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From the Chair: Chaos and Staffing
Author: Paul D. Bagley
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
There are only two kinds of emergency telecommunicators: those who have experienced absolute chaos in the communications center, and those who have yet to experience total chaos in the communications center. Regardless of how well staffed a center may be, there comes a time when all hell breaks loose and the proverbial spaghetti hits the fan. It can occur during a normal business day. It can happen in the middle of the night when absolutely nothing normally happens. Virtually anytime disaster strikes. When you glance down and see every single phone line blinking, you’ll know you’ve arrived.
The test that accompanies Comm. Center chaos can be among the hardest challenges ever faced by even the best trained and most experienced emergency telecommunicator. Whether it is caused by a tornado touching down, a hurricane reaping widespread destruction, a psychotic gunman shooting everything and everybody in sight, or simply a bull moose walking down Main Street, when every line is ringing and every radio is chattering, the person in The Chair is placed under more pressure than anyone who has never endured dispatch could attempt to comprehend.
My test came after I’d been dispatching quite a while. I thought I’d seen activity before that day, but it was nothing compared to the sheer volume of calls that were taken by me and the two young colleagues with whom I worked that day. Our test was a flood of epic proportion: the second “hundred year flood” we’d seen in two years. In the space of ten hours we each handled roughly 2,000 calls – that equates to roughly twenty seconds per call. Most, thank heaven, were informational calls that made up the din of noise, but we had our share of true emergencies wedged in with all the unnecessary inquiries. One woman was calling via her cellular phone from atop her car as her four-wheel-drive vehicle was floating down a swollen river.
The Chief, who had absolutely no idea how to answer an emergency line or even use a radio, could only play gofer and get us lunch. We were so swamped we didn’t have time to utter to him what we wanted to eat. Every phone line would light up the instant that we cleared the previous call. Even if we’d had more qualified people in the room, I doubt we could have handled things any faster. We were exploiting the far reaches of the available equipment and taxing the software to the max.
In some multi-agency/multi-community dispatch centers where two or more people are working, the work load is often divided up: one will handle phones while the other handles radio. In other places they divide the load by the color of the lights they are dispatching: one will handle blue lights (police calls), while the other(s) handle red and white lights (fire and ambulance). Regardless of how the load is distributed, it always seems to go easier with others to help shoulder the burden. The problem is, the moment the “big event” comes, that ideal division of labor, no matter how well-thought-out or how equally distributed, flies out the window.
Knowing some of the tricks of the trade in advance can serve as an enormous help in dealing with a deluge. Take Danvers, Massachusetts; a reasonably small community just outside of Boston. The combined PSAP/dispatch center was staffed by just two people when a propane storage tank exploded rocking the entire community. Virtually everyone either called the PSAP to report the obvious, were phoning in their observations of the explosion itself, or they were reporting actual associated emergencies (i.e.: fires, structural damage, injuries etc.). Every incoming phone line was jammed to the point where neither telecommunicator on duty could place an outgoing call to get assistance. They say necessity is the mother of invention – how true! One of them remembered they actually had an open outgoing line available that the public hadn’t yet accessed: our dedicated FAX line. From the handset on the FAX machine they were able to call for additional personnel to assist with dispatching, and to alert the various agencies in order to actually get responders to handle those bonafide emergencies.
Chaos invariably is the result of call volume overwhelming the staffing level. Few chaotic cycles are predictable; they always seem to be front-loaded arriving C.O.D. Unfortunately by the time additional staffing does arrive the crisis has usually passed. When that explosion does occur, or that tornado touches down, or that crazed gunman opens fire, our brothers and sisters seated in The Chair will handle more work in five to ten minutes than most people outside of our profession handle in a week. It is demanding and almost debilitating because of the level of concentration that must be brought to bear. The problem with people other than dispatchers is that they often lack the ability to achieve that same level of intensity in their focus, or to sustain it for the time needed to accomplish a mission such as the expectations for those in The Chair.
This brings into sharp relief another element that contributes to emergency communications chaos: public unawareness. When I say “public”, I’m not just talking about John Q. Citizen out there who, for the most part, is oblivious to anything in the world except his own narrow range of interests. I’m including anyone and everyone who does not sit in The Chair. Chiefs, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, firefighters, EMTs; you name it! If they haven’t dispatched, they have no – I repeat – NO knowledge of what we do or how we do it. Having someone sit in communications during a shift to watch us stare at the console and answer the occasional radio or telephone call does nothing to further that person’s comprehension. They will never fully grasp the impact of absolute chaos, even if they witness it, because they won’t have the responsibility of sorting out that chaos that goes along with the job. Making those split-second decisions that may well mean the difference between life and death is easy to watch, but few are equipped to deal with it.
What constitutes chaos naturally depends upon the communications center involved. I’ve alluded in the past to places where a single radio frequency and two telephone lines constituted the heart and soul of a community’s emergency dispatch. When both of those lines are ringing off the hook and that single radio channel is abuzz with multiple field personnel demanding a plethora of dispatcher actions, true chaos exists. In the communications center where there are dozens of phone lines and radio frequencies that are controlled by multiple telecommunicators, chaos is simply a matter of load. Call volume is usually the single measure used by the bean counters in our profession to establish and maintain staffing. But the volume of calls alone does not reflect the nature of those calls; their intensity, their gist or even their duration. Anyone who has endured the rigors of the chaotic center from The Chair knows all too well that these latter elements are the real issues and should be the means by which decisions about staffing need to be made. But, emergency dispatching is almost exclusively a government function, and government rarely employs subjective analysis when it comes to the allocation of precious public resources like tax dollars, unless, of course, it is the Department of Defense or Homeland Security.
Far too many centers, solely because of budgetary constraints, staff their Chair(s) with a single dispatcher during what are perceived as “slow times.” While this makes fine fiscal sense when it comes to rationalizing annual operating budgets, it could actually mean life or death. Imagine if you will a lone dispatcher at the console in the middle of the night. He or she is eating their supper at the console because there is no alternative. Suddenly, in the middle of chomping down a Chicken McNugget, the emergency line rings and the caller on the line has an actual emergency. The problem is: that McNugget got gulped too fast and is now blocking the windpipe of that lone dispatcher. Breathing is barely sufficient for life-support, and talking is out of the question. The caller is left without anyone to respond to their emergency, and the dispatcher is in crisis themselves because they are choking to death and no one is around to help them.
This situation has occurred far too many times throughout the country to be tolerated. One such dispatcher in Matthews, Virginia who was choking and unable to speak continued using her head and kept toning the local ambulance. Tone after tone went out with no associated verbal announcement. After a while, a sheriff’s deputy and an ambulance volunteer realized that something was amiss and responded to the dispatch center. They were able to rescue the dispatcher just in time. Had there been another dispatcher working in those wee hours the episode would never have occurred.
A minimum of two people behind consoles twenty-four hours a day should be the standard everywhere. One center where I once labored served some forty thousand people. Imagine that entire collection of tax payers being placed in mortal jeopardy by a single Chicken McNugget!
There’s a saying in the sales industry that quality is never expensive. Having two dispatchers on duty throughout the night might seem like an expensive extravagance, until one of them starts choking or has a heart attack. Imagine your sole telecommunicator being involuntarily incapacitated and without help. How many calls will have been missed during his or her unconsciousness or even post mortem? What will be the price that center will have to pay in answer to lawsuits levied against it for failing to adequately staff? Currently, this hasn’t become a commonplace legal argument in wrongful death or civil liability suits. But soon, it may. The public has an uncanny way of deciding what the standard of care should be, and it seldom lets anyone in local government know what that standard is until after the fact. Acting preemptively to fight this argument is the only way to avoid it and to minimize the summary judgments made in courts of law by impressionable juries.
Having at least two people in The Chair around the clock not only decreases the level of dispatcher stress because of the reduced or shared load, it helps insure that someone is always there on duty and awake to save a dispatcher that is afflicted with an ailment or disabled through an accident. It’s just good common sense. Having more than one dispatcher on watch helps foster camaraderie, provides training opportunities, and helps maintain standards by having a second opinion available in determining if actions are in line with established protocols. This practice also helps communications personnel deal with absolute chaos when it does occur, which is the very essence of dispatch. After all, emergency telecommunicators are those individuals in our society that everyone else depends upon to eliminate chaos from their lives. When everyone else is losing their head, those in The Chair must remain level-headed and ready to solve all the problems. And, as the old saying goes, two heads are invariably better than one… especially in the midst of chaos… when seconds count and lives are on the line.
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.”
"From the Chair" is produced for 9-1-1 Magazine by 911Lifeline, 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 http://911lifeline.org.
Photos by Randall D. Larson (top: Valley Emergency Communications Center, Utah; bottom: Placer County 9-1-1, California)