Operating the Single-Staffed Emergency Dispatch Center

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

With a negative review speaking for itself, a positive review of any call can bolster a dispatchers esteem, continuing the good practice, and remind them periodically of the importance of what they do and how they do it. Where a busy supervisor may not have time in their work schedule for these call reviews, the designate must have the same mindset for what the supervisor wants to achieve. Last, all reports must be reviewed by the supervisor to complete the full circle. Such quality review will find weak points in dispatching such as an employee who takes too long on the phone, or maybe he or she takes too long to alert the agency after the phone call ceases. Maybe you have a dispatcher with a rude tone. There are so many scenarios that can play out that make the agency with a quality assurance program most efficient, and most likely to avoid legal exposure.

Criminal Event

Although extremely rare in my area, we have in the past had callers contact the fire or EMS agency for a criminal event. 9-1-1 is the most advertised number in the nation and rightfully so. However many local agencies have their number stickered on the phone of every home in their district. As a dispatcher 25 years ago, I had such a case where a victim of a sexual assault ran to an unmanned firehouse, and was on the direct line firebox all the while trying not to be seen. Back then we had no cell phones to remove her from the sight of her predators. I can thank the local police department in Nassau County back then for a two minute response due to the urgency of the situation I gave to their communications bureau operator.

In any case, a fire or EMS dispatcher should have a degree of training in handling a criminal event. Unless the fire or EMS agency has a direct patch to the local police, the dispatcher must take the information as if he or she is the police dispatcher, and forward all the information. There are many criminal scenarios where a caller may not get that second chance to call another agency.

Excited Caller

As a dispatcher you have probably had the excited caller on the line before. There are a few techniques that come to mind during these scenarios. First you need to assess the callers ability to give clear and precise information. A caller who is excited, but the information is clear and precise, must be left alone. Don't stop the good flow of this information by calming them down. This will prove disruptive.

For the truly excited and unraveled caller, the dispatcher must step in. The moment the flow of information is not conducive or audible, the caller must be calmed down. At times, stopped. The dispatcher must get the point across, such as "Mam! Listen to me...Calm down...I cannot understand you...Please answer the questions I ask so I can get you help!" In separate fashion, it's now a good time to ask for the type, location, intersection, callers name and phone if possible.

Voice/Radio Recording

From a legal standpoint, the voice recording of any phone or radio communications are essential for an agency's protection. But, for the dispatcher, such equipment becomes more important in the everyday operations when verification of an address is required. Recordings are also necessary in the quality assurance programs when reviewing dispatch operations.


From time to time, a fire or EMS agency will get a caller complaint for anything ranging from the driving of an emergency vehicle, to the manner in which a patient was cared for. There are times when the dispatcher is deemed the immediate offender. Such instances require diplomacy so as not to create a more volatile situation for the person -- chief, supervisor, etc. -- who will ultimately be called upon to resolve the issue. In such cases, the information should be taken with care, but without apology. The end result should only determine if the claim was valid and the agency was at fault.

Storm Preparation

One of the biggest challenges for the single person dispatch centers are the times when a storm or other sudden natural event approaches. We read about the natural disasters throughout our country and we continue to learn from the dispatch centers who not only have to handle the emergencies, but also have to bear the brunt of the storm as well. Today's internet technology can afford us a great advantage to see a disastrous event approaching in most cases.

The single-dispatch center should have policies in place that bring in additional employees in preparation for worst case scenarios whether it be for call handling, or storm preparation of your workplace.

A sign of a prepared dispatch office is that it has policies for different levels of activation, ranging from a simple notification to all responders, monitoring weather changes and patterns, refueling (if your agency has this dual function), and establishing a list of available additional staffing to higher activations that may require food and standby supplies, protection of the building, regional and/or multi-agency communications and much more.