By Audrey Fraizer
Familiarity can be good and bad in small town emergency communications.
On the positive side, knowing that a street goes by three names does assist in locating the person or incident when any of the three are used, and recognizing a number gives an indication of the person calling if the voice can’t be heard.
On the negative side, something bad happening to someone you know can bring added stress to the job, and the business of what transpired during the call might soon become the business of everyone in town.
It’s not that the dispatchers in small towns are prone to gossip about their calls, let loose a barbed response, or apt to stay on the line to chat with the person recognized from the voice. But there are those high expectations and responsibility—professional and personal—tending to weigh extra-heavy on the calltaker/dispatcher.
“These are neighbors, friends, and people sitting next to each in church,” said Zachary Caldwell, director of Morgan County 9-1-1 in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. “These are the same people drinking coffee each morning at the diner or sitting next to you in the pew. It might be a mother, a father, a husband, a sister, an aunt, or an uncle, and they’re depending on you whenever things suddenly go to hell in a handbag.”
That’s the primary reason Morgan County 9-1-1 certified in EMD in April 2013, and why Caldwell plans to have all three sets of protocol in place in 2014.
“We’re a faith-based community, but no matter what book you read from, you read about the man on the watch tower,” Caldwell said. “We are the vanguards of public safety, and we have people depending on us to be watchful for them.”
Morgan County 9-1-1 is a three-seat communication center specifically designed for emergency operations following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Morgan County officials applied for the increased federal funding available after the terrorist attacks in New York City, N.Y.; they used the money received to move dispatch from War Memorial Hospital to a double-wide trailer behind the hospital’s former building.
“Calls had been answered and dispatched from the registration desk,” Caldwell said. “They were using seven-digit numbers for police and EMS.”
A new $30 million, 87,000 square-foot facility housing War Memorial Hospital and the comm. center opened in April 2013.
Caldwell’s attention to Morgan County 9-1-1 is relatively recent. He was a local radio personality out of high school, and when that lost its allure, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the military police, serving in Baghdad, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom and as the guy answering the radio at his base’s Tactical Operations Center (the Army’s equivalent to 9-1-1).
Back in the states following an honorable discharge, he worked protective services, taught at a school for troubled boys, and wore out his shoes looking for a job during seven months of unemployment.
“I applied for an opening at the dispatch center, and they decided that I was the guy they wanted,” he said.
That was in April 2012, and that’s where the story actually begins.
Caldwell was selected as Deputy Homeland Security and Emergency Management director in January 2013 and shortly afterward, he accepted a second promotion to 9-1-1 director. He oversees nine full-time and three part-time calltakers/dispatchers, working three shifts, answering an average of 212 calls—emergency and administrative—coming over six 9-1-1 trunk lines to three CADs.
Their service area covers 300 square miles and 17,000 residents, a number that fluctuates with the season in the largely rural county that generates tourism.
Caldwell’s military experience taught him a good deal about preparedness and, of course, protocol—not the scripted kind that he later insisted went into the center, but guidelines for what to do in a given situation.
“There wasn’t much of anything in the way of training standards or policies and procedures,” he said. “Calltaking was based on what we thought about asking.”
The lack of clear guidance, he knew, might mean getting something terribly wrong from his end of the line during the most critical moments of a person’s life. He wanted calltakers/dispatchers to have the capacity to make people feel at ease when they called, both with themselves and with the situation.
Caldwell looked at options, including a stack of cards nobody was using. He and co-worker Heath Fleming, a former U.S. Army combat medic hired at about the same time as Caldwell, read through them. It was an early version of the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS).
“We were amazed,” Caldwell said. “Here was this cardset full of wonderful things, and we’re not using them.”
Caldwell contacted PDC Regional Account Manager Dixon Brown, discovered that Morgan County 9-1-1 had been a one-time user of the MPDS, and, during the lapse, had actually fallen out of compliance with state regulations.
In 1994, West Virginia passed a mandate (State Code 24-6-5) requiring all public safety telecommunicators to complete a 40-hour basic training course from an accredited agency within one year of hire. Dispatchers were given one year to complete a similar course to keep their jobs.
Recent state legislation, effective July 1, 2013, requires center directors to implement policies and procedures for a nationally recognized EMD program or an EMD program approved by the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services.
Caldwell chose the MPDS since it was the same system as the cards that he and Fleming had been reviewing. He also preferred keeping it simple because of mutual aid. It was the same system used in neighboring jurisdictions.
Caldwell read the statutes “chapter and verse” to county officials who responded with the funds for training and protocol.
“I said we do this or you lose the county’s 9-1-1,” he said.
Two weeks after the center went live with the MPDS, Fleming helped save the life of a man choking on a piece of food. The man had given the caller the universal choking sign, prompting the call, and his body was going limp by the time Fleming intervened. Granted, his military EMT training and service came in handy, but, at the same time, he was relieved to have the MPDS to follow.
“I would have given the instructions for the Heimlich and CPR without the cards, but with them I’m confident I’m not missing anything,” he said. “They leave no room for error.”
The caller’s abdominal thrusts, based on Fleming’s instructions, dislodged the food, and when the ambulance arrived 10 minutes later, the patient refused transport.
“He said he was fine,” Fleming said. “The caller scooped the food right out, and he didn’t want to go to the hospital.”
Caldwell spent the next several months writing the center’s policies and procedures, job descriptions, and training manual. He constantly endeavors to keep up standards, drilling on Case Entry questions, Key Questions, Determinant Descriptors, and instructions.
Since the county responds to a higher volume of law enforcement calls, compared to medical or fire, the center went live with the Police Priority Dispatch System (PPDS) in August. He plans to start working on the Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS) in January 2014.
A sign Caldwell posted on a wall in the communication center succinctly summarizes the strict attention Caldwell expects to be paid to protocol: Blatant deviation constitutes a breach of duty.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be doing this, and doing this the best we can,” he said. “I grew up in this town. We’re vested in our community.”