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Get Out Of The Way: A Guide to Proactive Dispatching (from the Archives)

Author: Randall D. Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-09-17
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Expanded from its original publication in our June, 2005 issue

You’ve heard it before: lead, follow, or get out of the way. 

There are more than 45 million web pages on the Internet dealing with this concept of leadership, as I learned just now when I did a Google search of those terms.  I’ve decided that all 45 million of those cybernetic suggestions might be summarized in two simple words: reactive and proactive.

Using a far more antiquated form of technology than Google, I have also just learned from my handy paperback Merrian-Webster dictionary that reactive means “reacting or tending to react,” (“react,” in turn, meaning “to respond to a stimulus” or “to exert a return of counteracting influence”).  Proactive, on the other hand, is defined as “acting in anticipation of future problems, needs, or changes.”

In terms of leading, following, or surreptitiously standing aside, followers tend to be reactive – they react to situations and proceed accordingly.  Leaders tend to be proactive – they understand and anticipate needs and act prior to situations occurring, and possibly in time to change the outcome of those situations.  Both styles are valid responses to emergency situations, but being proactive tends to give one a better edge in managing that response.

The public safety profession often tends to be reactive in nature – we respond to help after situations go horribly awry.  While aspects of public safety do indeed focus upon the proactive – crime prevention, fire prevention, health care education, for example – the majority of what we do is reactive.  Concepts of community-oriented policing that arose over the last fifteen years or so are laudable things that are changing law enforcement from being purely reactive into being more proactive, at least in terms of community relations.  In terms of fighting crime, unfortunately sometimes the best we can do is come along afterwards and try to make things better.

In the dispatch center, most of what we do is also extremely reactive.  We get a 9-1-1 call, we react accordingly by processing and prioritizing that call or else referring the caller to a more appropriate service.  Working the dispatch channels, we get a request from the field, and we react accordingly to accommodate that request.  That is perfectly acceptable and most of the time and gets the job done just fine.  That’s the minimum we can and should do.

Being proactive as a dispatcher, though, means truly understanding the needs of your field resources, anticipating their requests and having what they need prepped and ready when they ask for it.  It means taking the initiative to make a few extra phone calls to add some more details to that working call that might give an investigator clues to solve it.  It means going the extra mile to provide some additional service to that worried caller.  It means being on top of your game the whole time, making the extra effort to be part of the team (and that includes the team of responders on the other end of the radio as well).  Anticipate those future problems, needs, or changes of your caller, your officer handling the domestic disturbance, your battalion chief managing the warehouse fire, your medics working the poolside drowning.  Don’t just be the voice on the phone or the radio, accommodating but reactive.  Be there, fully attentive and involved, proactively helping to mitigate the situation and supporting your team in the field.

Being proactive is the distinction between accomplishing the job and really striving to make a difference.  It’s going out of the way to provide exemplary customer service rather than simply performing one’s duties in a satisfactorily manner.  It’s the difference between adequacy and excellence.

Step aside, step in time, or set the pace.  Be proactive.  


9-1-1 Magazine Editor Randall Larson retired in 2009 after 25 years as a communications supervisor and Field Communications Director for the San Jose Fire Department.  Larson has been a Field Communications instructor for First Contact 9-1-1, the California Fire Chiefs Association – Communications Section, and other organizations, and was a Communications Specialist for FEMA’s California US&R Task Force 3.  Since retirement, Larson continues to participate in the annual California Mobile Command Center Rallies, which he founded in 2009, and is a busy writer in several fields of interest. 

Photo by Michael Thomas.


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