4 ways fire officers can improve 'dispatch'

They are the mortar that holds emergency response together, and knowing how to work with dispatch will boost firefighter effectiveness and safety

Call them Public Safety Telecommunicators (PST), dispatchers, emergency communications officers, or whatever, the PSTs who answer 911 calls are like the smoke detectors in our homes: we don't think about them, but when they're needed … they're needed.

The PST is of course the critical communications link between those who need help and those who can render help.

PSTs are also the critical link between responding fire and EMS resources and the additional resources they need to manage the emergency including more fire companies, electric utilities, public works, etc. Think about it: When you need something — anything — on the emergency scene, what do you do? You get on the radio and contact the PST. Problem solved, right?

On the television show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", contestants can use a lifeline — a previously designated family member or friend — to seek their advice when they don't know an answer. The PST is the lifeline for emergency responders.

One of their primary responsibilities is to keep track of your crew's location and status from the time you are dispatched until you and your people are safely back in quarters following the call. Here are four things that you and your people can do to develop and maintain a sound working relationship with your PSTs.

1. Treat PSTs as first-responder equals
The PST is truly the first responder in a public safety system. They are the first public safety element to know that an emergency exists, to respond by dispatching the appropriate resources, and to provide assistance to the 911 caller through pre-arrival instructions.

Today's PST is much more than just a dispatcher. Depending upon their agency's requirements, they receive professionally developed training to become certified in the various telecommunications disciplines.

That can include using sophisticated telephone equipment, using a Computer-Aided Dispatch System and using effective communication skills with responding resources.

2. Communicate clearly over the radio
Communicating by radio strips many of the non-verbal cues from your communication — like facial expressions, posture, etc. — that are critical for the other party to truly understand your message.

What you're left with are your actual words and the tone of your voice, so use them wisely. Sarcasm or the use of a condescending voice does nothing to enhance the quality of your message or gain understanding from the receiver.

Know exactly what it is you want or need before you key the mic. The PST is not a mind reader (for that matter nobody on the other end of a radio is), so mentally compose your message before you transmit it.

Use confirmed communication techniques to ensure your message was accurately received and understood.

3. Keep them informed about location, status
The PST can't be your lifeline if they don't know where you and your crew are. For instance, if you and your crew are out in your district training your new driver on hydrant operations, let the PST know your location so if something happens — one of your people gets struck by a distracted motorist — valuable time will not be lost trying to determine where to send emergency resources.

The area where your engine company is doing its training or fire prevention program may have you closer to a fire or EMS emergency than the first-due company that CADS will recommend for dispatch when the call is entered.

Keeping the PST informed about where you are gives them the flexibility to alter the CADS dispatch recommendation to get the closest unit to the call.

4. Get to know your PSTs
Nothing breeds mutual respect and understanding like walking a mile in another person's shoes. Spend some time in your community's emergency communications center sitting side-by-side with a PST as he or she does their job. I guarantee you'll learn a great deal.

Some of the most valuable knowledge and experience that I gained in my fire service career came during the 3-plus years I spent as the fire manager working with the dedicated men and women of the Chesterfield County (Va.) Emergency Communications Center.

Return the favor by inviting your PSTs to spend time with you and your crew as you go about your daily activities. If yours is a volunteer department, give them a pager and let them experience responding from home and hopping on a rig.

Seeing what you and your crew do on a typical day will give them a host of mental pictures that can aid them greatly in their decision-making when they're back on the other side of the radio.

Continuing to make improvements in firefighter safety is everybody's job, and that includes folks who work on the other side of the radio in your locality. Everyone sleeps easier at night knowing that someone is on their six. Who has yours?

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