When emergency dispatchers are on the phone, helping callers, creating events for response so the radio dispatcher can send law, fire or medical resources to help the caller in need, the job they do, and rightly so, is important; important for a low grade dispute with a neighbor, important at an injury traffic collision, important for the call of a man with a gun shooting at people indiscriminately. Everything a dispatcher does is important ranging from being kind and helping someone who is handling a mundane concern but just needs help, all the way to hearing an escalating deadly fight on the phone and possibly hearing the last words a person says before they die.
There are only two kinds of people in the world; those who dispatch and those who do not. Those that do dispatch are very special people. They bear the stress of having to accept they have no control over what kind of call or situations are presented, but they have to create a process by which possible success is dependent on their questions to gain information from unpredictable people that despite their efforts to influence a positive outcome may still result in injury and death. It doesn’t matter whether a dispatcher has two things to do or twenty; every new challenge has to be prioritized for when to handle it. Right now? Can it hold for a minute while something more dangerous is resolved? Then two more situations come in that sound similar. Are they related? Send resources to the highest priority situation, then the next, then the next.
Dispatching is like music or sports. A sense of flow and muscle memory has to drive all the academic learning and be put into action. No motion can be wasted. Who are these dispatchers? Largely unseen and unknown; dispatchers are the voices on the phone and on the radio trying to make bad situations better and reduce the danger to all involved.
What can the rest of us do to help them help us? They need a great workplace with enlightened supervision that supports top level performance and remain acutely aware of how to make the working environment effective but pleasant where they can in such a stressful job. Management needs to hire and retain great staff willing to work odd hours, reward accomplishments, and affirm their critical and highly purposeful role in the being the true heart of public safety. They are strong, independent decision makers who rarely second guess. All too often, where they work is short staffed and there is mandatory overtime. Imagine a class of people who are told, “You are so valuable, and we have been unable to find, hire and retain more of you, so you are forced to work extra, whether you want it or not.” A valued indentured servant, but an indentured servant all the same.
They need great tools, the best tools that keep growing and adapting as change comes. They need a great Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system and need that great CAD system to be easy to use, but powerful, able to provide command and control information to mobile systems in first responder vehicles; smartphone apps, tablet apps, and all that modern technology has to offer. They need to do everything better, and with Next Generation data like text, video and data packaging coming, we need them to do more. Much more. But better.
The CAD business is evolving as any business sector does. Competition, flat spots, frustration with PSAPs not adopting more advanced platforms and capabilities all present challenges to CAD vendors. There is a sense in the market that there will be a surge effect with PSAPs having to adapt Next Generation platforms. The public deserves better tools that augment, improve or even in some cases, set aside the legacy foundation for 9-1-1; voice only calls to the PSAP via landline, or overwhelmingly now, cell phones with a wild variance in location confirmation. For businesses to survive and thrive in a competitive climate, they must maintain business sensibilities through merger, acquisition, product development and more sales. That is the business climate generally…but public safety vendors provide crucial tools and infrastructure that have to protect all of us. Normal business strategies now have to highly prioritize the public service needed by their products and services.
So what of the dispatchers making CAD work, whether it’s outdated or state of the art? In this upheaval and change, are dispatchers brought into the process as guides and advisors? Since THEY have to make whatever they have work well? I believe there are two guiding assumptions about dispatchers when it comes to the consideration of what CAD system should be bought by an agency and how to have it work well. One; “Dispatchers hate everything. All they have are complaints about a new CAD and that they don’t want to change from what they are comfortable with.” (Therefore, their opinion is unreliable since they “hate everything”.) Two; “Whatever CAD we buy, the dispatchers will make it work. They will complain, but they will make it work.” Largely ignoring the “user experience”, agencies are left with the normal considerations of purchase; cost, value, company stability, support and the promises of a sales team.
It’s hubris to accept with such complacency a backhanded admiration of who dispatchers are and what they truly do to make public safety work at its command and control heart, to be viewed as highly capable and therefore highly valuable, but dismissed when they offer pointed opinions about the CAD tools foisted on them.
Public safety needs a CAD that is “built by dispatchers, for dispatchers”. It is a logical empowerment for a group of people that make true life and death decisions. They have to have utter trust in their capabilities and training and the bravery to initiate actions to render help without the luxury of being able to form a steering committee to study a situation and make recommendations after consulting stakeholders. That isn’t how public safety dispatching works. That’s how CAD companies work. That’s how public safety regulatory agencies work. Dispatchers don’t have the luxury…and neither do we. When we call, we want a sole independent decision-maker to help us, understand what our need is and to act. A CAD company would do well to adopt a similar approach and truly understand their most valuable end customer who did not sign a single contract or send the millions of dollars to the CAD company, is the dispatcher. Their fluid use of, or stumbling adaptation to a CAD platform determines the true value. Let’s invite them to the table at the beginning. They may complain. That’s OK. They’ve been left out of the discussion too long.
Curtis Darnell brings his lengthy public safety experience to the Beta 80 International team. He worked for 28 years at Santa Clara County Communications in California before retiring in 2010. He rose through the ranks of being a law, fire and medical dispatcher, eventually becoming the Chief of the agency and overseeing four managers, six supervisors and 73 line dispatchers. He is an active member of NENA, APCO and the NG911 Institute.