Preparing Dispatchers For Hazmat & Terrorist Emergencies

Dispatchers and 911 operators are usually the first to receive notification of any type of emergency that occurs in the community. They may be talking with the person who is a victim of an incident, a witness to what happened or even the perpetrator...


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Dispatchers and 911 operators are usually the first to receive notification of any type of emergency that occurs in the community. They may be talking with the person who is a victim of an incident, a witness to what happened or even the perpetrator. Callers can provide valuable information to assist emergency responders. Dispatchers and 911 operators should be trained to provide extract appropriate information from callers.

The Right Questions

Nearly every fire and EMS response has the potential for hazardous materials to be present. Call takers should use their knowledge and training to determine, based on the caller's information, more specific information about hazardous materials that may be present. Call takers should routinely ask questions about the presence of hazardous materials when emergency calls come in. This includes traffic accidents, industrial accidents, EMS calls and fires. Training should further prepare call takers to provide assistance to emergency responders when dealing with hazmat, terrorist or threat incidents. (Threat incidents include bomb threats, anthrax threats or any other type threat involving explosive, chemical or biological materials.)

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Photo by Robert Burke
Any emergency response has the potential to be a hazardous materials incident. Emergency responders and dispatchers must train for the worst.

Through training, dispatchers will develop a better understanding of the type of information that is important to response personnel. They will also understand terminology used by response personnel and be able to provide a higher level of assistance based on their increased level of knowledge.

Training Is A Must

Hazmat, terrorist and threat incidents are very technical by nature. Training will help increase the awareness level of dispatchers and 911 operators when these incidents occur. The information provided in this article is applicable to fire, police and EMS dispatchers.

Subject areas that should be covered in a dispatcher/911 operator training course include an introduction to hazmat incidents and acts of terrorism. Information should include hazmat and terrorist awareness; hints to the presence of hazmat or terrorist incidents; locations where such incidents may occur; recognizing signs and symptoms from victims; and the types of information to gather from the caller to be helpful for response personnel.

Every community should have a plan for dealing with hazmat releases or terrorist incidents. Call takers should be thoroughly familiar with the plan and know when and how to implement it if needed. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) based on the community emergency plan and dispatch operations should be developed for day-to-day use. SOPs should cover call screening, initial dispatch, when the plan is activated, who is in charge, hazmat references, dealing with the media and dispatcher duties. SOPs should clearly define the role of the dispatcher during a hazmat or terrorist incident.

9_01_hazmat2.jpg
Photo by Robert Burke
Information gathered by emergency dispatchers can be valuable to responders on scene in determining hazards and what has happened.

Dispatchers and 911 operators should keep the caller on the line as long as possible to obtain information to pass on to emergency responders. Initial dispatch protocols should include proper resources, weather conditions, information about the hazard or threat, and concise information about what may have happened and what the conditions are at the present time.

Call takers will have numerous duties and responsibilities during a hazmat or terrorist incident. They do not end with the dispatch of emergency responders. Dispatchers should have access to reference materials, including the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). Other important references include the Condensed Chemical Dictionary, the NIOSH Guide and the Bureau of Explosives Railroad Book.

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