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Monday, February 18, 2013

Kitt makes a better car than a dispatcher...

Or: 

Why Automated Voice Dispatching for Busy Fire/EMS departments may not be the best solution for effective service.

Several years ago, my hometown fire department started utilizing an automated voice to announce responses on its primary dispatch frequency.  Units (both fire and ems) monitor this frequency to receive assignments, then switch to their assigned tactical or response frequency. Upon completion of the run, they return to primary dispatch frequency and monitor for the next alarm.  The automated voice is also what reads the alarms over the PA system in the firehouses for those units that are in quarters. 
First, for those units that are in quarters, in a static mode, automated readout of the runs makes pretty good sense.  The units are in the firehouse, there is no dynamic element of the response, and they can verify the address on their MDCs (Mobile Data Computers) when they board the apparatus to respond.

However, for those companies that are on the air, especially during peak periods, Automated Dispatching has several serious limitations.  These limitations increase in severity as activity level increases and include:

·         Automated Reading of runs over the radio is very inefficient

·         It can lead to significant confusion and reduction in situational awareness

·         It can encourage a lack of dynamic dispatching on the part of dispatch personnel. 

These challenges can be explained as follows and are made more significant when an agency does not have units monitor at all times a Primary Control Channel to coordinate responses of units.  

1.       Units on the air are normally in an apparatus with an MDC (Mobile Data Computer) on. These units only need to be given a quick announcement of the run, and then can obtain further information from the MDC, provided they acknowledge receipt of the response verbally.  Having the Computer read the entire message twice, including response channel, is a drastically inefficient use of valuable airtime. In addition, there is no affirmative response from the on air unit, only the assumption that the MDC is working and the unit will acknowledge.  If there is a delay in the unit receiving the run or they are away from the MDC, there is no opportunity for them to respond verbally that they are responding.  Instead, the dispatcher from another channel will have to verify that they are responding.  This could significantly delay the “Turn out and acknowledge process of the run”.  

2.       Having the Computer read the entire message twice, including response channel, is a drastically inefficient use of valuable airtime, especially when the units have a working MDC which provides all of the required information.  The dispatch message for an on air-unit should be simple, concise, and include an affirmative response from the on-air unit that they are responding.

3.       For those cases where a units MDC is down the length of time to dispatch message ensures a delay in response acknowledgement, as the unit must switch to another channel to acknowledge the run.  This introduces a response acknowledgement delay into response times.   
 

4.       The automated read out of the dispatch message on the primary channel also eliminates the ability of the dispatcher to provide to units information about why they are responding when it falls outside Normal parameters.  For example, is a unit replacing another unit, responding as an additional unit, are there special instructions, are they relocated into another area, etc.   Not giving the responding unit the response reason can create response confusion and decrease situational awareness on the part of responders

 All of these factors and others, in busy departments, contribute to the need for the primary dispatch channel to allow dynamic dispatching.  Units should often be redirected from lower priority calls to higher ones; units may be exchanged on responses for closer ones, or situations may require a dispatch message that exceeds the ability of the automated voice to explain. 

The final evidence of the lack of suitability for automated voice read out can be found in the reality that almost no police agencies use the feature.  Their active and complex radio traffic requires a dispatcher to maintain two-way verbal communications with field units to ensure a safe an effective response that preserves response times.  For busy fire/ems agencies, the reality is the same—that effective dispatching of units requires efforts beyond the capabilities of even a robust automated dispatch reading technology on a primary dispatch frequency.

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