Friday, September 6, 2013

Hey Rookie: welcome to dispatch (an open letter to field personnel)

Hi Rookie,

Welcome to Dispatch. I have a hand-out for you with everything we need to review today. Yep, sorry this isn't just a kick-back shift. I hope you might walk out of this room with a little knowledge and some respect for what we do.

Surprised? I see those rolling even as I turn around to answer one of your future buddies on a channel. I bet your Academy Instructor gave you the standard lecture on 'how important dispatch is' while doing the 'wink-wink, nod-nod' gestures. You probably figured on getting in some texting and an extra-long lunch break, didn't cha?

Guess what, Rook, this job isn't for the faint-hearted. You're about to get a crash-course in Public Safety Telecommunications.

Let's start with who your dispatchers are. All of us have been doing the job for at least five years, most of us a minimum of ten or more. All but one of us worked in the field before turning to dispatching. We've been firefighters, EMTs, and police officers.

Why would we become dispatchers? Why did we leave the field for the comfort of inside? Different reasons: injuries, illnesses, family commitments, an aging body, better pay & benefits, or school. Still, we remember were we came from. Many of us began in Public Safety before you were born, working with antiquated systems, before CAD - that's computer-aided dispatch - was commonly used or enhanced 911 or cell phones. This was a time when paper logs, old-fashioned maps, and conveyor belts were used to process and deliver calls from call-taker to radio dispatcher.

Now, our workstations resemble the bridge from Star Trek, with multiple monitors and computers. Windows with lists of units in a rainbow of colors display on the screen. Different sounds go off to warn us for various reasons: status checks, new calls, returns on inquiries, or problems with data entries. Out old hard-lined phones and radios have been replaced with computerized systems. Some departments have procedural systems for dispatchers to provide pre-arrival medical instructions or just to answer the phones in general.

The times of any person coming in dispatch and answering a call are long over.

See this monitor here? This is our radio. There are twenty-three channels. Just because you don't hear any traffic on the channel you are on doesn't mean we are sitting on our butts, eating pizza, and playing solitaire. We are responsible for monitoring ALL of these channels. Oh, and we also have our contracting law enforcement officers, the occasional non-law enforcement personnel, and the aircraft. Oh, and we answer the phones, too.

Our training is just as detailed as yours. We have to learn codes, laws, geography, computer-aided dispatching, computer data systems, 911, flight controls, unit management, call-taking, radio dispatching, emergency medical dispatching (in some agencies), fire dispatching (in some agencies), in-progress calls management, agency specific data systems, records, and many other tasks that management decides are dispatch functions. We are jacks-of-all-trades.

With our staggered hours and shifts, there are days & times when everything is handled by one person. Even two people are not always enough.

If you are asked 'Do you have priority traffic ?', we are asking if you are calling in stop, a contact, or an incident with possible trouble. If not, we are asking you to wait. We're probably dealing with a problem on another channel. We will get back to you as soon as we can.

When you call in a stop we prefer you use a particular format. Why? It makes it easier to enter it in CAD. Personally, I couldn't care less how you tell me, but the stupid CAD system is rigid on the manner I input the information. We (dispatchers) have made request after request to the software vendor, but unless our department is willing to pay a lot of money to them, they won't change the programming. Well, you know what the answer to that question is.

If you want us to run a warrant check, a driver's license, a vehicle, or a boat call us first. Let the dispatcher tell you 'go ahead' before you start giving the information. If you are going to provide the name in phonetics, tell us first. Don't tell us 'common' spelling because there is no such thing. I can think of four ways to spell Lewis, four for Aaron, and, three for Smith. If we tell you certain information isn't available, don't find a different way to ask (boat and vessel are the same thing).

Keep us informed of your activities. You want to go all secret squirrel and not say where you're at? Fine, then don't indignant when you need emergency help and I have to play twenty questions to figure out where you are at. It would have been easier in the first place to involve dispatch by calling me and asking me not to broadcast your location unless we called for help.

We all have parts of the job we are better at. We all click with some co-workers. I get it, but when calling dispatch remember that we are all able to do the same job. If you get in the habit of asking for one particular dispatcher, after a while the rest of us will automatically put you on hold. You better hope that person is working, otherwise you'll be waiting for a long time.

During our 'slow' times, we have projects to work on. Towed vehicle, missing persons, stolen vehicles, stolen boats, stolen guns & property, citations, warrants, field identifications, repo'd cars, operation game thief reports, daily briefing logs, med reports, and fire logs.

Every task we do, every telephone we answer, every call we make, every incident we dispatch is recorded. We have monitors on our walls to watch. We may even have to handle the front counter duties.

More often than not, we eat at our work station. The department was kind enough to get us wireless headsets. It makes it easier for us to do other tasks without being 'tied' to the desks. Yeah, like being able to hear the radio while in the bathroom.

So Rookie, do you think you could do my job? Can you handle three or four tasks at the same time? Can you listen to the radio while running an inquiry and watching the booking room while an officer deals with a potential unruly drunk?

Can you maintain a cool, calm radio voice while you work that pursuit or foot chase, even though even one else is yelling? What about when one of the officers or fire personnel is hurt? Can you keep a cool head then? Can you coordinate a search for a missing unit when all others are loosing it? Can you listen to the last words of a dying woman then go on to the next call without a break.

We share the enthusiasm when a bad guy is caught. We helped by getting the information, but how many times are we (dispatch) given any credit? Not very many but the blame for an omission finds its way to our floor quick enough. In a major incident, most of us won't get up until we hear the words, "we're code 4 (or scene is secure)".

We may bitch about one another, but no one disses 'our units'. We all dread the day the worst call imaginable happens and pray it doesn't occur on our watch, when we're on the radio. To each of us, that is a failure of our job.

So, again, I say, sit down, Rookie. If you only learn one thing today, I hope this is it: your most important piece of equipment is not your gun, it isn't your OC spray, or your stick. The most important item you carry is your radio, and the person on the other end of that radio is the Dispatcher.

Stay safe out there and go home at the end of your shift.

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