When 911 Needs 911

Heidi DiGennero

What is your plan when your center finds itself in need of 911? Other than the involuntary “Oh sugar (use expletive of your choice),” do you have a plan? Do you know where to find the plan? We deal with other people’s problems and emergencies day in and day out. What happens when you at work need 911 yourself?

Do you call 911 and get your co-worker who has the same number of clues as you? Do you yell for the supervisor? What if you are the supervisor? Um … who does the supervisor call? I better know if I’m in charge, or I better be able to competently wing it until someone more knowledgeable takes control.

Here is an example: You contract to have the building floors stripped and cleaned including the hallway outside your communication center. All chemical cleaners are checked for contents and approved by the center’s safety officer. When the work starts, it is soon discovered that the chemical cleaners selected aren’t working. The cleaning crew switches to something significantly stronger that requires good ventilation. There isn’t good ventilation. Result: A 911 center full of dispatchers in varying stages of a noxious chemical high: nauseous, headache, lightheaded, and dizzy. Everyone—no exceptions—goes to the hospital to be checked, your backup center is activated, volunteers and “voluntolds” come in, and you must deal with a hazmat situation at your own center. The ER doctor gives the entire shift 24 hours off. You can see problems multiplying faster than dust bunnies under a console.  

This is when having a plan and having people who work the floor trained and more than vaguely familiar with the plan benefits you. While parts of an evacuation plan may be supervisor-sensitive, keep a checklist anyone can do to get things started.

If you are a combined center, a checklist should apply to each portion of the center with responsibilities specific to the discipline. Do you know who takes over your radios and takes your calls while you are bugging out? For the one-person centers, is there a procedure to check on you throughout the entire 24 hours? So, at 0330 in the morning if you have not talked on the radio for an hour, does someone swing by and check if you are still breathing? Or call you on the phone? Text you? If they do not, they should.

There should be a process in place to check on personnel, especially in one-person centers, to ensure nothing happens or happened. Not only for your welfare, because hey, you’re the most important part of the process, but to prevent your family from suing them if something did happen to you and no one checked.

Are there routine inspections of the fire extinguishers and AEDs? Is refresher training provided? Are basic first aid kits available? How about training on how to use the fire extinguishers? Minimal first aid training? What about emergency evacuation routes? Anybody walk the building each shift to make sure the basement has not flooded or the sewage system has not backed up into the building? Or check that the 1970s era AC unit isn’t smoldering because it’s too darn hot outside? How about checking to make sure the AC unit is not a big popsicle because zero degrees is considered balmy today?

The point is to look around, learn, and know your environment. Know your emergency plans, even if you never use them. Spend the five minutes to ask your supervisor to send you the plans or go over them with you. If you are the one responsible, figure out a plan. Ask questions of your fellow centers. Find out the memorandums of understandings (MOUs) for transitioning. Think long term. If you had to send an entire shift to the hospital and force the entire next shift in early, what are you going to do if someone on the shift after that calls out? Just because we are 911 does not mean we will not need it ourselves. Knowledge and preparation are key.

Heidi DiGennaro started in 1995 in police dispatch and meandered down the career path of calltaking backup for a dispatch statistician., assistant supervisor, and, finally, shift manager for the Harford County Department of Emergency Services in Maryland (USA). What an Adventure!