was a bank robbery. Welcome to law enforcement!

2) Being on your own the first time. Talk about being nervous…the position is irrelevant. I bet I wasn’t the only one who sat rigid in the chair my flesh never touching the backrest, silently repeating the mantra “don’t &^%$ up” to myself. I had my radio codes, cheat sheets, and notes laid out for quick reference (this was before Computer Aided-Dispatch) the first night I worked the police channel on my own. Go forward two years later and I’m kicking back, feet up on the belt (that brought incident cards to & from the call-takers to the radio positions), with the only item on the console desk was the timestamp clock. Oh and this also applies when you go to a new agency. The expectations are higher as a lateral – don’t screw up – you said you knew what you were doing, didn’t you?

3) The first pursuit. Back in the days police officers chased vehicles for running stop signs, red lights, and real crimes (robberies, homicides, burglaries, etc.). Now, more Departments are restricting law enforcement officers on when they can pursue criminals, for the safety of the public. There were two officers I worked with who loved getting stolen vehicles with suspects. They’d sit on the vehicles until a subject came back to the cars and climbed back inside. Only then would the officer light up the stolen car, knowing darn well the person would drive off – and the chase would be on. My hands shook as I called out the locations, and when the vehicle stopped, set up a block cover. The adrenaline charged through my veins, yep – I’ll admit it, I had fun. Always knew when one of those two officers was on duty, I’d probably have a vehicle chase that night. Still, that first one. I was still buzzing when I drove home that morning. Couldn’t sleep worth a damn. Just had one last month and that excitement was still there, not as much as the first time, but the adrenaline rush felt good.

4) The first BIG fire. The firefighters are using the Incident Command Speech (ICS) speech to one another, talking with their masks on. You can tell when each firefighter is inside the building, breathing with their air packs: they sound like Darth Vader calling in from a universe far, far away – only they’re not. Add to that, the occasional sound of a warning bell, to let he, or she, know the air tank has just enough to get out of the building. Had some great working fires over the years – best was a night with three, two at the same time. Oakland-Berkeley in a class all of its own. Never really

5) A major incident that makes the news. Now, I know this sounds dumb because why would this be scary but think about it for a moment. A MAJOR incident…with the media involved. We all watch the news, right? Those of us in Public Safety either love or hate the news. Sorry folks, but that’s the truth. Yes, I believe in the First Amendment, but I also think the media should broadcast news with responsibility and care towards the victims. Showing film ‘live at five’ of a burning fraternity house with the fire department still in search & rescue mode (with some deaths) – reporting this before information is verified, resulting in scores of terrified parents calling the dispatch center to ask about their children is irresponsible. Showing a mangled car, including the license plate, and telling the viewers both occupants are dead but names not released pending notification of kin –yet the ‘kin’ recognize the car via the license plate on the car is wrong. Worse yet, filming a hostage incident, and showing the SWAT team sniper on a nearby roof, when the news reporter can see the barricaded suspect has the news on the TV screen and is watching the coverage? Bad decision. Major incidents, whether it is a mass casualty medical, a major fire, or a barricaded subject with a bar full of hostages stresses a dispatch center. Not only does the dispatch staff deal with the incident, but the regular events continue to come in, and media call for comments until the Press Officer is available to handle the calls. A wrong off-the-cuff comment will end up in the news. That how a “there’s no need to evacuate” was made into such a big deal for the 1991 Oakland/Berkeley Hills Fire by the media, when that entire conversation was directed to a caller from ACROSS the San Francisco Bay. The chances of that firestorm jumping the large sea water Bay was slim to none. As for my feelings on the media, I’ll take the Fifth.

6) A missing field unit. Now missing units can arise from different calls. A common theme is field personnel being on scene of a call too long and not checking in or answering to a status check. Another example is when a unit fails to respond to an off-duty roll-call check. Back-tracking to see what activity the missing unit was last on shows a lunch break. The other example is the truly scary one, a field unit, this time a law enforcement officer, goes out on a contact. The subject flees from the officer, who chases after him (most of these are male). During the foot pursuit, the officer loses track of his location, ending up in a yard. After a struggle, he is able to call in a help request, but he (or she) doesn’t know his current location. An extensive hunt is initiated, including street-by-street beat searches. No one goes anywhere until we find her.

7) The baby not breathing at 1130 at night, or 0700 in the morning. It usually starts when mom or dad go to make a final check before going to bed, or wake up baby as part of the morning routine. They find their child lifeless. Depending on the season, the baby may be warm or cold, but the infant’s not breathing. That call to 9-1-1 never gets any easier, no matter how many of them you may take over the years. The desperation of the family, the pleading & begging for help. Even if your agency is one that provides pre-arrival medical instructions (EMD) and immediately dispatches law enforcement units, as well as the fire & paramedics, the outcome is often poor.

8) Emergencies in the dispatch center. Yes, sometimes we need help, too. Over the years, I’ve seen dispatchers need ambulances for various medical problems (broken bones, concussions); need police to break up fights between co-workers and to clear strangers out of the buildings; and, called fire for fires & alarms. We scrambled to take care of our wounded, while still handling radio traffic and putting out the call for our co-worker – in that case, she was the fire/ems dispatcher when she passed out. Disturbances in dispatch are rare thank goodness. The strangers roaming around occurred when dispatch was opened while the rest of the building was still technically under construction. Homeless people found an unsecured door, and made themselves at home. A dispatcher discovered this during some rounds, delivering paperwork. A couple of small fires resulted in all employees BUT communications center being evacuated. Dispatch had to stay, to man the radios & phones. Where were our Scott packs?

9) The unit calling for emergency help. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a firefighter, law enforcement, or ems person, they’re in trouble and they need assistance NOW! Having worked as an EMT in some rough towns, I respect the need for quick response when it as requested. I’m not going to hold back my words, when you’re getting your ass beat, you are hurt, or some fool is pointing a weapon at you (or your partner) – or worse, has used it- you want help yesterday. You’re praying to whatever deity you believe in that dispatch heard your last location, and at the same time you’re trying to keep a cool head. In dispatch, our blood pressure & heart rate has crashed through the roof, but you wouldn’t know it from our radio voice. Until help arrives, finds you, takes care of the problem, and calls the incident secure, I can assure you I’m not leaving that radio.

10) The blind transmission for help. No unit ID, with a partial location. If you want to take a year off my life, there it is. For those of us in small to mid-size agencies, we might know you by voice, if we’ve been there a bit. For large agencies, you’d best pray one of your field buddies recognizes your voice or the system is equipped with a radio identifier. Going through a radio roll-call wastes time but it’s sometimes the only way to determine the one who needs help. Then units are designated to search the assigned beat – assuming the person was in the correct response district in the first place. Times wasting.

There you have it. Ten types of incidents that scare a dispatcher, according to yours truly. Keep in mind, when I say scared, I mean scared as in worry. When a problem develops, there’s almost nothing I won’t do to obtain the help for my field personnel. And yes, when I work the radio, all crews are MY units. Mess with my units and you mess with me. Sorry, can’t help it, I’m a Type-A person, but then so are most dispatchers. Again, update your locations, answer your status checks, and be safe out there!

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