Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Is Anybody In There? When Dispatch needs assistance.

Scenario One

"Control, 1C34 is 10-8." ...

< no response>

"Control, 1c34 10-8."

<again, no response> It's Saturday, 0700 hours in the morning. A snow storm blew in at o'dark thirty. You work for an agency in which dispatch works from 0600-2300 hours covering the law enforcement division for multiple agencies.

Normally someone would be answering you, but not this morning. In fact, no one answers until the relief shift person comes in at 10:00 am. The dispatcher doesn't sound very happy when she announces dispatch is 10-8.

As a field person, what would you do?

Scenario Two

A co-worker arrives to work at the usual time, in uniform, but not her normal wisecracking self. She mentions getting kicked in the head at her martial arts class earlier that evening. After the briefing, she sits down and starts answering phones. Less than an hour in the shift, she complains of a bad headache and lays her head down on the console. Except for an occasional groan, she doesn't make a sound.

The Supervisor, decides to let the co-worker rest a while. After two hours go by, the employee is woken up and told to go lay down in the break room. At the end of the shift, she is again nudged by a co-worker who tells her the shift is over.

Would you have handled this in a different manner?

Scenario Three

The County EMS Dispatch calls the contracting EMS company on the direct phone line. The County has a call to hand out. The line rings and rings. The EMS dispatch position at the County hangs up to answer a call and then tries again with the same results. After another try, the County dispatcher calls the ambulance company's supervisor over the county EMS mednet channel. The EMS requests a stat (that means RIGHT NOW in medical language). After a quick chat, the ambulance supervisor assigns the pending medical calls and breaks a few speed records to get over to the dispatch office.

As expected, NO ONE is there. Why, do you ask (I did), is no one sitting (or standing) by the radio. Funny thing, the dispatcher was upset over an issue (can't recall why any more) and quit on the spot. He didn't even bother to tell anyone.

How would you have handled that situation?

Are the situations above completely made up? No, all three scenarios happened at
three different departments. I can say with complete confidence that there are telecommunicators out there who have even worse horror stories about dispatchers getting hurt, not showing up for work, or calling officers in to break up fights.

Contingency plans are important in our line of work. Any agency, no matter which line of public safety, must allow for covering for employees when bad weather kicks in. On the same line, employees must be responsible and CALL someone when there is a problem. If one can't make it in to work - for goodness sake's, don't just leave a message, get in touch with a real person! If you're snowed in, let a supervisor know.

Keep a list of co-worker phone numbers at home, for that emergency. If you can't make the call, at least your spouse or significant other can do it on your behalf.

For those field personnel, if you call in and no one answers, we may be on another channel or the phone - THE FIRST TIME. Think folks, if we don't answer after three or four attempts - in the same 15-20 minutes, call us. Don't wait a couple of hours! Just how long would you want us to wait before checking on you?

Mostly this applies to the small dispatch centers, where we work with 1 person, 2-3 during peak times only. Some of us aren't spring chickens, we may be diabetic or have other illnesses. Look in on us, or have a local Police unit swing by and make sure we are okay. If no one is here, I think it would be safe to assume there is a problem. Really, if we can't reach you on the radio - we follow procedures and send another unit to do a security check.

The concussion story happened to me. I dutifully went to the ER, where the nice ER Doc said I should have come in earlier. Sure Doc, if I had been conscious, I would have. Next time I get hurt, I'll try to remember to put on that 'send me to the er' t-shirt before I pass out.

As for the morning shift no-show. Well, it's a very long story and that person no longer works as a dispatcher.

Other problems can arise in dispatch which directly affects the radio. A fire in the immediate vicinity of the communications center, for one. The fire alarm goes off as smoke sneaks under the door from the hall. Except for the dispatchers, the building evacuates. Dispatch is "too important to leave" as one admin person said. Why can't dispatch leave? They have to coordinate the police & fire units. They were told it was okay to be there...hmm - if that was true, then why did the firefighters wear masks?

Another plan for dispatchers is handling in-house minor injuries. I'm not talking broken legs or heart attacks. One department used to keep a first aid cabinet fully stocked, including aspirin & acetaminophen tablets. That was, until the lawyers got involved. Suddenly all of the over-the-counter medications were gone, along with anything the legal eagles thought us 'dumbbells' could remotely misuse in any way, shape, or form. That left us with tissues, band aids, cardboard splints, and roller gauze. A little creativity goes a long way...who needs to buy a Halloween costume when you can raid the first aid cabinet?

They never quite figured out why we were always low on supplies.

In all seriousness, dispatchers do get hurt and occasionally become seriously. I have seen co-workers laid out cold and have been called in to work to cover for a co-worker who had to be taken to the emergency room. Now, in a large communications center, that's probably not a large factor. The Dispatch Supervisor can re-assign the empty position to another person, but in a small agency, having a telecommunicator go down is a major deal. Should we require CPR certification of our Public Safety Telecommunicators and have AEDs in every dispatch center?

Who takes over the position when the only dispatcher can no longer do the job?

What about the radio person having a heart attack or a diabetic crisis at work? For those who have worked with me, they know I have a strange sense of humor. I'm not the most PC person. I blame that on my experience in the field way back when. One of my lines is "I'll dial 9-1-1 for you." All kidding aside, who takes care of the Public Safety Telecommunicator when the 'Big One' hits? Does the dispatcher have to announce over the radio "Send help, I'm having a heart attack?" before he or she passes out?

This goes back to the earlier concern of having a policy about a welfare check on dispatch after a certain of time passes when no one gets any response from dispatch.

Keep in mind, brain tissue starts to die after 3-4 minutes of no oxygen.

Finally, workplace violence in the communications center. This is no joke.

Ever broken up a fight in dispatch? Ever had to call up your own law enforcement units to break up a fight in dispatch? How about watching a dispatcher get in a fight with a cop in dispatch? It's not pretty. Sadly, no one from outside wanted to respond. Now, why is that? Were they afraid to take sides? Perhaps they were scared of the retaliatory calls? Yeah, that's right buddy - you arrested my partner, so you're taking that cold auto burglary four beats away, of a commercial truck...with ten witnesses and two suspects known. Have fun...moohahaha. Nah, that can't be why.

All fun aside, no response on the radio is a serious concern. We tell are field units their most important piece of equipment is their radio. If we don't respond when they call us, we've taken their confidence in that equipment out of the picture, He or she is left alone. Every law enforcement person, every firefighter, and every ems person depends on public safety telecommunicators to take care of them. In the rare occasion when we don't answer the radio, shouldn't we expect to be taken care rather than ignored?

Stay safe out there!

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