Dispatchers deal with life and death situations every day on the job. They're used to the pressure that comes with an intense call for service and being relied on to send the appropriate response to an emergency. That's why it takes quite a bit to get a dispatcher to refer to one particular day as worse than any of the others.
But according to Denise McKinney, Chief of Communications for the Ouachita Parish Fire Department in Louisiana, there's one day that stands out to her as the worst in her history on the job.
When Ouachita Parish including the cities of West Monroe and Monroe was hit by an EF2 tornado in December 2013, long after tornado season had ended, first responders worked diligently to aid those in need. According to the Enhanced Fujita scale, which is used to rank the severity of tornadoes, an EF2 indicates a storm with wind speeds of up to 135 mph.
"The storm started in the southwest end of the parish and continued to move throughout the community," McKinney said. "We were getting a lot of calls, but no one was using the word 'tornado' in the calls. What we were hearing was that there was a lot of wind and a lot of trees were coming down."
As the storm continued to move through the area, Ouachita Parish 911 received an onslaught of calls from residents who were trapped in their homes or unable to get home due to trees in the roadways. In addition, lightning from the storm caused many house fires, and rescuers needed clear pathways to get to those in need.
"The storm really tore up the area," McKinney said. "We had a lot of off-duty firemen come out with their chainsaws to clear pathways on the roadways so residents and emergency vehicles could get around. We were also getting calls from our public works personnel who let us know which roads had been closed, which was beneficial as it allowed us to enter that information into our computer aided dispatch (CAD) system."
By entering this information into CAD, dispatchers created roadblocks on CAD maps, which helped ensure all first responders avoided certain areas that were impassable.
"Every entry into our CAD system map was globally applied so that all users could see the changes in their mobile units within their patrol or rescue vehicles," McKinney said. "Being able to see those changes immediately enabled us to get help to where it was needed most despite the amount of debris on the roads."
In a fire emergency, every second is crucial. That's why dispatchers must work quickly to send the appropriate response to the scene.
When a summer lightning storm caused multiple fires in an Oregon community, dispatchers with the Marion Area Multi Agency Emergency Telecommunications Center (METCOM) were tasked with providing effective coverage to their citizens.
To do this, dispatchers relied heavily on built-in fire response plan capabilities in METCOM's computer aided dispatch (CAD) system. These plans dictate what units and capabilities are needed for a specific call and help get a response moving as quickly as possible. Because fire emergencies can escalate quickly, these plans also take alarm levels assigned to fires into consideration.
When dispatchers escalate a fire emergency to a higher alarm, which indicates the severity of the fire emergency, they know exactly what type of response will be sent to the scene with pre-determined responses built in to CAD.
According to METCOM director Gina Audritsh, dispatch centers throughout the United States use the term level and alarm synonymously when discussing fire emergencies.
"It's important that dispatchers can assign alarms in CAD to fire emergencies and get the right response to the scene as quickly as possible," Audritsh said. "Without these capabilities, sending the best response takes longer."
According to Audritsh, there was a time before METCOM upgraded its CAD system when dispatchers relied on paper maps and manual processes when sending a response.
"At METCOM, we've come a long way," Audritsh said. "We've grown to dispatch for 29 agencies. To do this effectively, we needed a CAD system capable of getting our first responders on the scene as quickly and safely as possible. We have that capability now and our responses have improved so much that our fire departments have experienced improved scores with their insurance rating as a result."
There are a few ways to dispatch emergency services when a call for service comes in to a call center.
Without computer aided dispatch (CAD) software, dispatchers send transmissions via radio to first responders. These first responders use pen and paper to record the information or commit the details to memory. To get to the scene, they might use their own mobile phone’s routing features, or rely on their own knowledge of the area.
Then there are dispatchers who utilize CAD software and send a response, but are unaware of the unit’s estimated time of arrival (ETA). Once the unit is dispatched to a call for service, dispatchers calculate the ETA based on the unit’s location, speed and route.
What dispatchers and law enforcement officers have learned is that a much more efficient way to get to the scene is through proximity dispatching. With this method, dispatchers see where police, fire and EMS units are on a digital map in CAD software in real-time along with their continuously adjusting ETAs.
The continuously updated ETAs that proximity dispatching relies on are provided through the use of automatic vehicle location (AVL) functionality. This provides the most accurate information possible, so that dispatchers and first responders can see where all units are by looking at their digital maps either in the CAD mapping system or mobile data terminals in patrol cars, fire engines, or other emergency vehicles. Using this information, dispatchers determine which unit should be dispatched to ensure the quickest response.
AVL works by having each emergency vehicle equipped with global positioning system (GPS) functionality. By pre-programming GPS data into an agency’s mobile server, the mobile software located in police, fire and EMS vehicles communicates seamlessly back and forth to dispatch.
This same signal is sent to other units within the agency, all of which are able to view this information using the maps on their mobile devices.
AVL technology continuously sends latitude and longitude coordinates back to the CAD system so that dispatchers always know the location of a unit.
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