The terrorist attacks in Brussels this week remind us that the horror and carnage of militant actions to kill and harm innocent civilians anywhere and anytime is rooted in a global world where militants trained in troubled areas of the middle east come to the heart of Europe to attack innocent people. The attacks did not just impact Belgians. The victims were from more than 40 different countries. However, the response to help and treat the wounded came from a very local team of first responders who were dispatched, coordinated, and organized at the local level. On March 23rd, CNN was interviewing Fawaz Gerges, a Professor at the London School of Economics and author of “ISIS: a short history,” who dismissed the probability of a true global response to terrorism saying, “All efforts must be local…”
Certainly more resources and concentration needs to be applied to prevent these kinds of terrorist attacks, but prevention will not be prefect in today’s world. We need to continuously perfect the tools provided to the first level of emergency response; the call centers that are our first line of communication for help in any kind of emergency.
We see mobile phone images from ordinary people immediately after the explosions at the airport and the subway. They are on the scene of any incident; victims, witnesses, people trying to help by calling for emergency services. By the time the news services arrive with their cameras rolling, we see the first responders on the scene; police, firefighters and paramedics doing everything they can to mitigate the suffering that is suddenly widespread. How did they know where to go and what had happened? Who do those first witnesses and victims talk to?
They talk to dispatchers. Local dispatchers. Dispatchers and the tools they have are the first first responders. Whether the calls come in to 112, 9-1-1 or 999, the professionals that answer those calls mobilize response and coordinate the efforts of police, fire and medical responders. They have to deal with the massive drain of resources devoted to a single disastrous scene and still handle every other emergency going on. Heart attacks, injury accidents and home burglaries don’t stop. Every emergency starts with a call and dispatchers must answer every call.
What are the tools that dispatchers have? Are communities and governments sufficiently invested in assuring that their dispatch centers, this first line of response to any emergency, are using the best tools? The need is “global” in the same fashion that the present perspective on responding to terrorism is, but the reality is that public safety needs are addressed locally.
Dispatchers work with Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems that process calls, create events with information, recommend the available units to deploy and organize the resources devoted and what their ongoing needs are. Dispatchers use CAD as a coherent organizational tool to handle every moment and form strategies under usual and unusual circumstances.
People in need view the three digit numbers they use to get help as universal, little realizing the variety of dispatch agencies they are connecting to and the CAD systems they are working with. There are many different CAD companies and any of the successful ones view that the services and products they provide have a profound effect on the efficiency of dispatchers being able to do their job well.
There is currently a large divide between the technology available to the general population and the data able to be processed by most dispatch centers. The vast majority of information that is relayed from caller to dispatcher is a voice call. What about text, video, data packets with medical information and ties to relevant social media? If new data avenues provide information that provide more safety for victims and first responders, dispatchers using CAD must be able to receive and pass along valuable data instead of being constrained to the sole avenue of a voice call. A cell phone video taken immediately after the explosion at an airport should be received, viewed and acted on by a dispatch center rather than being first seen on broadcast news.
We all care about headline grabbing disasters, but most of us are anxious, fearful and unprepared. We all depend on our first responders to be anything but unprepared along with the dispatchers that take the calls and send those resources into harm’s way. Perhaps we should care more about those that take care of us and be invested in the tools they have…and should have.
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.