Operating the Single-Staffed Emergency Dispatch Center

April 25, 2012
John O’Brien shares how one person can manage inbound and outbound communications at a dispatch center.

As time goes on, today's emergency dispatch centers bear witness to one technological innovation after another. The more high-tech the dispatch center becomes, the more of a role the dispatcher can play in using these important features to the best of his or her ability.

This article is designed around the single-staffed dispatch centers that are the lifeblood of many communities across the United States. We will touch on dispatch techniques, problem solving and the best use of today's modern design.

In my 30 years as a fire dispatcher, 24 of them as a supervisor, I have been fortunate to deal with, and learn from many people ranging from those who supervised me, to every employee I have ever worked with, or supervised. I am grateful to all those along my journey.

So you are hired as a fire and EMS dispatcher, or plan to be one. Maybe you have experience, maybe not. Regardless it is important to remember that you have an obligation to learn as much as you can and essentially be the best you can at all times, at someone else's worst moment in life.

A single-staffed dispatch office can usually be identified as a local fire or EMS agency. One that will handle 400 or 800, maybe 1,600 runs a year. In any case, many of the same rules apply.


Calls may be far and few in between depending on the size and population of your district. Regardless of whether you are busy or not, every dispatcher must be at the top of his or her game. As the hotline rings, the dispatcher must first ensure composure. Be alert and be ready for the worst. Maybe a loved one just collapsed. Maybe it is a fire and the caller is trapped. Take that second to ensure mental preparation. If you work off paper, have your pen and writing material and be ready to write. If you are a full computer aided dispatch (CAD) center, it may be the keyboard as choice.

Regardless of the manner, your preparation of alertness and readiness, will greatly reduce your need to re-ask a question such as the house number, or street simply because your attention readiness was not where it needed to be. This is a critical moment for both the caller and you. You can ill afford asking these questions over again during a true emergency unless the caller was unclear.

Unclear Voice

From time to time you will have trouble understanding a caller. The most common method to overcome the unclear voice is to get the address in a spelling format. Numbers can be asked in single digit form as well.

Failure to verify through spelling and number digits will result in:

a. your continuing on the same path not understanding the callers dialog, or

b. your continued misunderstanding, having an incorrect numerical or street.

Hang Ups

Hang ups are a common occurrence for many dispatch centers. Although most are a realized incorrect dial, or possibly a caller testing their new automatic dialer, such calls cannot be ignored if technology affords your otherwise.

In most regions of the our country, local and regional phone service technology boast features that will enable a fire or EMS dispatcher to check back on a ceased dial. In my region, unless a caller's phone service has been restricted, dispatchers can dial "*69" if at least one full ring has resulted. By doing this from the line in which the call came from, an automated voice gives us a number of the ceased ring.

At this point, the caller can be called back and you can verify that this is a non emergency at the other end. Such instances usually end up being an embarrassed homeowner who was simply checking their speed dial and forgot that such phone features exist.

A complete dispatcher who gets no answer on the callback may take other options to pursue a caller's status. Commonly a police officer may be requested to check on the residence to ensure the caller does not have an emergency.

Child On The Phone

As a dispatcher you either have, or will one day, come across a child on the phone. Whereas, the situation will usually end up being a child who pressed the automatic dialer of the agency speed button, you, the dispatcher, must stay with this child until you have deemed it to be a non-emergency.

How many times have we seen the media attention given to a dispatcher and a child where a parent was unconscious on the floor and the speechless child has either dialed 9-1-1, or the fire/EMS speed dial button. This happens pretty often. The effort you make in your position can make you a hero, or simply give your agency a black eye.

Although there are many ways to address this issue, on more than one occasion I have been successful just asking the child "is mommy or daddy home?" If yes, I ask in a child-like manner, can you put mommy or daddy on the phone? In toddler ages, children can be taught early, particularly if a parent has a known medical condition. Older toddlers who can understand instruction but can't speak well enough and/or may be old enough but terrified, can usually identify with pleasant instruction to remove the fear that they have done something wrong.

Language Barrier

In today's society language barriers have become common place. While many of the large emergency dispatch centers may have bilingual dispatchers on hand, many of our smaller centers may not. In a situation such as this, agencies need to pre-plan how such a solution can be made. One solution is to have another agency who has the ability to speak another language be contacted and the call put in a conference mode for the three-party dialog. At this point, the bilingual dispatcher can translate the emergency to the hosting agency and the wheels can quickly be put in motion. Other areas may have the regional phone operator with such capabilities.

Caller ID

Regardless of whether your situation is a hang up, a child on the phone, language barrier, or even verification to the CAD main screen, a regional Caller ID phone feature is only as good to us as whether the caller has previously restricted it or not. However having the Caller ID still maintains its importance to today's emergency dispatch center.


Training is the most important phase of your career as a dispatcher. And it should never stop at your point of hire. In my agency, new employees are thoroughly trained in everything that you are reading in this article. They also receive approximately 70 hours of internal training programs with over 60 different emergency scenarios, all custom to types of scenarios, locations, and specific policies common to my agency. In short, a training employee will physically carry out simulated alarms that are specific to our policy with real addresses as displayed in our database. New candidates will take part in a physical drive of the most important aspects of our district allowing them the opportunity to see the area and landmark chronic emergency locations, new developments, highways, clover leafs, and main roads.

At the end of the training a determination of the success for both the instructor and the student can be witnessed in a 10-page open book exam of which we expect a grade of 80 or better. The test is reviewed personally with the student. A five-page checklist of all training points is completed to ensure no subject is missed. All documentation goes to the file of this new employee as proof of competency.

Emergency Medical Dispatch

Since the late 1980's professional firms have exposed the advantages of fire and medical dispatch pre-arrival instructions. Training your staff to such levels has resulted in saving lives year after year, in everything from child births to a cardiac saves over the phone. One can also assume that a cardiac save made in a ambulance or hospital setting where effective early CPR was given in the minutes prior, no doubt had an effect on the chances to regain life.

Single dispatch centers need to determine if the call volume can reasonably allow a dispatcher to handle such an event over the phone with potential for other incoming emergencies. Written agency guidelines are essential to ensure prompt and efficient service, reducing a risk of liability in decision making.

Quality Assurance

Quality assurance is a vital program within any dispatch center. All dispatchers need to perform in the same manner and follow policy in the same fashion. All dispatchers need to be on the same efficiency level to ensure optimum service to the emergency callers. Making this happen is as simple as a supervisor or designate performing reviews of both the phone and radio recordings. A simple form can be established that documents the date, time, location, dispatcher, time on phone, off phone, time the agency was alerted, as well as a comment section for any review both negative or positive.

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.


In decades past, when we thought of fire pre-planning, we thought of apparatus placement and hose evolutions specific to buildings within our districts. From the 1980's on, computer aided dispatch centers, some as small as they are, still boast some of the best computer technology the fire and EMS communications have to offer. Many agencies, large and small, have building pre-plan information for the commercial structures within each district. With all the many tools of the emergency communication trade, this is no doubt the most important feature to the incident commanders and their firefighters.

Whereas the plans have information from contacts, gas, electric, and occupancy information, it is the construction and hazardous material information that prove most urgent. New CAD programs have the ability to flash critical issues on the dispatcher's main screen, such as truss, orientated strand board (OSB), gypsum roofs, or high hazmat contents. This is all critical information that a chief must have before deploying their firefighters at a major fire.

Upon the chief's radioed response, the dispatcher can quickly acknowledge with information that they are responding to a "truss constructed building with hazardous materials." This flags the chief to review his paper preplan or mobile computer system further, depending on their technology.

Wishing all of you a successful career in our extremely important public service positions.

JOHN J. O'BRIEN is the District Supervisor of the Jericho Fire District in New York. He has over 30 years of dispatch and supervisory experience and is also certified in Emergency Medical Dispatch. He is a 33-year member, EMT, and active ex-chief of the East Meadow, NY, Fire Department and is the Long Island Regional Sales Representative of the Fire-End & Croker Corporation. You can contact John by e-mail at: [email protected].

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