By James Thalman
Florida continues to set the standard in public safety communications with two more dual medical and fire Accredited Centers of Excellence (ACE).
The Lake Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Communications Center in Mount Dora and the Telecommunications Division of the Lee County Division of Public Safety in Fort Myers became the 23rd and 24th Emergency Fire Dispatch Centers of Excellence, respectively, in the world to earn the distinction this past October.
Consistent and exceptional dedication to assuring and improving the quality of responses to medical and fire emergencies has put the Lake EMS and Lee County EMS among only 15—of nearly 3,500 centers in the world that use the protocols—to achieve dual ACE certification by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED).
Becoming an ACE for fire dispatching is a major point of pride for the call center, but that’s not the all-consuming objective of achieving the accreditation, said Kimberly Stephens, chief communications officer with Lake EMS.
“We chose to seek this accreditation as a way to demonstrate to our community that Lake EMS meets the highest standards for emergency fire dispatch,” Stephens said. “We welcomed the detailed self-study and analysis of services to the 12-city fire departments as well as Lake County Fire Rescue. This is the pinnacle of excellence in our industry, and we couldn’t be more proud to reach it a second time.”
Lee County, or Lee Control as agencies and staffers call it, processes around 160,000 calls per year. The total is almost evenly split between fire and medical responses. The dual medical and fire dispatch ACE designation is part of its continuing quality evolution, though it wasn’t what you’d call a natural growth spurt.
“The effort necessary was understood because of what we’d been through with earning the medical ACE,” said Tina Taviano, telecommunications program manager.
Lee Control was awarded medical accreditation in March 2009, the 126th member call center so designated. “But we had the wholehearted endorsement of the Association of Fire Chiefs here and we responded with wholehearted effort to improve the case review scores. We decided it wasn’t about doing what being an ACE required but how those requirements literally improve our service to the public. The ACE confirms that, and, more importantly, our center knows it, the numbers show it, and our fire chiefs believe it.”
The center, located in the southwest quadrant of the state, has to be better than good. Their staff of 33 dispatchers responds to dramatic fluctuation in Lee County’s population that goes from 635,000 in the summer to 1.2 million when the “sun birds” descend out of the cold winter up north from January through April.
“The call volume obviously goes up with that kind of population increase,” Taviano said. “That’s why it’s vitally important that we prioritize our resources. Everyone feels more confident and competent in matching the response to the call. Before, when we got a fire call, it was like we sent the cavalry.”
Fire response might not seem that important, given that Florida is mostly known for its tropical, wet weather and not so much for wildfires, at least to people outside Florida.
“Weeks and weeks go by without a drop a rain,” said Rob Fewell, Lee’s new dispatcher training and quality assurance coordinator. “It becomes both a matter of public safety and making the most efficient use of fire department resources during those months. Any agency’s goal is to have the right equipment making the right response. These are the most effective guidelines we’ve found.”
About 180 miles to the north and about 25 miles west of Orlando is Lake County. About 300,000 residents are in the good hands of 33 full-time dispatchers who have made it a joint goal to be regarded as the best of the best in the business. Lake EMS became an EMD ACE in February 2009, the 125th IAED-trained agency so named.
“I live and breathe dispatching; I’m in it deep,” Stephens said. “We’re very proud that we could earn this designation. We’re always talking about how we can do the job better. The ACE lets us know that we really do know all that we think we know.”
Stephens said the word that best describes Lake County communications is “consistency.” That means the center is consistently ready for anything coming in, and that’s a big relief both to the 9-1-1 caller and to the dispatcher.
Stephens, who has been a dispatcher since 1985, said she takes any opportunity to tell anybody with the slightest interest about the inner workings of being a dispatching center.
“I’m often surprised how little people know about, let alone understand, what it is exactly that we do,” she said. “And if they hear about [dispatching] at all, it’s usually when a call has gone badly.”
Florida has had more than its share of calls gone badly, some of them infamously. In April 1995, a convenience store clerk in Tampa made a frantic call to 9-1-1 attempting to report a kidnapping in progress. Rather than reassuring the caller and directing police officers to the scene, the dispatcher argued with the store clerk and never sent police. The victim was found murdered minutes later. In August 1995, 28-year-old Sara Rodriquez was shot to death in a Tampa convenience store during her usual night shift. Despite having a police cruiser less than three blocks away, the dispatcher didn’t send help for 13 minutes.
“What people here and around the country have come to realize,” Stephens said, “is it’s actually the telecommunicator who is the conduit to help. The more capable the dispatcher is, the less likely an incident will end tragically. In fact, those using the Priority Dispatch System™ will have substantially mitigated the potential for injury by providing relevant information to responders. It just makes so much sense.”
So much so that a year ago Florida approved the Denise Amber Lee Act requiring state certification, continuing education, and recertification every two years. A 232-hour curriculum was established with the Florida Department of Education. The urge to certify dispatchers is spreading. Members of the Denise Amber Lee Foundation this past fall conducted two days of training with Chicago-area 9-1-1 telecommunicators and were asked to meet with the Illinois committee working on a similar standard and legislation for their state the same month.
“The dispatcher becomes a factor in incidents that go wrong,” Stephens said. “The fact is, dispatchers are factors in all emergency communications, no matter how well or poor the outcome. When they can act with confidence, it makes all the difference. When the dispatcher can tell a caller, ‘Stay on the line and I’ll tell you exactly what to do next,’ that is very comforting to the caller and very empowering to the dispatcher.”
The next step in quality improvement for Lake County is moving along with the sheriff’s department into a new facility. The two will remain separate agencies, but all of emergency services for Lake County will be located in a single location.