Dispatchers: Strengthening Their Link in the Chain of Public Safety

By Scott Harris

In a way, the dispatcher is the first of the first responders. Those inside the 9-1-1 and police agency nerve centers not only serve as the initial point of contact for those in need of aid, but they also activate the appropriate services and response for any situation.

The job of a dispatcher is stressful and difficult and can be further complicated by the outmoded telecommunications systems in use at many U.S. public safety agencies. Aging and single-purpose hardware exacerbates turnover in the position, sometimes causing a vicious cycle that undermines efficiency and safety.

There are ways to change that, though. New technologies and tools are helping these essential personnel do their jobs more easily and more efficiently, providing critical on-the-job training, and allowing dispatchers to leverage their role in the chain of public safety by taking a more active role in law enforcement and public safety.

“Next-generation 9-1-1 is the modernization of infrastructure that public safety agencies use,” said Paul Guest, director of product management for Intrado, a provider of emergency telecommunications solutions. “A lot of it is based in the analog world… Old telecom infrastructures can be 60-plus years old.”

The Colorado-based company Intrado is a leader in providing this next generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), which can broadly be defined as 9-1-1 services that allow people to interact with dispatchers through text messages, video, and similar forms of digital communication.

Migrating to this kind of infrastructure has both immediate and far-reaching implications. In the immediate term, digital 9-1-1 infrastructure can allow for individuals to contact dispatchers by text message and provide extra information through mobile devices. One company leading on this front is Utah-based Priority Dispatch Corporation, which offers solutions that better enable dispatchers and first responders to use text message technology.

New systems can also process calls two to three seconds faster than calls on legacy telecom systems. It may not seem like much time, but “seconds save lives” in emergency situations, Guest noted.

One long-term advantage has to do with empowering dispatchers to more directly participate in securing public safety and law enforcement. Since 1994, Modesty Adams, communications manager in the sheriff’s office of Osceola County, which covers 1,500 square miles in central Florida, has used software from Spillman Technologies, a Utah company catering exclusively to the law enforcement and public safety communities.

Adams recalled an incident when dispatchers, aided by Spillman technologies, intervened to help achieve a better result.

We had a call from a female who was in her garage, and sounding intoxicated. It wasn’t clear what she was trying to do, whether she was trying to commit suicide or if it was not that serious. When we got to the address she had given, she was not in the garage… She had given us the wrong address. But she had given her information to us during a previous call, so we put her number into Spillman and got the right address. We went and got her and her boyfriend out of the house. If we hadn’t been able to do that, it could have been worse.

Stronger Human Resources

Despite NG9-1-1 dispatch tools, the job of emergency dispatcher is still a person-to-person proposition at its core, so the people answering those calls have to be the right people, and their skills must remain sharp.

The long hours and emotional intensity associated with the profession makes high turnover a fact of life. But assessment protocols like CritiCall make sure that the job applicants best equipped to handle this stressful environment are the ones who ultimately don a headset.

“What happens in dispatching is they sit down in the chair for the first time and get a horrific call,” said Mike Callen, vice president of products for Biddle Consulting Group, Inc., the California consulting firm that developed CritiCall. “They get up and leave if it turns out they can’t multitask. They might appear to have the tools to be successful, but, in reality, they might not.”

While emotional disposition undoubtedly plays a role in success, Callen pointed to another competency as the true indicator of a candidate’s viability. While most applicants will be able to “timeshare,” or switch rapidly between different duties, true multitasking is the apparent ability to perform different duties simultaneously, and it is the presence of this ability that best predicts the successful dispatcher—and it is a key trait evaluated by CritiCall.

“The software puts applicants through the process that demonstrates success on the job,” Callen said. “There’s no experience with a CAD necessary. It requires them to show they can multitask… It’s a realistic preview of a situation that would lead less-prepared applicants to walk away from the job.”

Better dispatch tools also can improve well-being on the job. Upgrading to a digital telecommunications infrastructure paves the way for every tool a dispatcher uses to exist on one network, thus increasing their ability to connect with one another and reducing a dispatcher’s need for what Guest calls “swivel chair” management.

“There’s only one keyboard, one mouse. You don’t have to move back and forth. It unifies the workflows,” Guest said. “Employee morale is increased. Dispatchers enjoyed this environment a lot more versus the more disparate systems. It might even reduce disability claims and staff turnover.”

Better hardware also can reduce the “swivel chair” effect. Catalyst Communications Technologies, based in Virginia, specializes in creating smarter, more intuitive dispatch interfaces and radio systems.

While it requires a financial investment, migrating to a next generation system also helps police department leaders maximize resources in a budget-constrained environment. Less turnover means less need for hiring and training. A new system also means less maintenance and greater overall efficiency. “The total cost of ownership is less,” Guest said. “There is greater change management and security for leaders… For example, you can configure users once instead of multiple times.”

Learning and improvement doesn’t end when the candidate is hired and the workflows come together. Because emergencies come in so many varieties and can strike at any moment, it is important for dispatchers to develop new skills and strengthen existing ones. Biddle’s TactiCall training software allows dispatchers to work on competencies like keyboarding or speaking with proper pace and volume.

“Role-playing with a mentor is costly and not always available at 3:00 a.m., when the call taker might have some down time,” Callen said. “You can do this role-playing with the computer. An agency can create any number of call scenarios and customize the correct responses. They can decide how to score certain words.”

The tool can also be customized to get more difficult as dispatchers gain proficiency. “It’s a progressive training tool,” Callen said. “You can get clues to certain responses or no prompts, so it gets more difficult and realistic as you go on… You can practice how to handle a school bus hijacking. It’s unlikely, but the stakes are so high that it’s important to know what to do if you’re ever under that duress. Or you can practice high-frequency calls that you get on a certain event.”

Saving Lives in More Ways

The investment in new telecommunications infrastructure and other dispatch tools can make operations move faster and help dispatchers do their jobs more easily and efficiently.

But these investments also can have direct law enforcement applications. “The research capabilities are phenomenal,” Adams said of the Spillman CAD software used in Osceola County. “It definitely helps from a first responder standpoint. It’s more than just taking information. You’re part of the process. The dispatchers are more involved.”

Spillman CAD software not only helps with the typical tasks of a dispatcher, but also better enables dispatchers to capture and retrieve key information that can prove useful for that call or a future incident. “When we put in a call, we type in the address and within seconds we know who there is wanted, who has an injunction, and any civil processes,” Adams said. “We’re able to see any actions we’ve had with the individual.”

A new telecom system improves communications not only between callers and the dispatcher, but between dispatchers and officers. That means a system that can take full advantage of modern times. “Young people don’t make many phone calls anymore,” Guest said. “People believe they can text to get aid, but analog 9-1-1 doesn’t allow that… There are more forms of communication to reach the first responder as well. It fosters delivery of all information. People could put in medical information or special instructions. You can send information directly to the hip device of the first responder. You can literally put crucial information on the officer’s hip.”

New tools to better equip dispatchers can affect an entire organization by increasing morale, improving officer safety, reducing turnover, and allowing first responders to better serve those experiencing an emergency.

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