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Friday, November 20, 2015

Situational Awareness: A Dispatcher's Most Important Tool

It starts with a word problem: 

A call is dispatched for a building fire.  Three engines, two ladder companies, a rescue company, one medic, and a battalion chief are assigned.  An additional medic unit is in the area and adds itself to the call.  The initial companies arrive and report nothing showing.  At the same time, a call is received from an address around the corner from the address of the reported fire. Initially this call is for an unconscious person.  An engine and medic unit are dispatched from approximately four miles away.  A few moments later the call is upgraded to a cardiac arrest.  The fire is contained and two of the apparatus on the fire incident (an engine and medic unit) are flagged down by a civilian to help with the potential cardiac arrest patient.  They inform the dispatcher they will be operating at that location and go to work.  The engine and medic that were assigned are cancelled.  The call turns out to not be  an arrest.  

How would you (or your agency) have handled this situation? 

1. Exactly as described above 
2. You would have been alerted by your CAD that nearby units were available for a call (once the fire was contained) and they would have been dispatched? 
3. Your CAD alerted you to direct the 2nd medic unit to the higher priority call and assign the nearest available engine.  
4. You would have redirected one of the engines on the fire call along with the additional medic to the higher priority incident and replaced the third engine on the fire call.  
5. You have no idea what is even being discussed here and would like a pass.  

Some may think its never right to "armchair quarterback" an operational situation. While it is true that little good can come from criticizing people in retrospect, it is never wrong to take a moment and think about the type of dispatch SYSTEM that we are creating and supporting.  

Dispatchers must be given the authority and the training to permit good decisions.  The more information they have, the more training they are provided, the more authority they are vested with, and the more support they have for doing "the right thing"  the better outcomes we can expect from both them and our public safety services.  

In this case, depending on the information obtained about the fire, the best choice would likely have been to redirect responding apparatus to the high priority medical call. However, it depends.  Were people reported trapped in the fire?  Were there three or four calls for smoke or fire?  Or was it one call for a minor odor or smoke condition that was reported out and the fire dispatch was precautionary.  

It is in this capacity that Dispatchers should serve as resource managers, ensuring that the limited number of tools in the tool box are used the right/best way.  Thankfully, many CAD vendors can now support a more dynamic and empowered dispatch process.  This process is further encouraged by policies and procedures that are results oriented. And one where Dispatchers are supported for taking effective action and then best results are used to support training of other personnel.  

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