‘Those &^%$*# fire dispatchers!’ isn’t always the right response

Several factors contribute to how dispatch centers work – and hiring to fill seats will undoubtedly lead to issues


If you've been a firefighter for more than 5 minutes, you have an opinion on dispatchers. Odds are you aren't happy with the job they do, you think they don't do enough – or they do too much, they don't know WHAT they are doing, and on and on and on. 

Of course, it's easy to have an opinion about those who work in communication centers because you hear what they do all day long, and after all, that's all that's needed to have a fully qualified opinion – a scanner, a radio, an app. As long as you can hear it … 

Or not. 

Just like new dispatch personnel should spend time riding in the field to best understand that aspect of the job, new fire and EMS personnel, as well as those being promoted, should spend time in their dispatch center to genuinely understand what happens behind the scenes.
Just like new dispatch personnel should spend time riding in the field to best understand that aspect of the job, new fire and EMS personnel, as well as those being promoted, should spend time in their dispatch center to genuinely understand what happens behind the scenes. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

If you've read any of my articles before, you know I am a huge fan of those who work in fire and related 911 emergency communication centers. While they are far from perfect – just like us in the field – when well-trained, properly supported, fairly led and appropriately paid, the critical job they do gets done very, very well.

It's when the opposite occurs, when hiring is simply to fill the seats, that training is rushed, policies and procedures are non-existent or extinct, staffing is woefully inadequate and the whole dispatch operation is an afterthought – and that’s when the public, EMS and fire departments suffer. 

Spotlight on SWNH Fire Mutual Aid System

There are thousands of fire communication centers across North America, and some do it very well. One of my absolute favorites is the Southwestern New Hampshire Fire Mutual Aid System Communications Center

Based in Keene, the center – known locally as “Mutual Aid” – dispatches fire and EMS for 78 communities in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. THREE states! In business since the 1950s, Mutual Aid is led by Deputy Chief Joe Sangermano.

Mutual Aid is one of the most professional and efficient fire/EMS dispatch centers I have ever visited. The reliance on a professionally prepared and lead dispatch center is critical for any fire or rescue operation, and Mutual Aid hits on all spots – policy, procedures, leadership, training and fair compensation. 

They also know what works – and what doesn't. For example, how many dispatch centers purchase a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system that does all kinds of cool stuff other than quickly get the calls out?! Sadly, it's not uncommon. Then add the “20 questions” system of pre-dispatch questioning – "what kind of car is on fire?”; “What kind of smoke do you smell? –and the unnecessary delays kick in … and with that, the anger toward dispatch kicks in. Sometimes it is justified. But rarely is it the individual dispatcher at fault. More likely, it’s other factors, like poor or nonexistent training, policy, staffing, etc., that interfere with the job getting done right. 

Every once in a while, the personnel who actually do the job are consulted when it comes to new equipment – a pretty cool concept! For example, the SWNH District Fire Mutual Aid Center waited many years before going to a CAD system that would do what they wanted and needed it to do. Quite simply, their manual card system worked well for decades – and they processed incidents so rocket fast that they were very cautious before moving to just any automated system. 

In many areas, unfortunately, new CAD systems are purchased before the department knows if the system will meet their needs, which is ridiculous and dangerous. If a new CAD system doesn’t equal or improve the call-handling, dispatch and overall emergency response times versus the old system, then you are doing the public and the fire and EMS personnel a huge disservice. Do not let the tail wag the dog! 

Two steps ahead: The value of a great dispatcher

Fire communications is also about the PEOPLE who work there. Fire communication centers need people who LOVE the job. No different than a fire department.

Every one of you knows the feeling when you hear that “so-and-so” is on the engine responding – you’re relieved THAT fire officer is working today. On the other hand, when you hear “that knucklehead" on the apparatus radio, you really hope to get there before knucklehead arrives so you can set up command.

Fire dispatchers are the same way, perhaps even more so. Ever had a working fire where the dispatcher is unable to keep up? An incident where you feel like the dispatcher isn't in tune with the criticality of your situation? It isn't a good feeling.

On the other hand, ever had a working fire or significant emergency where the dispatcher is two steps ahead of you? Knowing what will be needed next? Prompting certain things based upon the info they know? Sharing every aspect of the details with you? Answering immediately when you call? It's a big deal and when you have THAT dispatcher – a real blessing.

I have met some phenomenal dispatchers over many years – dispatchers who absolutely get it. Warren Fuchs at FDNY, Ian Rogers from Nassau County (N.Y.) Firecom, Pete Plasmier from Loudoun County (Va.) ECC and Laura Liddell from Manatee County (Fla.) ECC-to name just a few. These are the folks you WANT on the other end of the radio when you have THAT emergency. 

SWNH Fire Mutual Aid has some legends working there as well – the kind you want on the radio when you are handling that very tough call. And I would like to share a little bit about one of them who is retiring. 

On Feb. 4, Lt. Ed Mattson put on his headset and logged in to the CAD for the last time. It marked more than 43 years that he has served Mutual Aid.

According to Chief Sangermano, Mattson’s contributions have extended far beyond the dispatch center: “He could frequently be found delivering or retrieving the system’s Fire Safety Trailer to any one of the three state communities that are part of their system. He is one of the few from Dispatch who can tow and set up our portable antenna tower used for supporting emergency communications in the field. Ed was also part of a team that climbed the side of a mountain, with a prefabbed building in tow, and constructed an enclosure at one of our antenna sites. Ed has been a fixture on the hiring committees over the last two decades, lending his expertise for choosing their next dispatchers.”

Lt. Ed Mattson served Mutual Aid for 43 years and hung up his headset on Feb. 4.
Lt. Ed Mattson served Mutual Aid for 43 years and hung up his headset on Feb. 4.


Lt. David Whipple shared: “Over the years, I truly believe that he taught me more than I taught him. There was always a certain level of reassurance when Ed was in the dispatch center during difficult calls. I could always turn and say to him, Ed what do you think about doing this? And his answer would either be I think that's a good idea or, you could always do this. Usually, I went with whatever he said.”

Deputy Chief Kassie Lunderville recalls: “I was fortunate to get hired and Eddie was one of my trainers. He always has a way of helping you and correcting your mistakes without making you feel like you really messed up. He was never condescending or belittling; he always just wanted us all to succeed as a team. He is one of the best supervisors ever!”

And Deputy Chief Tom Reddin knows that Ed's advice was always based upon what was best for the person having the emergency and those responding to handle it. His focus was always on “what’s best,” he said.

So many in our business fight change. As the late-Chief Alan Brunacini once said, “Firefighters hate two things: change and the way things are.” But that's not who Lt. Mattson is. He is a senior man who understands that positive change is critical, because it is what's best for those having an emergency.

“Ed has been here since 1966, so it is really remarkable how he was able to get up to speed with the technology and remain there for his tenure,” Sangermano said. “I comment on his ability to successfully embrace technology because he has a few years on me, and I struggle with it frequently.”

Turn on the lights in the “dark room” of dispatch

People fear dark rooms because of the unknown. Too many personnel in the field, our dispatch center is a “dark room” that's easy to criticize because we don't understand how it works. We think we do, but that's not always the case.

While there are certainly challenges in many dispatch centers (as there are in fire departments), a good way to minimize the lack of understanding is to spend time in the dispatch center. Just like new dispatch personnel should spend time riding in the field to best understand that aspect of the job, new fire and EMS personnel, as well as those being promoted, should spend time in their dispatch center to genuinely understand what happens behind the scenes. 

Another bonus: When spending time in dispatch and getting to know the personnel who work there, if you're lucky, you'll meet your local Lt. Mattson who will help bridge that gap between what we think we know about dispatch and the reality of understanding and appreciating that critical job.

Note: If you'd like to listen to SWNH Fire Mutual Aid dispatch operations, visit www.FireMutualAid.com and click on Live Audio. I think you'll be impressed.

 

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