Dispatch Times: Regulations Versus Reality

Throughout history, the fire service has placed significant emphasis on speed, using propagation models as justification for shaving seconds off response times wherever and however possible. After all, the conflagration that we're rushing to is getting geometrically larger as we speak, so there's no time to lose! In some cases, this focus has been healthy. We've improved myriad tools and procedures, letting us operate more efficiently. However, this "need for speed" has also resulted in risk-taking behaviors and poorly planned concepts that have probably done more harm than good.

While many time-saving initiatives involve apparatus turnout, recent focus has been aimed at dispatch centers. Since the critical response cycle actually starts when a citizen dials 911, it would stand to reason that a guideline for call handling be adopted. However, in light of modern-day complexities, regulations such as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1221, Standard for the Installation, Maintenance and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems, don't always tell the full story. My concern as both a former fire officer and current director of communications is that — as has sometimes been the case in the field — too much emphasis is being placed on speed and not enough on safety.

In particular, NFPA 1221 specifies that 95% of emergency calls be answered within 15 seconds and 99% within 40. Although there are no official national 911 standards, a typical target is 90% of calls within 10 seconds, so this seems reasonable. However, it is increasingly far from reality.

Staffing has failed to keep pace with the burden created by technology, and the leading culprit is the wireless telephone. Cellular telephones create clusters of calls that can overwhelm any dispatch facility when a visible incident occurs. We recently received 15 calls to 911 reporting a building explosion and collapse in quick succession. On any given day, we receive dozens of simultaneous calls for fender-benders on the interstate and suffer drive-time volume spikes that can throw our otherwise healthy daily statistics right into the trash.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that Alameda County, CA, met the initial call-answering goals, and it and others like them are to be commended, an awful lot of centers I know struggle just to get somewhere in the 80s. One major U.S. city is below its authorized staffing level by 25% and "furloughing" remaining employees one day per pay period. This is akin to playing baseball with a team of six, with similarly predictable results.

The second NFPA goal requires 95% of all call processing and dispatching to be completed within 60 seconds. While Alameda again met the mark, not everyone can. A recent survey of 14 emergency dispatch centers found that four dispatched in less than two minutes, eight in less than three and another took longer than that. Only one met NFPA 1221.

I will admit that many of these figures seem excessive, and that a full minute seems like enough time to get a call in and out. But in many cases it's not, and here's why. An increasing number of 911 calls require an increasing amount of telecommunicator intervention. Cellular calls not only add to the cluster phenomenon, they behave differently than those from conventional phones. Because cell towers cover broad areas, calls can be delivered to the wrong answering point. Time is spent trying to determine the correct location and effecting a transfer to the proper agency.

Even when correctly routed, location information may not be available for 20 seconds or more; meaning that one-third of the prescribed handling time is already gone before you have any idea where the caller is. Hopefully, the caller can help you pinpoint the exact address, because that isn't always given. Often, callers can't, so say goodbye to 60 seconds through no fault of the center. Since the majority of 911 calls come from wireless devices, over 50% of our volume is immediately at risk for substandard performance.

That minute also ticks by when non-English-speaking callers are involved. Many facilities patch into translation services to acquire basic information. However, particulars must be repeated between all parties involved until the telecommunicator has enough to dispatch. Some 911 centers maintain bilingual employees, but in areas serving diverse ethnic populations, it is virtually impossible to cover every dialect in-house. Again, foreign language calls are on the rise, as is the use of Emergency Fire Dispatching (EFD) protocols, which can in some cases sacrifice time in favor of better decision making. Even without EFD, questions like "The car is in the garage and that's in the basement?" take time, as does entering them into a computer-aided dispatching (CAD) system and pulling up the proper recommendation.

While procedures should be in place to expedite the dispatch of true emergencies, taking the time to get it — and get it right — creates no more delay than the few seconds "lost" by an engine stopping at a red light. Sending the right resources to the right place with the right information should always be our standard. Firefighter safety is not a game of beat the clock.

BARRY FUREY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 35-year public safety career, he has managed 911 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2002, Furey chaired the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Nashville, TN, and in 2005 he received an APCO life membership for his continued work in emergency communications.