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One afternoon, I was sitting in a fire communications center in a major city when a dispatcher received a phone alarm for electrical wires smoking in the house. After he processed the call, I noticed that he assigned only one engine and one ladder. Thinking back to when I was a dispatcher in New York City for more than 35 years, I was immediately curious why more companies were not assigned. I walked over to the supervisor and asked, “Why were only one engine and one ladder assigned?” His response: “It’s up to the dispatcher. He can send more or he can send less.”
The alarm turned out to be nothing. But what would have happened if the electrical wires burning in the house turned out to be something bigger? What would have happened if the engine assigned to the box pulled up and found a house fully involved?
Throughout the nation, dispatch policy for how many companies are assigned to which kinds of alarms varies from fire department to fire department. In one department, for instance, a structural fire might receive a response of one engine and one ladder, while in others it may receive a full assignment of three engines and two ladders. Dispatchers are paid to make split-second decisions based on oftentimes vague and incomplete information received from excited callers or through third parties like the police department or other city agencies. In all cases, dispatchers should decide responses based on the worst-case scenario and never assume that the fire being reported isn’t serious, a point I have stressed at the Firehouse Expo, where I’ve conducted seminars on the basics of fire dispatching.
Generally speaking, the manner in which alarms are processed does not vary much from one department to the next: a report of a fire or emergency is received by the call taker, the apparatus is assigned based on existing policy, and the companies are dispatched by radio, voice alarm or computer. Standardizing this process not only allows the dispatcher to process an alarm more efficiently, but minimizes the risk that a mistake of judgment will be made.
• Call taking – Call takers are in a sense the first responders of the dispatch team. Not taking the time to ask the right questions and to record the information correctly could delay the apparatus response and lead to property damage, injury or even death. To minimize the risk of error, call takers should follow these steps to ensure that the information elicited is as accurate as possible.
Speaking clearly, call takers should first obtain the house and street number of the emergency or fire digit by digit. Next, both the address and cross streets should be verified, keeping in mind never to ask, “What are you near?” but rather, “What two streets are you between?” Third, call takers should ask, “What is on fire?” If it is not a fire, the caller will likely inform the call-taker accordingly. Immediately after, call takers should obtain the apartment and floor of the fire or emergency as well as any critical information, such as building hazards or whether anyone is trapped, and pass this on to the radio dispatcher, who will inform responding units.
Although call-takers must be cognizant of how much time they spend processing alarms, they must also remember that haste will lead to error. Strategies like repeating letters in apartment numbers (“Is that ‘C’ as in ‘Charlie’ or ‘Z’ as in ‘Zebra?’ ”) might seem time-consuming and unnecessary in the short run, but may save property and lives in the end.
Depending on the time and location, some reported fires and emergencies may receive only one call, while others may receive dozens. In the latter case, much of the information conveyed to call takers will be redundant, but nonetheless must be processed. Still, if a call taker learns something new that may aid responding units, that information must be conveyed verbally to the Decision Dispatcher or radio operator as well as recorded in the computer system.
• Decision Dispatching – It is up to the Decision Dispatcher to determine how many units to assign to each emergency or fire. Although some latitude is allowed in the decision-making process, the particulars and nature of the call are what determine the response, not assumptions and speculation from the dispatchers on the floor. In one city, for instance, one engine might always be sent to a rubbish fire in the street, while a full assignment might be dispatched for a reported house fire. But what happens if, during the alarm-receipt process, the caller states that the rubbish is burning against a building? Should only one engine be sent?
Erring on the side of caution, Decision Dispatchers should assume the worst when assigning units. If the alarm turns out to be a routine car fire and not a vehicle burning in a garage, or if a report of a motor vehicle accident with an entrapment turns out to be nothing more than a fender-bender, the additional apparatus can be turned around after the initial assessment. Sending too many units can never hurt; sending too few, however, can cause irrevocable harm.
•Radio operation – The radio dispatcher is the conduit between the communications center and the units in the field. As such, he or she must speak clearly, without sounding robotic, and must remain calm and in control at all times. Remember, you are not the one fighting the fire or handling the emergency. Moreover, the radio dispatcher should not only understand how and when to make radio transmissions but also be capable of making crucial decisions on his or her own.
Throughout the United States, from one communication center to another, dispatch policy can be as diverse as the municipalities that make up this nation. What may pass as sound policy in one department may not in another. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in alarm assignment. What is vital, however, is that dispatch protocol within a department be uniform and standardized. The way information is elicited from a caller, the policy governing how many units are assigned to a fire or emergency, and the manner in which radio communications are maintained between fire units and the dispatch office must be the same whether Dispatcher Smith or Dispatcher Jones is on duty.
Standardization of protocol will not just lead to fewer mistakes, but ensure that each and every fire or emergency receives a response that will minimize the risk of damage to life and property.
The writer is a 37-year veteran of the FDNY. He spent two years working in the training department and many years mentoring in the Brooklyn Fire Communications department. He retired after spending 12 years as senior fire alarm dispatcher. He also was an instructor for radio and Decision Dispatch operations. He is an active volunteer firefighter for the Montgomeryville, PA, Fire Department.