Wednesday, July 15, 2009


This goes out to all of those dedicated people, who take great joy in waking me up and telling me where to go.

The agency I work for is pretty big. I have worked here a long time and I have seen a lot of changes, Some of the changes have been good, some not so good. One of the areas which is always up for discussion is dispatch.

When I first came to this agency, we had our own dedicated dispatch. They worked in a fire department building, worked the same 24 hour shift that we did and even wore the same uniform, although without badges and with slightly different patches on the sleeve.

Back then, we had 30% fewer units and probably half of the calls that we run now. There were always two dispatchers on duty. Each night, one of the dispatchers would be the "primary" and would be the one up most of the time to handle the routine calls for service. If things got really busy or a major call came in, the primary would holler for the secondary to come in and help out.

There were two beds in a room just off of the dispatch room. There was also a restroom and shower. They took turns being the primary, so the secondary usually got at least some sleep. I can assure you there were a lot of nights no one slept.

If things really got busy, one of the dispatchers could get on the phone to us, and we would send a firefighter next door to assist in taking calls, making notifications or supporting an incident.

There were many benefits to this system. We had a good working relationship with our dispatchers. We all knew each other, knew each others strengths and weaknesses and thus had reasonable expectations. The dispatchers had a thorough knowledge of the district and of our department. We had more respect for them and their jobs, as we often assisted them.

The dispatchers also typed our fire reports. The captains would phone the information in to them and they would type / transcribe it. Probably the best thing was the instant communication when there was an issue.

If a dispatcher made a boo boo and angered the District Commander, he would address the issue and it would be resolved. Conversely, if a Captain was rude, surly or stupid, especially with a dispatcher, he could count on a visit from the District Commander. Issue resolved.

In the mid eighties, my agency finally got on board with the 911 system. Prior to that, the Sheriff's department had a 7 digit number, as did the Fire Department. I grew up in an area that now is under the jurisdiction of my agency. I still remember both 7 digit numbers, and I recently tested them. They both still work and they ring a phone, down in our current dispatch.

When the 911 system was being spec'd out, they(they, them, those people) figured that money could be saved by eliminating our dispatch, combining with the Sheriff's dispatch and creating an independent communications department. The plan was to have the Sheriff run the newly formed communications department for 3 or 4 years, then appoint a new communications director and voila - a new independent communications department.

The independent communication department never happened. Twenty four years later, we are dispatched by people controlled by the Sheriff.

The dispatchers went to a 10 hour shift, were absorbed into the Sheriff's department and life changed as we all knew it. I have met a few dispatchers, but only once. They are in a building far away from my response zone.

The system also changed the way our jurisdiction receives and processes emergency calls. Our communications center is called a PCAP - Primary Call Acceptance Point. This means that when someone calls 911 the call actually is answered in our communications center. The caller obtains the information, then routes the call information via computer to to the S.D. consoles or to the F.D. console. The dispatchers at these consoles then dispatch the recommended units to handle the incident.

This is where I must say that our dispatchers, by and large, are dedicated, professional, well trained and very good dispatchers. I am guessing that most of them would be surprised to hear me say that. That is because at times I can be a little on the grumpy side. Plus I have been a little frustrated with the dispatch system that was created twenty four years ago.

Some of our dispatchers have won awards from their peers for performing very well under extremely difficult situations. I have never heard of any events where incompetence or a poor attitude has resulted in a tragedy.

They perform as well as they do despite the system they work in, not as a result of it. Staffing issues, working conditions and an unsympathetic management system contribute to a less that ideal workplace.

They are always short on people, and are forced to work a lot of overtime. They have lives, just as we do. Friend and family relationships suffer as a result.

The two primary reasons for staffing shortages are people burning out after a few years and leaving and people who don't cut it and fail to make it through probation. Both add to the problem and it's a vicious cycle. They work a ten hour shift, plus often they get held over for an additional five. For a while, they were required to work a set number of "holdovers" per month. I think the number was six. Those were just the scheduled holdovers, not the ones due to someone calling off sick or having to do to court.

Most fire department personnel feel that we take a back seat to the needs of the sheriff's department. I tend to agree. This is not the dispatchers fault, that lies with the S.D. administrators who oversee them.

I do think that most of the dispatchers prefer to work the phones or the S.D. consoles over the F.D. consoles. That is understandable as the work is at a more steady pace. The average fire incident is handled with minimal radio traffic. Computer Aided Dispatch, Mobile Data Computers and push button communication has reduced a lot of radio traffic.

The initial hopes for the automation of dispatch was that it reduce the "routine" radio traffic so that the dispatchers could focus on emergency radio traffic and the incredible workloads that major emergencies can bring.

In reality, the automation has had the opposite effect. Communications management figured out that they could use the fire console to take 911 calls when things were a little slow. What started out as an interim measure became a standard procedure. This usually doesn't present a problem, unless an urgent situation arises. Then, we have to wait while the 911 call is finished or placed on hold, before they can talk to us.

This does not occur on the Sheriff's consoles.

When an incident"goes big" and requires multiple alarms, multiple frequencies and multiple agencies, the demands on a dispatcher are enormous. These, by the way, are the times when we tend to become needy and demanding. Strangely, these are also the times when issues occur.

When we do have a legitimate issue, it goes up the chain of command, who in turn take it fifteen miles to the sheriff and then down the food chain over there. Except that it usually doesn't make it into dispatch unless it's so bad that someone is going to get time off. Or worse.

That isn't fair to us and it isn't fair to the dispatchers.

In an effort to improve things, a friend of mine was assigned to serve as a liaison with communications administration. He said that it was the most frustrating time of his career. He beat his head against a wall all day and accomplished little if anything. He said it was like David vs. Goliath. Except that David didn't have any sling. Or even rocks. The position was eliminated in FY07-08 for budgetary reasons. I am surprised it lasted as long as it did.

I like to think that if we controlled our system, we could incorporate modern technology along with the best dispatchers who would be dedicated to our mission. Not someone else's.

As time passes by, the memories of what dispatch was and the hopes of what it was supposed to be will fade. Old guys like me will be gone and will be replaced by people who know nothing else but the current system.

One thing for sure. Whatever form the system takes, it will be staffed by dedicated professionals who will manage to excel.

If any of my dispatcher readers have any issues with what I've typed, I am sorry as I have nothing but respect for you and the service that you perform. Please fell free to point out any errors that I've made or even to call me out.

Thanks for reading,

1 comment:

  1. Great post from a Dispatcher! Although I am strictly a Police dispatcher, we run into some of the same issues. We at our department have a great IMC communications center, latest technologies, etc., yet when I pick up our emergency line (not 911) I cannot see who is calling me because we DONT even have caller ID on our consoles!! can you imagine trying to understand a hysterical,hurt,scared,young,old,whatever person,trying to FIND said person? Our town will spend hundreds,thousands,etc on everything from new computers to new shoes but NO CALLER ID IN 2009!! Unreal! SO thanks for the kudo's and for treating your dispatchers as an integral part of the system! (and for letting me rant! )