Operating the Single-Staffed Emergency Dispatch Center

John O’Brien shares how one person can manage inbound and outbound communications at a dispatch center.

How many times have we seen the media attention given to a dispatcher and a child where a parent was unconscious on the floor and the speechless child has either dialed 9-1-1, or the fire/EMS speed dial button. This happens pretty often. The effort you make in your position can make you a hero, or simply give your agency a black eye.

Although there are many ways to address this issue, on more than one occasion I have been successful just asking the child "is mommy or daddy home?" If yes, I ask in a child-like manner, can you put mommy or daddy on the phone? In toddler ages, children can be taught early, particularly if a parent has a known medical condition. Older toddlers who can understand instruction but can't speak well enough and/or may be old enough but terrified, can usually identify with pleasant instruction to remove the fear that they have done something wrong.

Language Barrier

In today's society language barriers have become common place. While many of the large emergency dispatch centers may have bilingual dispatchers on hand, many of our smaller centers may not. In a situation such as this, agencies need to pre-plan how such a solution can be made. One solution is to have another agency who has the ability to speak another language be contacted and the call put in a conference mode for the three-party dialog. At this point, the bilingual dispatcher can translate the emergency to the hosting agency and the wheels can quickly be put in motion. Other areas may have the regional phone operator with such capabilities.

Caller ID

Regardless of whether your situation is a hang up, a child on the phone, language barrier, or even verification to the CAD main screen, a regional Caller ID phone feature is only as good to us as whether the caller has previously restricted it or not. However having the Caller ID still maintains its importance to today's emergency dispatch center.


Training is the most important phase of your career as a dispatcher. And it should never stop at your point of hire. In my agency, new employees are thoroughly trained in everything that you are reading in this article. They also receive approximately 70 hours of internal training programs with over 60 different emergency scenarios, all custom to types of scenarios, locations, and specific policies common to my agency. In short, a training employee will physically carry out simulated alarms that are specific to our policy with real addresses as displayed in our database. New candidates will take part in a physical drive of the most important aspects of our district allowing them the opportunity to see the area and landmark chronic emergency locations, new developments, highways, clover leafs, and main roads.

At the end of the training a determination of the success for both the instructor and the student can be witnessed in a 10-page open book exam of which we expect a grade of 80 or better. The test is reviewed personally with the student. A five-page checklist of all training points is completed to ensure no subject is missed. All documentation goes to the file of this new employee as proof of competency.

Emergency Medical Dispatch

Since the late 1980's professional firms have exposed the advantages of fire and medical dispatch pre-arrival instructions. Training your staff to such levels has resulted in saving lives year after year, in everything from child births to a cardiac saves over the phone. One can also assume that a cardiac save made in a ambulance or hospital setting where effective early CPR was given in the minutes prior, no doubt had an effect on the chances to regain life.

Single dispatch centers need to determine if the call volume can reasonably allow a dispatcher to handle such an event over the phone with potential for other incoming emergencies. Written agency guidelines are essential to ensure prompt and efficient service, reducing a risk of liability in decision making.

Quality Assurance

Quality assurance is a vital program within any dispatch center. All dispatchers need to perform in the same manner and follow policy in the same fashion. All dispatchers need to be on the same efficiency level to ensure optimum service to the emergency callers. Making this happen is as simple as a supervisor or designate performing reviews of both the phone and radio recordings. A simple form can be established that documents the date, time, location, dispatcher, time on phone, off phone, time the agency was alerted, as well as a comment section for any review both negative or positive.