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The Emergency Doctrine: Doing the Right Thing

Author: Brett Patterson

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

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Originally published in our Jan/Feb 2008 issue.

The Emergency Doctrine was created by human lawmakers who understood that if we are held to our normal standard of care during times when meeting such a standard is impossible, we may not act at all out of fear that we will do the wrong thing.

The start of a new year is a great time to reflect, learn from the past, and prepare for the future. Last year had its share of natural and human disasters including January’s ice storms that resulted in at least 85 deaths in the Eastern United States, the California wildfires in October that destroyed about 1,500 homes and injured at least 61 firefighters, the December floods of the Pacific Northwest that produced hurricane force winds and devastating floods, the multiple, senseless mass murders that were eclipsed by the Virginia Tech massacre of April 16th that took the lives of 32 innocent people, and the August 1st collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis that ended the lives of 13. These memorable events challenged our emergency communication centers with sheer volume that we cannot possibly staff for routinely, and yet we managed and, in many cases, excelled. How is this sort of performance possible? Our ability to perform under extreme circumstances is not only possible, it’s probable; and it’s probable because it’s innate.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, an iconic figure to those of us in the field of quality improvement, reminds us that people don’t come to work wanting to perform badly; they really want to do a good job. People just need to know how they are doing. We are all born with an innate desire to learn, grow, and do the right thing. Fortunately, our system of justice was built on the same foundation and civil law reflects this in many ways that protect us, in the workplace and at home, during times of crisis.

As emergency dispatchers on the clock, we all have a Duty to Act. Our duty is defined in various ways including job descriptions, local and universal standards of care, pertinent literature, and expert consensus. However, our duty is less defined during periods of unpredictable crisis such as a sudden, sustained increase in call volume. The principle in civil law that pertains to these situations is called the Emergency Doctrine. West’s Law Dictionary defines the Emergency Doctrine as: “A principle that allows individuals to take action in the face of a sudden or urgent need for aid, without being subject to normal standards of reasonable care.” This principle is born out of our innate desire to do the right thing. It was created by human lawmakers who understood that if we are held to our normal standard of care during times when meeting such a standard is impossible, we may not act at all out of fear that we will do the wrong thing. They understood that sometimes it is better to prioritize and act with good intentions, than to fail to act at all, or attempt to act as normal and sacrifice important goals without appropriate priorities.

The Emergency Doctrine is sometimes misinterpreted in dispatch, perhaps because of its nickname, the Emergency Rule. The term rule implies something physical, such as a written protocol, as opposed to a doctrine, which is defined as a set of beliefs or principles. While the Emergency Doctrine may certainly inspire a protocol or guideline, such as a predetermined set of priorities to be followed when call volumes reach a particular level, it is actually a concept in law that encourages a judge or jury to consider not only the standard of care in a particular case, but the unique circumstances of a particular event, particularly when the event is out of the ordinary.

Another misconception involving the Emergency Doctrine involves the circumstances of its application. When, for example, is it appropriate to consider application of this doctrine? Is there a set call volume, a particular event or series of events, or is its application a subjective decision made by management? The answer is: none of the above. The Emergency Doctrine is merely a principle to be considered by judge and jury and its application pertains to another important concept of law called foreseeability.

Foreseeability is a consideration of predictability. On the surface, it may seem that emergency dispatch is an unpredictable profession and, in many cases, this may be true. For example, the emergency services involved in the initial response to the Virginia Tech massacre were likely caught off guard when its perpetrator killed 32 people during the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. In this case, reasonable people could not expect local authorities to predict such an event and, therefore, be prepared for it and maintain a normal standard of care. Therefore, if a question about duty were to arise, the Emergency Doctrine may well be applicable.

On the other hand, much of what we face in emergency dispatch is predictable, or foreseeable. In fact, many agencies staff both field and communication center using historical demand analysis that clearly documents predictability in call volumes. Even natural disasters involve a certain degree of predictability, especially in areas where the same disaster – a hurricane, for instance – occurs with regularity and when available technologies can anticipate time, location, and strength. In cases where foreseeability is shown, the plaintiff’s counsel may successfully argue that even though a large volume of calls occurred, the defendant should have foreseen the event and prepared for it; therefore, the Emergency Doctrine does not apply.

Although civil law can seem daunting, filled with a lot of confusing terms and procedures, it’s really a process designed to defend our good nature through fairness and reasonability. In our profession, it is not necessary to be intimately familiar with the law. What is important is that we understand our duty, and do our very best to achieve our standard of care, regardless of the circumstances. Managers should always strive to anticipate and prepare for both the predictable and unpredictable, and provide employees with guidelines for prioritization when disaster strikes. Employees, when well trained, empowered, and informed with regard to their performance, need only to do their best, and do it with good intentions. While we cannot always be prepared for disaster, we are perfectly capable, and willing, to do the right thing, when it matters most.

Brett Patterson is an Academics and Standards Associate for the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED). He is a senior EMD instructor, a member of the NAED College of Fellows, Standards Council, and Rules Committee. Prior to accepting a position with NAED he spent ten years working in a public utility model EMS system in Pinellas County, Florida.

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