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From the Chair: "Living La Vida Macro"

Author: Paul D. Bagley

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-06-11
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Airplanes have black boxes.  Sports, the instant replay.  And dispatchers have the call logger.  Each of these is invaluable when analyzing an incident.  However, they don't tell the whole story. This is especially true of loggers in the dispatch center.  This installment of "From the Chair" discusses the pitfalls of using a single-channel recording when investigating the handling of a call.

While watching major league baseball recently, I was astounded to see how the instant video replay has been perfected.  Those calling the play-by-play have an incredible selection of technical tools at their disposal.  This allows them the ability to instantly evaluate the actions of players from multiple camera angles, and at regular speed or slow motion.  The Fox Network even has a new gizmo they call “Rotation Cam” that allows the camera to capture the area behind the batter and rotate it in front of him, thus showing the position of the incoming ball in what looks like 3D.  I couldn’t help but think how this narrows the scope of consideration on every play to the microsphere.  As the talking heads at Fox were analyzing a player’s actions behind the plate, I was reminded that modern dispatchers are afflicted by the same technological problem – having their actions scrutinized through the use of recordings.

The digital age has brought us electronic loggers that record every word spoken over the phone or the radio.  Moving from the baseball analogy to one of football, this has permitted Monday-morning quarterbacks to sit in their offices or cubicles and quietly listen to a single channel or phone call previously recorded.  If they didn’t happen to catch something the first time through, they can play it over and over again until they do get it.  Unlike the dispatchers, those reviewing the work of dispatchers have all the time in the world.  Someone’s life is not hinging upon their next move.

So, The Chief sits there smugly on Monday morning, sipping his or her coffee, while listening to a particular recording that had become the focus of attention, as is typical, because of someone's complaint.  The review of that specific call, just like instant replay in professional sports, focuses on one narrow part of the field of play.  The recording is played over and over again to listen to the tone of voice of the dispatcher, and note the amount of stress that was apparent during the call.  The Chief listens for the words chosen by the dispatcher, and times how long it takes to get the call out.  Just like that batter at home plate, the dispatcher is closely scrutinized and evaluated by that single track or recording.  And therein lay the problems.

Just like a baseball player standing at home plate staring down the pitcher and focusing on the incoming pitch, dispatchers have more to contend with than a single phone line or radio frequency.  Narrowing down the range of activity to that which is recorded on a single recording track is grossly misleading.  It discounts all the other things happening in the emergency dispatch center at that time of the call.  If the only activity was that single phone call or radio transmission, it’s unlikely there would be any need for a review.

Let’s face it; the calls that get scrutiny from The Chief are the alleged screw-ups.  When a call is delayed or overlooked, or when the dispatcher had the right intention but the wrong execution, that’s when the complaints come in about our work.  It’s then that The Chief turns a high-powered floodlight on the call activity, and begins to narrow down the investigation to the offensive recording.  And it’s all right there for anyone to hear – everything that was said is captured in clear digital quality.  That’s the problem with thinking in the microsphere, and acting upon such thinking – looking at things microscopically never tells the whole story.


The airline industry comes close to getting it right when evaluating the causes of air disasters.  The “black box” built into commercial aircraft is designed to survive the worst kind of crash, and still be able to tell the story.  The recording system contained within it gives specific information about every mechanical, hydraulic, and electrical system on board.  If a ten cent light bulb was out in the cockpit, the flight data recorder will show it.  But as inclusive as the data recorder might be, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators always want to listen to the cockpit voice recorder before completing the investigation of a mishap.  What the flight crew is saying prior to, and at the time of, an incident often tells more than the raw technical data.  Being able to hear what the flight crew was hearing – alarm bells, engine noises, etc. – is considered essential in determining cause.  The NTSB investigators have learned the value of evaluating all the data from a macro point of view.

Seldom do we find a device similar to a cockpit voice recorder at work inside an emergency dispatch center.  It’s considered too big an intrusion into personal privacy, and too Orwellian in nature to be comfortable.  Instead, The Chief must rely upon the individual tracks on the logger that record single phone lines or radio channels.  The problem is that the dispatcher is listening to a lot more than that one channel.  In fact, the dispatcher is invariably listening to many phone lines and radio channels at any given time.  It’s called multitasking, and it is the single most-important characteristic of a good, modern, emergency telecommunicator.  The ability to multitask is what The Chief tests for when hiring new people.  Why then does The Chief’s evaluation of the multitasking of a dispatcher focus upon a single element of what that dispatcher was doing at the time in question?

An enlightened chief listens to that single recording track, but also listens to a recording of all tracks played back in real time.  The cacophony of noise that comes from listening to a number of radio frequencies while simultaneously handling an emergency phone call, offers insight into what may have distracted the dispatcher, or what may have helped escalate the stress level of the call-taker.  For that matter, when copies of recordings are requested or subpoenaed, the specific recording should be accompanied by a recording of all tracks during the same time interval.  When a jury hears all of the sounds with which the dispatcher actually had to deal, it will be a tad more sympathetic toward the plight of the telecommunicator.  Being able to pluck salient factoids from the wall of discordant sound isn’t as easy as most might think when all of the tracks are played back simultaneously. 

But listening to all of the recordings at the same time is still only the tip of the iceberg.  Dispatchers are confronted with both sounds and sights in the communications center, and a wide assortment of visual distractions that have a direct bearing on their actions.  These never show up on the tracks of the logger.  For example, the chat function on the mobile data terminals (MDTs) in police cruisers, fire apparatus, and ambulances is just like another phone call or radio transmission.  Imagine four or five of these MDT messages blinking onto your computer aided dispatch (CAD) simultaneously.  True, they’re probably recorded somewhere in the bowels of the computer memory, but they aren’t being evaluated alongside of the single recording on the logger, despite the fact that they were among the many tasks being handled by the multitasker under scrutiny.


No dispatcher advocates the implementation of a big-brother device similar to those used in airplane cockpits.  The job is far too stressful as it is without having to guard against free expression in the workplace.  Suffice it to say that those who are evaluating the actions or inactions of a telecommunicator do need to look at the big picture in addition to the minutia.  Reviewing in the micro does not truly represent life in dispatch.  Only when we look at things in the macro are we presented with a true reflection of what the dispatcher had to contend with at that moment in time.  It’s no different in any other aspect of life.  When driving a car, if you focus entirely on keeping your car between the centerline and the fog line, you’ll completely miss the traffic signal up ahead that just turned red.  We live life in the macro all the time.  Why should life be any different in The Chair? 


Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.”  Paul’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.

"From the Chair" was conceived and developed for 9-1-1 Magazine by Michael Wallach, founder and president emeritus of 911Lifeline.  911Lifeline is a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs.  For more information visit

Photos by Randall D. Larson/911 Magazine Archives




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