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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dispatch Basics: 9-1-1 Center Design (Part-1)

Although this particular topic is directed more at the managers and directors of 9-1-1 centers, addressing this issue starts with dispatchers and the important nuances of how the job actually gets done.  For those centers who have call-taking, dispatch, and supervision on the same floor or in the same building,far too little thought is given to how the physical arrangement of the working positions either contributes to success or failure.
Here is the first problem.  Too many “modern” centers make too many incorrect assumptions about how we work.  Or they think that technology will bring about changes in how we communicate.  Case in point: having all of the dispatch positions facing a giant wall of TV monitors.  Yes, it looks like some cool scene out of a movie.  Yes, it gets more gizmos and wizbangs into the center.  But I know of no dispatch center were the personnel spend a large amount of time watching those screens. 
Should they be there, perhaps.  But the most important information for dispatchers should be visible from their position while they sit normally.  Ideally, if an alert, it should appear visually and audibly.  Distracting personnel with giant screens is a good first step towards diminishing the effectiveness of the center.  The best information to put on those screens are things that should be glanced at once in a while or that relate to everyone on the floor- such as weather maps, traffic cameras, or the overtime list.  These do not need to be front and center, just visible.  Far more important is to have easy visibility, at the position, of the active incidents, radio, and CAD while not isolating the dispatchers from each other. 
The next big problem. Many agencies try to use electronic messaging as  a replacement for old fashioned communication by voice or sight.  Although CAD to CAD messages are an important tool, especially in large centers, there is no replacement for line of sight or proximate communication.  Being able to look at, learn over, or lean back to speak to a coworker is important beyond all description.  This is much more "human", much more effective, and has a much lower failure rate than being forced to route simple questions through a computer system. 
The next big problem: we are not going paperless.  I'm sorry but its just not going to happen.  We need scrap paper, we need maps, and we need places to write important information.  Now, there shouldn't be 2,000 post-it-notes on the monitor, but there is a happy place where the necessary information is documented and we maintain our effectiveness. 
Along the same line, we must have an adequate amount of workspace, but we must also have everyone close enough that they can support each other when required.  This allows a more effective team based approach to the mission, instead of individual islands of Dispatchers all doing their own thing.  There are multiple ways to accomplish this and it depends on how many personnel are working, what job they are doing, and building constraints but facilitating “old fashioned communication and teamwork” should be a major goal of any 9-1-1 center position design. 
Speaking of positions, another disturbing trend is for more and more monitors crammed onto the desks.  This has to end.  No dispatcher can be expected to be actively or effectively engaged with more than three or four screens at their positions.  Directors need to make harsh decisions about what really needs to be on the position and what needs to go.  Vendors in the 9-1-1 space can help this effort with greater integration of software and technology, which saves having to have monitors by system.  Instead, we should be able to have our monitors arranged by function, a process that could radically improve the effectiveness of dispatchers and lessen the number of critical mistakes. 
Returning to the floor plan, more centers should also offer tables on the floor.  Having a simple eight-foot table next to dispatch area can serve both training and meal needs, keeping food away from the expensive stuff, but keeping personnel close enough to still be “in-the-mix”. 
In the end, it all comes down to the facility and the technology meeting the needs of the Dispatchers and the Operation, not the reverse.  Too often, Dispatchers and Supervisors are not even invited to the planning discussions. This is unacceptable.  No fire chief, police chief, ems director, or IT director would allow a new facility, police car, fire truck, or ambulance to be designed and built without a clear understanding of the mission or the needs of the user.  When it comes to 9-1-1 centers the same should be true.  So if your agency is planning a new building, do everything you can to become involved in the process and help make sure that what is built actually helps you work better. 

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