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Fire departments have long known the benefits of proper training. Besides the obvious need for even the newest firefighters to function safely under a wide variety of dangerous conditions, organizations such as the NFPA, ISO and OSHA establish minimum criteria that must be met. These requirements apply across the board to communities small and large.
The need for knowledge is also far from static. During recent times, regulations for a variety of issues such as blood-borne pathogens have emerged, and numerous levels of certification have evolved for hazardous materials. State laws may also establish licensing classifications that apply to apparatus drivers, and insurance companies often mandate the completion of defensive driving courses.
With all of this focus on formal education, it would be natural to think that the workforce that impacts all emergency calls – the dispatchers – would be trained to greater or equal standards. This is often not the case. Many dispatch centers still subscribe to the “plug-and-pray” method of indoctrination. As opposed to the “plug-and-play” concept of adding hardware that has greatly simplified PC configuration, “plug-and-pray” adds new dispatchers by plugging them into the console and praying that nobody dies during the next eight, 10 or 12 hours.
While on-the-job training is a valuable learning tool in all professions, placing an untrained individual in any position – especially one that can compromise both citizen and firefighter safety – defies both logic and reason. This method was common more than 30 years ago when I began my career in communications, and is, in fact, the means by which I received my indoctrination. Unfortunately, this practice still exists today.
One impediment to dispatcher training is the lack of enforceable standards. While firefighters and EMTs have nationally accepted and accredited learning programs, no such benchmark exists for telecommunicators. Perhaps the closest, due to its widespread acknowledgement, is the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Project 33, titled “Minimum Training Standards for Public Safety Telecommunicators.” In an August 2004 revision, 14 hours of basic training were added to better reflect current demands. In 2002, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released Standard 1061, Professional Qualifications for Public Safety Telecommunicator.
Unlike many regulations applicable to the fire service, however, these recommendations remain largely just that – recommendations. It takes state or local action to adopt mandatory requirements. Even here there is great divergence of opinion. Kentucky, for example, offers a four-week state academy, while Virginia requires 80 hours of training and Texas a 40-hour class. Tennessee, which for several years reviewed and certified the training plans of local agencies, is currently developing its own curriculum, and transferring the responsibility for this activity to the state 911 board.
Besides that offered by or established by states, several organizations and private corporations offer telecommunicator training. APCO has an entire department, The Institute, devoted to this function. Classes are available on a variety of topics and specialties, and an arrangement with Jacksonville State University supports an on-line bachelor’s degree program. The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conducts tests regularly throughout the United States through which individuals may achieve ENP, or “Emergency Number Professional” status, primarily designed for managers and supervisors.
Although the number of sources of dispatcher training has increased with the demand, this diversity can also cause confusion. There are several iterations of Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) protocols, so in effect there is no national standard for an extremely critical aspect of call-taking operations.