Expanding Expectations, Retreating Resources

Even where facilities have dedicated call-taking and dispatch personnel, it is rare that a dispatcher is assigned to a single incident.


The past decade has given rise to a serious threat to firefighter safety. It is not a terrorist sleeper cell, nor is it a newly brewed hazardous material. In fact, it isn't even present on the fireground. The threat of which I am speaking is the growing gap between what incident commanders have come...


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The past decade has given rise to a serious threat to firefighter safety. It is not a terrorist sleeper cell, nor is it a newly brewed hazardous material. In fact, it isn't even present on the fireground. The threat of which I am speaking is the growing gap between what incident commanders have come to expect and what many dispatch centers can actually deliver. Some of the factors discussed in this column have been presented previously; however, the intention here is to focus on these factors with regard to their direct impact upon the wellbeing of first responders.

While issues can arise from dispatch centers being left out of the master-planning loop, there are day-to-day concerns that can also be underplayed or ignored. The most pressing of these concerns is the growing expectation that dispatchers will be monitoring every active emergency call. While this is sometimes possible, most of the time it is not. Here's why.

Since the early 1990s, there has been a move away from conventional channels toward trunked radio systems. While we can debate the merits of these systems for fire service use, there is no debate that they have reduced congestion in the field. Where single channels once existed, there are now often dozens of talk groups. In the case of the center that I manage, this has increased our original five to the current 58. These virtual channels not only enable unit-to-unit interoperability between agencies, they also allow for individual incidents to be assigned to their own channel. Where incident commanders formerly had to be concerned about having a critical transmission stepped on or interfered with by a neighboring department or company, they are now virtually assured of a clear communications pathway.

Many trunking networks have been designed to accommodate a wide range of options regarding who can talk to whom, and with good reason: communications play a large role in first responder safety. Unfortunately, this design has transferred the congestion and confusion from the field into the dispatch center. While I have seen some variants, the typical radio console has two speakers - the "select" speaker for the single channel that the dispatcher is actively working and the "unselect" speaker for everything else. That means that every other channel or talk group - regardless of the number or level of activity - is pumped through a solitary three-inch speaker. Although there are individual volume controls for each frequency, they are of little value when it's busy. Try to imagine a scanner that instead of skipping from channel to channel, grabs the active audio from all of them and plays it back simultaneously and you have a good idea what can occur.

In addition to technology changes, there have been changes in the way that the fire service does business. Responding to medical calls not only increases the number of runs that many companies make, it also adds dispatches. Centers that provide strictly fire department communications have added these runs for every agency they serve. The cumulative effect can be staggering. For multi-discipline centers, fire first responder calls mean that one more unit is now added to every EMS run; a unit that must be dispatched and tracked by someone. If each one of these dispatches is assigned its own talk group, which frequently occurs in 800 Mhz systems, it creates a situation whereby it is virtually impossible to actively monitor all calls, unless staffing levels support one dispatcher for every two units. Obviously, this never happens.

Some agencies address this issue by declaring that only certain incident types warrant direct oversight. However, this logic needs further examination. To say that emergency medical responses are less dangerous to personnel than other calls ignores the potential for domestic violence situations, combative patients and unsecured crime scenes. The overall perception seems to be that structure fires are most deserving of attention; however, firefighter fatality figures from 2006 suggest that you are equally at risk while responding. Since some of these vehicular incidents involve personal autos, they occur when the firefighter is not being monitored by fire alarm personnel. In fact, the largest number of firefighter deaths - almost 40% - occurred away from the fireground in situations where status is not normally tracked.

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