Submitted to FFCC.com by Frank "Skip" Welsh, N.H.
It has been said in some quarters that, “…the Fire Service represents 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress…” We all know that this is a feeble attempt at humor at best, pure rhetoric at worst, but deep in our hearts we know that, unfortunately, there may be more truth to it than we want to admit. It is no more apparent in any other area of the Fire Service, or all of Public Safety for that matter, than in our communication centers.
There are far too many within Public Safety who view communication center personnel as a ‘necessary evil’. With the exception of the large metropolitan areas of our country the Fire Service has allowed the vital area of communications to be absorbed, inhaled or rubbed into the belly button of the Law Enforcement community, most times under the guise of “economics”; but at what real price? As I’ve traveled across the country presenting training to personnel of various multi-agency communication centers, I’ve found two things to be very prevalent:
Most public safety communication centers outside of major metropolitan areas are under the jurisdiction of the local Law Enforcement agency.
Personnel in these centers are usually of one of two types:
“I’ve got to ‘do’ fire, but I don’t have to like it!”
“Why won’t they teach us more about the fire service?
This is a sad commentary on life in days when more and more citizens are finding it necessary to request help from public safety.
Most of the twenty plus years spent by me at a communication console were dealing strictly with incidents of fire and EMS. Whenever the subject of consolidation of services came up, we would tell people, “…sure, let the sheriff’s office take over all communication…. we’ll be playing second fiddle to every barking dog complaint in the county!!…” Again, an inaccurate statement…..or is it? It is clearly evident in speaking with the vast majority of those involved in the profession, that in multi-agency centers controlled by Law Enforcement agencies, personnel are recruited, selected and trained with a Law Enforcement mentality, not a “Public Safety” mentality. This creates a mindset in the staff at such centers that they are ‘cops’, and not ‘public safety’ employees. The uniforms that are worn, the terminology used and the shifts worked all reflect Law Enforcement. Those in the Fire Service who have allowed this to happen have no right to complain about, “…those damn dispatchers…!” If communication service is to be consolidated, it should be consolidated in an agency that owes no allegiance to any one public safety service. The playing field should be leveled and personnel should be recruited, selected, trained and continually educated as Public Safety Telecommunication Personnel. NFPA 1061 dictates this; but are we listening?
The term “continually educated” was just mentioned; that term is seldom used in the same breath with “dispatchers”, “fire alarm operators”, “call takers”, “radio operators”, etc., etc., etc. Public safety responders from all services are required to acquire a certain number of continuing education hours in a prescribed time frame, to remain qualified in their profession. This may include, but not be limited to, fire arms, S.C.B.A., S.C.U.B.A., EMT and Paramedic skills and hazardous materials. For the most part, these re-qualification skills are evaluated under strict, performance-based guidelines. If continuing education is provided to communication center personnel, it is usually in the form of:
A re-hash of entry level training
Sitting in a classroom listening to audiotapes and/or viewing videotapes and performing critiques.
Being forced to learn about everything from cycles to megahertz.
There is very little, if any, performance based evaluation of the personnel in our centers to determine if they actually can do the job. Their feet are never put to the fire (pun intended) and they are seldom challenged to perform in an environment that is changing on a daily basis. Some of the deficiencies I’ve noted in my travels are listed here, in no particular order of importance.
Many centers are not in compliance with A.D.D. by the fact that there is not a T.T.Y. at every workstation; but far more important, personnel in these centers do not train on a ‘regular’ basis on the T.T.Y. There is no documentation on when units were tested or trained on last. A glaring liability ‘matza ball’ hanging out there!
A vast number of communication center personnel working in centers supervised by a law enforcement agency are not participating in any form of E.M.D. (Emergency Medical Dispatch), even though this life-saving function is a national standard of care and expected by most Americans. The function is passed off to another agency, causing delays in obtaining information and response.
Many communication center staff know nothing about the fire department served by them, save what color the apparatus is and then not always. There is little knowledge of any specialized units or their capabilities. There are no prescribed response profiles, i.e., run cards or call guides. Many are not knowledgeable of where mutual aid comes from or who provides it. Such decisions are left to the I.C. What does that do to the span of control of an incident commander?
When asked how often training is conducted on the E.R.G., only a fraction of those interviewed knew that it was the D.O.T. Emergency Response Guidebook and just about everyone was in agreement that outside of their orientation to the center, they never saw the book and in most cases didn’t know where to look for it. Remember, Confucius once said in that old communication center in the East, “…if you have to ask ‘where is it?’, it’s too late…”, someone may already be dead!!!
When asked about CAMEO, about half knew what it was and could be found in whatever their statewide Law Enforcement computer terminal was called. Unfortunately, they had no idea how to open it or access any information contained in it. ****See Confucius, above*****
Very few are trained to the level of Haz/Mat Awareness, but that’s not important, because many of the fire departments tell them not to worry, just tell us where it is and we’ll decide what to do when we get there. There are many, many things a telecommunicator can learn through an awareness program designed specifically for communication center staff members and these could lead to initiating life saving measures prior to responders arriving in the vicinity of a release.
Very few centers across the country are actively involved in continuing education for their staff members. Those that are mostly participate in boilerplate programs by the few “nationally recognized” organizations that re-hash their entry-level programs or play tapes of ‘screw-ups’ and tell you not to do that! Personnel are never challenged to prove they can do their job and seldom exposed to new ideas or procedures from other areas of the country. One so called “nationally recognized” training company actually certifies staff members as “instructors” of programs in which they have never been initially certified. A staff member who has never been certified as an Emergency Medical Dispatcher can actually be certified to INSTRUCT programs and certify other staff members as EMD’s!!! Would
you want to take a pump operators course from someone who never operated a pump?
Many jurisdictions deem it necessary to send staff members to seminars on the new technology in public safety communications. A noble thought, but why? The training and continuing educations of staff members who sit at consoles 40 hours a week should be directed at specifics of their daily tasks. You don’t need to know how to build a clock in order to tell time!!!! My first Chief told me that a radio is a ‘magic box’, the only thing I needed to know is that when I pushed the red button and spoke, someone on the other end heard me and then could do the same. A little oversimplified given the technological advancements since 1978, but you can’t argue with the logic.
Many communication centers have no protocol for notifying an Incident Commander of time elapsed during a major, or protracted incident, or ANY incident, for that matter. Keeping in mind the “golden hour” theory, this is a measure that could prove life saving.
There are few public safety communication centers that have emergency action plans for their centers, i.e., evacuation and relocation protocols. Where does this put citizens and responders in the event of a natural or man-made disaster closing down your communication center? Any idea if your communication center is in compliance with NFPA 1221?
A great majority of personnel I’ve spoken with across the country do not know WHAT a community emergency action plan is, let alone if they have a copy of one in their center. A little silly when you think about it….who are the ones to initiate such a plan????? DUH!!!!! One Director of Emergency Management I know actually told me he didn’t want a copy (community action plan) in his communication center because they would most likely loose it. He said he’d bring it to them in an emergency. This conjures up visions of the man running through streets amid falling buildings, waves of biological and nuclear particles, or, God forbid, heavy rain and wind. Thankfully most mid-Westerners pay attention to their action plans, given the disastrous weather they endure.
Only a small percentage of the personnel I’ve spoken to over the past four years are aware of any type of quality assurance program within their communication center. If standard performance objectives aren’t established and those performances aren’t under constant review, how do you know if your staff is following SOP’s? Unfortunately, one common denominator I’ve heard from staff members nationwide is that the only time supervisors or administrators ever have any contact with them is when they do something wrong. This creates a very unfriendly atmosphere in which to work and leads to communication center staff begin to believe in the “…well, I’m just a DISPATCHER” theory. Having no quality assurance in place leave you open to a liability that could prove disastrous.
When I had the opportunity to work for a Police Department I was sitting at lunch with a Sergeant and the subject of motor vehicle accidents came up. The Sergeant asked me why ‘you fire guys’ always show up and block traffic so no one can move. I was a little taken aback for an instant; weren’t these the same people who had to stand out there with traffic ‘just a whizzin’’, in the dark, rain, snow, fog, etc.? Aren’t they concerned about being struck by moving traffic? Luckily, things got busy and I had to go back to the console, but I was more than a little concerned as to why moving traffic is always first in the mind of law enforcement, even at the expense of safety?
There may be a reason that law enforcement has taken control of public safety communications; in spite of the propensity to speak in “ten codes” and a few other peculiarities, they do a credible job. The bottom line is that public safety as a whole and the fire service in particular, on a national scale, is wasting a most valuable resource…..their communication personnel. Abbott and Costello used to entertain audiences with their hilarious “Who’s On First?” routine; but ‘…who’s on the scene first?…’ in any emergency….that damned dispatcher, that’s who!!!!! Recruit only the best; train them to be the ones who’s word is taken as gospel because of that training, with the main theme being that of keeping rescuers from becoming victims; most of all, challenge them with continuing education that actually means something. Keep involved in the recruitment, training and continuing education of your communication center staff; they may be the ones to save YOUR life!