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The "Dumbing" of Dispatchers

Author: Barry Furey

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

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By Barry Furey

Originally published in our Jan/Feb 2009 issue.

Barry FureyOne of the more common complaints heard around the PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) concerns the “dumbing of dispatchers. This gripe typically comes from members with a little bit of time under their belts, and the propensity to wax poetic about the good old days. Taken on face value, this statement would seem to indicate that we are systematically and methodically making our staff stupid. Hopefully, at a time when there is increasing emphasis focused on training, this is not the case. However, after closer evaluation, it would seem that the general concern is that newly hired telecommunicators place an unhealthy reliance on job aids such as Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) to get them through their day.

Now when I, and perhaps a few more readers, started in this profession, we didn’t place a lot of reliance on CAD. Of course, this is largely because there wasn’t a system to place our reliance upon. Our reference aids were primitive by today’s standards. A well-worn pull-down map hung from the ceiling, adorned with several crudely drawn squiggles to mark the approximate location of the newest streets. A blue book or city directory sat on the console. These were typically only slightly less out of date than the map. A regular phone book was stuffed in the drawer along with a few pads and pens and whatever forms you used. While today’s telecommunicators deal with reference manuals, we dealt with manual references. Many agencies still refer to the dispatch order recommended by their computers as “run cards” without giving much thought to the fact that these once were actually cards.

Before we condemn an entire generation of our workforce, it might be prudent to take a look at what has happened to our profession over the past two decades. The most immediate impact has obviously been made by cell phones. For more than half of their life they came without any location technology whatsoever, requiring our personnel to develop some extraordinary questioning skills. In California, the number of wireless calls increased 1,000% between 1990 and 2007, mirroring a trend observed nationwide. We’ve seen concepts such as Neighborhood Policing take hold that have transferred more command and control functions from the field to the dispatch center, and experienced an increase in the number of non-English-speaking callers. All things considered, we have never been busier and have never been faced with a wider variety of challenges.

Into this mix comes the need to develop more sophisticated tools to help dispatchers and call takers sort things out. Few, if any of these tools, can be considered labor savings devices. They all take a reasonable amount of acumen to operate properly. When you couple these with the increasingly complex procedures designed to deal with the more sophisticated needs of today’s first responders, I can’t in good conscience label anyone who can figure it all out as being anywhere near dumb. But, some would say that these individuals have been trained to work the machines rather than work the problem. And to some degree they may be right. Telecommunicators are no longer necessarily required to know the answer; rather they must understand how to find it. For example, while geographical knowledge can no doubt be helpful, and someone who is familiar with the area can be a significant benefit, the ability to read a map may be a more important skill. After all, in high-growth communities, new subdivisions seem to pop up overnight, automatically rendering past beats and boundaries obsolete.

There are two sides to every issue, and this one is certainly no different. Our agency uses a speech processor to dispatch fire and emergency medical incidents. I have no doubt that it helps us to get these calls out more quickly, and in a uniform manner. I also have no doubt that when it’s busy it also disassociates our people from these events. Having to broadcast each unit number yourself serves as an immediate check of the resources you have committed, while mentally reinforcing the run order in that neighborhood for future calls. Even so, the benefit far outweighs the losses as long as everything is up and running; which leads us to the real problem.

When things start to break, you can usually tell the old-timers from the new kids on the block. Those who didn’t always have computers to rely on grab the nearest map book and get back to work. Those who never worked a day without CAD stare blankly into the screen hoping for a miracle. If our staff members are required to depend upon technology to do their jobs, (and they normally are) then we as managers must do our best to eliminate points of failure, and to exercise our backup plans. It is not sufficient to just have a standard operating procedure; it needs to be tested regularly. Hands-on training is a must to ensure that everyone knows what to do. Trusting the safety of your community to an untested page in a dusty manual; now that’s what’s really dumb.

Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 35 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.

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