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Dispatchers: The first to help

By Deputy Chief John Fay
Glencoe (Ill.) Department of Public Safety

“HELP…Someone is breaking into my home. Send the police!”

“My baby is not breathing what do I do?”

“My house is on fire!”

These — and a multitude of other types of calls — are often heard on the news releases of actual 911 calls. Blood curdling calls for help are met with a calm reassuring voice letting the caller know help is on the way. In addition, emergency medical dispatch instructions are being given while rescue help is sent. Many call for help requiring police intervention, fire assistance, or emergency medical services. A common thread by the caller is a sense of urgency and immediacy.

The many fine women and men called Communication Operators field those calls no matter the pitch of the screaming or the type of assistance required. From routine calls like: “When is my power coming back on?” to emergency 911 calls, communication operators provide invaluable information for a successful outcome.

“It’s like getting into the cockpit of an airplane,” a dear friend told me years ago, describing the console where today’s dispatcher orchestrating the needs of the caller and the first responders en route and at the scene. When it comes to their multitasking responsibilities, the multiple screens — such as E-911 and phone, CAD, — and slew of other administrative responsibilities are only the tip of the iceberg. Dispatchers must deal with power outages, hurricanes, flooding, and an array of other catastrophes, and still balance and account for other calls for service.

To the person placing the call, needing their garbage picked up and an infant not breathing are both of critical importance. The dispatcher must prioritize and address both circumstances with each caller believing their needs are being met.

The dispatcher is pivotal to a successful outcome and sets the tone for the entire call. The public and rescue personnel depend heavily upon their ability to decisively and calmly act amidst the chaos. Their initial size-up and deployment of personnel and equipment is vital to mitigating the incident.

On the other edge of the sword, communication operators are the targets of many complaints. Since they are often “heard and not seen,” disgruntled citizens and rescue personnel sometimes really let them have it! It is easier to blame than to change or take ownership of one’s mishaps and thus the dispatcher is often of the firing lines of unhappy callers.

For example, after the communications operator feverishly tries to assist the caller and if it is not going well, the caller will ask to talk to the supervisor. After being yelled at and “talked down to” the dispatcher transfers the caller to a supervisor. It is often at this point that the caller is as sweet as can be to the supervisor. Please note that calls for assistance and the other duties of the communications operator are taking place as the caller is showing dissatisfaction. Yet, the supervisor often has the luxury of focusing on the complainant and not having to multitask as the communications operator is interrupted with other telephone calls or radio traffic. The supervisor is treated with respect and the caller seeks to be of assistance.

If it is not enough for the public to let the dispatcher have it, what about those incidents in which responding rescue personnel also take their shots? The major difference is, continuous radio traffic and 911 calls for assistance keep the communications operator glued to the console. Police can take cover and ask for back up, a firefighter can go to rehab, but the dispatcher must stay in the room until relieved by new operators.

The public recognizes the uniform of the first responder, but rarely thanks the first to help: the dispatcher. The dispatcher is the “ladder” of the call. He or she is not the one who climbs the ladder and receives the accolades, but is the ladder for others to respond effectively. They know that few in the public will know how important he or she really is to the successful outcome of that difficult call.

Many go into the profession to simply be of assistance. Along the way, some may take different paths, but all have made a positive difference in many people’s lives. We’ve all been blessed to meet and work with many fine dispatchers. All rescue personnel have at one time or another relied heavily upon the calming voice of a dispatcher to help them through a tough call. If anyone has been Incident Command, you can rest assure that a dispatcher will professionally remind you, “Command do you want an additional ambulance?” realizing you forgot to request one!

These fine women and men are the first to worry about a rescue worker when he or she does not respond on the radio. What seems like an eternity — and is only a few minutes, are those moments that a communications operator is desperately awaiting the rescuer’s response. Their imaginations run the gamut of all types of disastrous and are ecstatic when they hear rescuers say, “Go ahead dispatch.” The rescuers can “see” and “hear” all that is going on at the scene. The dispatcher can only imagine and is not afforded immediate feedback as to the outcome of the call or severity of the situation. They must try to piece it all together.

A prime example of this took place at Katrina. I had the privilege and honor to accompany the first wave of rescue workers from the state of Illinois to travel to Katrina. We took all our supplies, fire apparatus, police vehicles, mechanics, and basic first aid provisions. We all know that communication is vital to all aspects of rescue work. We found out it would have been a tremendous asset to have taken communication operators along with the firefighters, police, and paramedics that were deployed. Terminology and equipment needs for certain types of responses caused some errors to occur. This would have been limited, if not fully avoided, if we had taken some communication operators. The rescue workers from Illinois were able to allow for the disaster stricken workers to get a break and regroup. We were unable to spell the “Kat Command” dispatchers because we did not bring any communication operators. An important lesson we learned when critiquing the response.

I have even had the privilege to speak at some of their State conferences. When a communications operator feels unappreciated, not properly trained, or the job is no longer fun, he or she may change professions. They live with the fact they must be “on” at times to be effective during an emergent situation. In addition, they remember the calls that will weigh heavily in their hearts and souls. A constant is “this job is going to cost you and you have to know how much you are willing to pay.” Dispatchers pay by their dedication and wiliness to improve. At the end of shift they worry about the “forgotten call.” Did they fail to remember to have someone respond to a call for assistance? Did they send all proper equipment and personnel?

An old episode of M.A.S.H. sums up how dispatchers really are heroes to us all. Father Mulcahy is despondent because he is not able to “see” if what he does really matters to the patients. Father Mulcahy applauds Hawkeye for his heroics as a surgeon. Hawkeye receives immediate feedback and “sees” if his work is successful or not and he receives accolades from the patient. The fact is, Fr. Mulcahy is always there to listen, coordinates help, and is simply there when someone needs help. His ability to help is a lifelong gift and provides comfort beyond a patient’s stay at the M.A.S.H. unit. When someone has the life skills and attributes to always be there, always be “on” to assist at all times, they can provide help beyond the immediate surgery Hawkeye may perform.

Commitment, consistency, and compassion are the core principles of communication operators. We all should thank them for their help!



About John C. Fay
John Fay started as an emergency medical technician (EMT-B) in 1981 for the Northfield Rescue Squad. In 1983, Fay expanded to law enforcement, firefighting, and became a paramedic for the Glencoe Department of Public Safety and will be retiring as a Deputy Chief on October 16, 2009, whereupon he will be teaching and spending time with his five children. Fay has served as Deputy Chief for all three disciplines (police, firefighting, paramedic) as Glencoe Department of Public Safety is the only Department in the United States to receive accreditation in both law enforcement and fire services. An ordained a Deacon for the Archdiocese of Chicago, Fay has striven to bridge the work place and the church.

Fay tells PoliceOne: “During my career, I have responded to numerous tragedies from such high profile cases such as the Laurie Dann shootings in May of 1988 and more recently sent to Katrina as part of the first wave of rescue workers from Illinois to assist. Yet, it is the numerous day-to-day exchanges of those needing help that have filled my heart over the years. I will continue teaching at the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety, where I have been an adjunct instructor since 1992. In addition, I teach fire fighters, communication operators, and other rescue personnel at NIPSTA (Northern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy). I am exploring other avenues to giving back to the professions of law enforcement, fire fighting, and emergency medical services that I have a passion for and deeply respect.”

Being an instructor for Northwestern University allows Fay to travel about the country and listen to the many heroic feats that many fine women and men perform day in and day out keeping our neighborhoods safe. Fay has spoken at state conferences for Communication Operators and exchanges in tremendous dialogue about such calls such as the Northern Illinois shootings, Columbine shootings, and many other horrific incidents.

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