HIGHER PLANES

By James Thalman

They might occupy just a corner of that wind-scoured stretch of North American terrain known as the Great Plains, but the roots of emergency services in Weld County, Colo., were set down long ago, and they just keep running deeper.

The designation of Weld County Regional Communications Center (WCRCC) in Greeley as a medical dispatch Accredited Center of Excellence (ACE) is the latest achievement in a long history of providing exceptional public health and safety programs in that part of the West.

To know the center is to know a little geography. Greeley and its sister town of Evans are situated 50 miles west of the Rocky Mountains and are flanked to the east by land affectionately described by locals as “a tabletop, only flatter.” The Greeley-Evans region is home to 200,000 residents who are spread across wide stretches of cattle and sheep ranches, wheat, corn, hay, bean, and sugar beet fields, which in effect gives emergency services responsibility to provide services pretty much as far as the eye can see.

To describe the region as remote isn’t much of an exaggeration, agency managers said, and having it named one of only 179 call centers worldwide good enough to be designated an ACE is an immediate source of pride.

“This is a distinction and a huge honor,”  said Mike Wallace, director of public safety communication, when the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) announced the ACE in October. “Most of all, it is a testament to the great work the men and women in the call center do day in and day out for our community.”

The MPDS is used in 3,600 call centers in 44 countries, making it the most widely used medical emergency dispatch method in the world. Accreditation demands careful and consistent MPDS compliance with IAED standards, practices, and quality assurance requisites. To become an ACE, all calltakers in a communication center must be certified professional dispatchers.

“Going the extra mile is just kind of the way things tend to operate around here,” said William Garcia, Weld County Commission chairman. “That seems to be the pace we’ve set, and we’ve made some big strides just in the past few months.”

One of the big strides that will mean something to people in dispatch, he said, is the recent activation of the new 800 MHz Simulcast System for police, fire, and medical dispatch. The system cost $3.9 million and provides four more communication channels in addition to the usual eight, plus it offers much stronger signals that can better penetrate buildings.

“The county has continually invested in the infrastructure and tower system for our public safety communications, and today’s event is one more example of the county’s dedication to providing high-quality services in the county,” Garcia said.

The new system increases response times because it enables information to be relayed simultaneously from the area’s three transmission towers.

“We are actually able to handle more radio traffic, and that will decrease the ‘busy’ signals first-responders sometimes receive when radio traffic is high,” Wallace said. “That fact alone automatically increases public safety, not to mention the safety of our scene responders. I have to say again that we all should take comfort and pride in the news that the dispatchers in this county are among the best in the world.”

Wallace is himself part of the success story of Weld County emergency services. In March, Weld County hired him as director. In June, the county named Debbie Nasta director of operations. Their combined experience of the emergency services management in the county jumped by nearly 50 years.

ACE designation was more a matter of when, not if, for the 54-member dispatch staff. They have an active quality assurance/quality improvement program that often involves case review by fellow dispatchers, not just by designated ED-Q supervisors.

The Weld comm. center was formed in early 1993 when the City of Greeley and Weld County Commissioners consolidated public safety communications for most of the police and fire agencies in the county. Since then, the center has evolved from conventional band radios into a statewide radio network that allows Weld public safety agencies to stay in touch, not only within northern Colorado but across the state. The center itself takes 360,000 telephone calls per year and processes dispatch for 17 law enforcement agencies, 21 fire departments, and two ambulance services.

Keeping tabs on how well the Medical Priority Dispatch System™ is being followed by calltakers is one of the key elements of achieving ACE status from the IAED. The 20 criteria a center must meet to be designated an ACE are directly linked to the quality of calltakers consistently meeting performance standards set by the IAED.

“Weld has never used its size nor location as excuses to not to have an active case review and quality assurance program. They’re the reasons that they do,” Brian Dale, chairman of the accreditation board with the IAED, said when asked about the center. “Some of the most engaged and energetic and memorable Q courses I’ve taught happened there. This is not a center that goes through the motions, they do it for real, and always getting better is just who they are.”

There is a commitment level at the center that seems to occur without much prodding, said Anne Mioduski, communication center supervisor. People at other centers say they have trouble getting staff excited about becoming an ACE.  Achieving the 90th percentile performance standard takes work, she said. “The trick I think is not to make it so much about the score, but what the score means in how well a center is serving the public.”

One way Weld serves the public is being serious about its community outreach efforts. It hosts an annual open house at the center, and folks in Greeley tend to show up. The goal is to put a face on the people behind the scenes of emergency response.

The center is also actively involved with local schools, and staff never miss a chance to take an opportunity to visit a campus or promote their helpful hints list for calling 9-1-1.

It’s surprising how much that has helped smooth out calls, Mioduski said. “I think because we’re part of the community and maybe better known in the community, maybe what we do is better understood.”

The tip list is:

•Dial 9-1-1 for emergencies.

•The non-emergency number for the center is 970-350-9600.

•If you do not have a police/fire/medical problem but need another type of help, the Weld County United Way 2-1-1 line may be able to provide you with help.

•If you need updates on road conditions, dial 5-1-1 from your cellphone or visit www.cotrip.org.

•Sometimes it may seem that a dispatcher is asking a lot of questions when you call for emergency services. Please know that while the calltaker is asking you questions, he or she is relaying the information to responding units. The information you provide to the calltaker will help determine the type the services you need, which may include law enforcement, fire and/or emergency medical help.

•Remember, disconnected cellphones are still able to dial 9-1-1. Unfortunately, these hang-up calls create unnecessary workload for dispatchers in any emergency dispatch center. Please take the batteries out of disconnected cellphones to prevent these accidental 9-1-1 calls.

The Weld dispatch center will be formally awarded an accreditation plaque in April 2014, and staff will be recognized at the annual NAVIGATOR conference scheduled for April-May in Florida.

Jim Thalman

ABOUT THE AUTHOR :
Jim wrote about public and higher education, local and state government, police and fire, and health care reform before joining the IAED. As a Senior Editor, he has written about ACE organizations, a National Championship Air Races crash, the London Olympics, and Hurricane Sandy. Jim has also written for the quarterly QTips newsletter, which covers quality assurance and quality improvement.

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