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November 10, 2003
Chief Billy Goldfeder

One of the most forgotten but critical "links" in a decent fire or emergency operation is communications. Duh. But one area that is even more critical are the dispatchers involved in the operation. Dispatchers are, in many cases, forgotten about and generally, taken for granted. Who hasn't been in a firehouse discussion where "those damn dispatchers" are always responsible for everything that went wrong on a fire scene or related response? Yep-if it goes wrong-odd's are there is a way we can blame the dispatchers.

Years ago, I was a boss in a pretty large fire & EMS emergency communications center and there were a few EMS supervisors in the field that thought that their poop didn't stink. It did. But-our dispatchers could do nothing right...until those supervisors had to spend some time actually IN the emergency communications center. And then, what happened after that? They were still clueless morons. Yeah-ya thought I was gonna say "they saw the light" or "they really understood the challenges of dispatching and became our biggest supporters" or something like that? No-not a chance...not those clowns-but it did point out how close minded they were to truly understanding what fire and EMS dispatchers actually have to do-in order to get the call processed-and managed while the call is in progress. And then when I suggested that all field personnel spend "required time" in the communications center? Yeah-we didn't get many Christmas cards that year.

Sure-some dispatchers have no clue-just like some of us in the field. The difference is-everything a dispatcher has to do is tracked, monitored, heard, taped, recorded, reviewed and under the scrutiny of anyone with a radio. It would be like if someone followed us around all day in the field-listening to and watching every single one of our actions in the field....THAT would be a real treat, huh? Can you imagine everything a firefighter or an officer says and does being listened to and watched the entire time we are on duty? Of course, there are some FD's where cameras and tape recorders HAVE been placed w/o anyone knowing-but that's another fun story for another day.

It seems that everyone with a radio, monitor or scanner knows how "those damn dispatchers" oughta be doing the job. Of course we do. After all-all those people in "communications" do is answer phones, watch TV and talk on the radio.

Not taking anything away from what we do in the field, the fact is that functioning as a dispatcher is a high stress responsibility as well....a different kind of stress, but still stressful. Dealing with the parent of a drowning child, speaking to a child whose parent just beat the crap out of the other or "us" yelling and screaming over the radio because the power company hasn't arrived quick enough for "arcing wires in a tree"  or......listening to a caller cry and scream as they observe people trapped in a nightclub fire----requires cool, calm and professional action. Kinda like firefighting. Sometimes it happens-sometimes it doesn't. 

When it all comes out in the end-our dispatchers are really the "first responders" in dealing with those who need us. They are our first point of contact in the "link of events" that are needed to make something bad become something not so bad. If your FD is the best trained and best staffed-none of that matters if the same attention isn't paid to the communications center personnel. Some communities get it-most don't. Unfortunately-many dispatch centers and their personnel are ignored when it comes to training, staffing and pay-but when things go wrong, are the first to take it in the ass-terisk.

In West Warwick, Rhode Island-the dispatchers had their hands full as the first people to have to deal with "The Station" Nightclub was clear within seconds that a tragedy was unfolding-as the firefighters then found out minutes later. 

Go to:

Some of the radio traffic from the Station Nightclub Fire is available there....absolutely incredible. Take a listen....and also think about your dispatch center, how they would handle it and what their training, staffing and related levels are-or are gonna be, when they get a call like this-or for a more standard call, such as a working dwelling fire, a non-breather or a multi victim crash. 

Kinda like firefighter and FD preparedness-dispatcher and communication center preparedness, staffing, training and compensation (to insure competent and qualified folks work there) is probably better off when taken care of before the incident-as opposed to after an incident, when everyone and their brother is scrutinizing the operation. Just like we cry, whine and bitch cause "the public doesn't understand what we do"...OUR dispatchers probably feel the same about us.