By Audrey Fraizer
This is the way Kim Rigden describes the dispatch profession:
Phones ringing, calls piling up, using every approach at customer service, and a huge dollop of luck to get through the shift. Providing Pre-Arrival Instructions (PAIs) to assist a son giving CPR to his father. Calming the mother whose child is missing. Urging scared shoppers to safety while an armed assailant wields his automatic weapon against a frenzied crowd.
“Nothing compares to having your A-team on, answering 911 calls, and talking to crews all while your fingers are flying across the keyboard recording the information,” said Rigden, Commander, Communications Education and Quality Improvement, Toronto Paramedic Services, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “Emergency dispatch is like being part of a room full of superheroes that no one knows is there.”
And that’s the problem: Few people know what dispatchers do.
Utah high school students in a CPR study sponsored by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) were ambivalent about a career in emergency dispatch. They wanted the speed and adrenaline rush of a paramedic, firefighter, or police officer rushing to the scene. After all, dispatch was only a desk job. They want to be part of the action.
“People don’t go through high school saying ‘I want to be a 911 dispatcher,’” said Karen Lord, Communications Officer, City of Biddeford Emergency Communications Division, Maine. “It just doesn’t happen. Unless you have a relative in the public safety community, you are really unaware of who we are and what we do.”
In a job that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calls good because “the stressful nature of the job results in many workers leaving this occupation,”1 does lack of interest and uninformed perception forecast the shape of things to come in the emergency dispatch profession?
Presumptive, maybe, but how can a public service communication agency attract quality and dedicated individuals and encourage emergency dispatch as a career in a mindset swirling with misconceptions and partiality?
“You know, that’s the million-dollar question,” said Deanna Mateo-Mih, IAED ED-Q Board of Curriculum Chair, National Q Advisor, and Quality Improvement Consultant. “Once you get a position as a dispatcher, how do you ensure longevity in the profession and avoid burnout or, from an agency’s perspective, avoid high turnover rates?”
Figuring that out is the ticket.
“We need to have our faces out there and not just our voices on the other end of the line,” Lord said.
Dispatch is a profession
A profession is a vocation requiring specialized educational training with oversight by a recognized governing body. A person entering a profession generally must pass an exam to be considered qualified. Training and education continue throughout the lifetime of a career for reasons that include developing expertise and proficiency, and potential advancement.
Dr. Jeff Clawson, co-founder of the IAED, recognized the important link of emergency dispatch in the EMS chain of response nearly 40 years ago when starting his own profession in emergency medicine. But it was more than simply the protocols Dr. Clawson invented putting emergency dispatch on a career path.
“Protocols provide an exact script emergency dispatchers follow when assisting a caller; however, they are only part of the process,” Dr. Clawson said. “Along with the protocols, we have established a system that provides a best practices approach that elevates emergency dispatch to the level of professionalism.”
True to the definition of profession, the IAED requires certification through passing an exam tailored to the particular discipline (fire, medical, police, or emergency communication nurse), quality assurance resulting in quality improvement, continuing dispatch education to renew certification, and ongoing training. The quality assurance component keeps the process and the dispatcher on track.
If that doesn’t convince you about the job’s career potential, check out the partial list of requirements from MetCom 911 in Centennial, Colo.: 2
Retrieves information from callers and transmits information to fire/emergency service personnel. Follows prescribed protocols to provide emergency medical instruction to callers during high risk situations until appropriate field units arrive on scene.
Monitors and maintains the location and status of fire, emergency medical, and other agency units in the field.
Operates various automated and/or communications equipment including computer‐ assisted dispatch terminal; enters and retrieves data.
Monitors and operates TDD/TTY to communicate with hearing‐impaired callers.
Participates in the administration of the Communications Center through the development, implementation, and review of procedures, policies, and training programs.
There’s also the less tangible traits that go into defining a career, said Sherri Stigler, Training and Operations Manager, Waukesha County Communications, Waukesha, Wis.
“Professional agencies invest in their dispatchers,” Stigler said. “They support physical and mental health initiatives and encourage continual growth and development. They promote a team spirit within the organization and encourage their dispatchers to work hard for a cause that’s relevant to both.”
Start in the classroom
Marco Pizana believes students should be given the opportunity to practice what teachers preach in the classroom.
“We’ve probably all heard kids ask ‘What’s the point in learning algebra; what’s the point of learning geometry?’” said Pizana, a criminal justice instructor at Hays High School in Buda, Texas. “The point is to apply what you are learning to your future endeavors.”
Hays is among several public schools in Texas offering the Emergency Telecommunicator Course (ETC) developed by the IAED. The course, introduced nearly 15 years ago to supplement Academy certification courses, has since expanded its reach to schools offering hands-on career and technical training.
ETC fits into public safety career tracks, and similar to other technical programs, gives students the opportunity to try a career before graduating and, also, provides a jump start into a profession straight out of high school.
“Kids are looking for certification,” said Larry Latimer, ETC Instructor. “They can take their ETC certification to a center and get in the door. A good percentage stay.”
The ETC class at Hays High School takes students through 13 chapters of the ETC manual and the hands-on practice of 911 emergency call-answering techniques using simulators. Students are eligible for ETC certification through the IAED once they finish the course. The Texas Public Safety Teacher Association offers ETC for teachers to go back to teach their students.
Latimer likes to emphasize the thinking part of dispatch.
He runs scenarios by students, asking the “what-if” and “what-to-do” questions. For example, “what if” grandpa suffers an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. How much time could it take from the time the call to 911 is made before response arrives?
“If nobody does anything but wait, what will happen?” Latimer might ask. “Grandpa has much less of a chance if the emergency dispatcher doesn’t do her job right. At that moment, you are the most important person he will never know, because you have the instructions that can save him.”
Latimer was an instructional designer and the IAED Director of Curriculum Design during his 14-year tenure with the organization. He now works part-time teaching the Academy’s ETC certification courses.
Brett Patterson, IAED Academics, Standards & Research Division, emphasizes the importance of communications as a prerequisite for a public safety career. He was a paramedic early in his EMS career and part of a system that required paramedic certification to dispatch calls, which he did for another eight years.
“While this strategy was locally touted as a clinical advantage to the public, the real advantage was the personnel that emerged,” Patterson said. “Indeed, when I look at my colleagues today, some 30 years later, most are leaders who got their start in communications. Whether one chooses to manage responders and the scene on-line as a calltaker/dispatcher, or begin with this, and then move up the ladder into administration, communications experience is generally regarded as a prerequisite for a public safety career.”
Helicopter paramedics attempting to rescue a bus load of children stranded in a flood, police stopping a home intruder attempting to kill a father and his son, firefighters rescuing babies and a babysitter from an inferno at an apartment complex, and highway patrol vehicles in a high-speed chase to stop a suicidal person driving head-on into traffic—these are the scenes from the popular series “Rescue 911” that continue to influence generations of TV viewers through reruns and DVDs. We know, because Dr. Clawson was the show’s medical adviser.
Who wants to be “just” a dispatcher at a “desk job” that borders on the tedious when there are helicopters to fly, ambulances to navigate, and speeding vehicles to chase? The real first responders (emergency dispatchers) are every bit as essential and multifaceted as the roles of paramedic/firefighter/police officer during an emergency.
A story told at a seminar Oren Rae attended shows that one new recruit knew exactly what he was taking on.
“A police captain told us about a class of new recruits and asked what they felt was their most effective weapon,” said Rae, Continuous Quality Improvement Manager, San Francisco Department of Emergency Management/Division of Emergency Communications, San Francisco, Calif. “Many responded with their guns, batons, or mace. One recruit, a little smaller in stature than the rest, held up his portable radio. When asked why, his response was, “Because with one of these, I can get four or five of you to help me.”
Who is on the other end of that radio ensuring he gets that help? The emergency dispatcher.
“Dispatch is not something that you ‘just do’ if you can’t get hired as one of the other three,” Rigden said. “Each segment of police, fire, and medical response is vital to the whole, yet requires very different skill sets. The conversation needs to be about which career fits the person and particular skill set. You want to flourish in your chosen career path.”
As any emergency dispatcher will tell you, the first link in emergency response provides every bit the adrenaline rush, combined with the spirit of altruism, as EMS does in the field.
“Before I started, I was told not everyone can do this job,” said Muskogee County EMS Communication Center (Okla.) EMD Kandis Crespy, who was presented a Stars of Life Award from the Oklahoma Ambulance Association, honoring her dedication to emergency dispatch. “That’s probably true, but it’s been great for me. Emergency services is a great cause. We help people and, like many in the field, there’s the adrenaline rush I enjoy.”
Lord loves her job. Sure there are drawbacks, she admits, but name a profession that comes without quirks.
“Many times people will say, ‘But don’t you miss working Monday through Friday?’ and I say that I do not know, as I have never in my life had a Monday through Friday job,” she said. “If you are a strong-minded person and want fun and excitement but don’t want to run into burning buildings or get shot at, this is the job for you. It can be rewarding, challenging—but stressful at the same time.”
A transfer into training at Fayette County 911 gave Tonya Warr greater insight into new hire issues and reasons many left the profession after two to three years. The day-to-day stress can be incredibly difficult, she said, and even her background in a public service family didn’t prepare her for everything the job requires.
“Nothing can compare to, or prepare you for, a career in emergency dispatch,” said Warr, an emergency dispatcher in Georgia for 12 years, including as a dispatch trainer at Fayette County 911, Fayetteville, Ga.
Equipped with insight from working closely with new hires, she realized the agency could do more to support an individual in a way that wasn’t connected to job performance. She hit upon the idea of mentoring, which she knew was successful in introducing new people to a corporate or other public safety landscape.
“A mentor provides an introduction,” Warr said. “The mentor can be a cheerleader and adviser to a beginner but without the political strings attached. There are no ties to employment or advancement.”
The two-tier program Warr conceived assigns, in the first tier, a new-hire-in-training to a full-fledged dispatcher relatively new to the floor. The mentor acts as a sounding board for the apprentice who might want to discuss an issue occurring outside of work affecting performance. The second tier involves pairing a more experienced dispatcher as the mentor to a novice who might want to know where to go from here. Is the skill set relevant for advancement? Is there a future in emergency dispatch?
Mentoring allows the training to concentrate on performance and provides an entry for the apprentice into the center’s culture.
“There’s almost immediate buy-in,” Warr said. “Mentoring motivates. New people feel that the agency cares about them. They matter to the organization.”
Before embarking on a mentoring program, Warr highly recommends formalizing a plan and cultivating mentors.
“Make sure your mentors know exactly what to do,” she said. “The program is there to encourage but not in any way change the way the job is performed.”
“The public always hears of a firefighter or police officer doing something heroic, but they don’t see the voice behind the scene,” Lord said. “Does anyone ask what has happened prior to their arrival? Does anyone know what the emergency dispatcher did to make it possible for the firefighter or police officer to have a positive outcome instead of the other way?”
EMD Jessica Greguski, Northwell Health Center for EMS, Syosset, N.Y., had taken a back seat in the eyes of her children compared to her husband’s paramedic career. So, she brought her daughters, 10 and 6, into the communication center on the national “Take Your Child to Work Day,” which this year Northwell Health held on June 6.
“I wanted them to see what I do,” Greguski said.
Greguski didn’t know what to expect, but she wanted to give her children a sense of what their mom does and the impact emergency dispatch has on the community. She was favorably impressed by their response.
“They loved it,” Greguski said. “My older daughter was very excited. She was fascinated over everything going on: the calls, the radio, how busy we are. They saw a different picture than they had anticipated and asked so many great questions.”
Greguski transferred from the ambulance into the communication center 12 years ago. She wanted to learn a new skill set, despite suggestions from a few former co-workers that she would not find excitement within the walls of the communication center.
“They think we sit around, our feet up on a table, snacking, and watching TV,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. There is so much to learn: protocols, Pre-Arrival Instructions, and the psychology of DLS. We have GPS tracking and multiple screens to watch. We need to feel for the caller and stay composed no matter what happens. We have to rein them back in, act as their security blanket. Believe me, there’s nothing easy about emergency dispatch.”
Maybe the best possible motivation is internal to the individual, said Marie Leroux, registered nurse, PDC protocol systems implementations expert, La Minerve, Québec, Canada.
“Too many times, I see high-performance individuals in the field of emergency dispatch that don’t realize their value,” she said. “Think about what you do. Take the time to sit down; review what you have done. You are certified. You are trained. You have an expert protocol. Maybe you motivate colleagues and help create a positive atmosphere. You even sometimes save lives. All this has tremendous value. Don’t forget it, and use it in the most appropriate way to support your own career.”
See for yourself
Warr had planned to continue a career in public safety until an opening at her daughter’s elementary school offered her the opportunity to return to teaching.
The decision was difficult, she said.
“Dispatch is a wonderful profession,” she said. “I loved being the person taking care of others—the guardian of guardians. It’s a very validating profession for the right person.”
Who’s the right person, and how do you find one?
Lord offers the following suggestion. “If you are seriously thinking about it [or know someone who might be], contact your local dispatch center and ask questions, and ask if you can shadow a dispatcher for a couple hours to know if that is what you truly want to do,” she said.
“Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers.” Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2015; Dec. 17. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/office-and-administrative-support/police-fire-and-ambulance-dispatchers.htm (accessed June 20, 2016).
“Emergency Services Dispatcher.” Metropolitan Area Communications Center. 2012; April. http://www.metcom911.org/employment/images/Emergency%20Services%20Dispatcher.pdf (accessed June 22, 2016).
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