Amid cit­i­zen com­plaints, Call Cen­ter opens up about process

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­news.com

Ev­ery­one knows to dial 911 for any emer­gency sit­u­a­tion, but not many peo­ple know what hap­pens on the other end of the phone.

These call­ers are in one of the most stress­ful mo­ments of their lives. But pa­tience, time and thought will need to go into the sit­u­a­tion to re­solve the is­sue.

Most peo­ple think they are talking to a po­lice of­fi­cer or a first re­spon­der on the other line, ac- cord­ing to Chris Thomp­son, the as­sis­tant chief of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Depart­ment of Emer­gency Ser­vices. In re­al­ity, they are speak­ing to trained dis­patch­ers for emer­gency sit­u­a­tions, he said.

“The pub­lic knows po­lice, they know fire and they know EMS. They don’t know any­thing about 911. They don’t know the peo­ple who an­swer the phone,” Thomp­son said. “They have no idea what our pro­to­cols are about. It’s that way across the na­tion.”

Many peo­ple have com­plained about the time on the line and ques­tions dis­patch­ers in the call cen­ter must ask, Thomp­son said, but all of those ques­tions are nec­es­sary to send the proper help to an emer­gency.

Sit­u­a­tions such as the one in Prince Ge­orge’s County where John Ulm­schnei­der, a 37-year-old fire­fighter, was shot and killed on the scene of a 911 call to check on a res­i­dent.

Re­cently, Thomp­son said, a call- er took is­sue with ques­tions a call taker asked and re­quested a look at the call cen­ter’s process. But ac­cord­ing to pro­to­col, the call taker did noth­ing wrong in the sit­u­a­tion, Thomp­son said.

“We do ask a lot of ques­tions,” Thomp­son said. “These are ques­tions that we are bound to ask. We have no choice but to ask these ques­tions.”

The call cen­ter op­er­ates from a man­ual with a ques­tion-and-an­swer flow chart. Ev­ery time, Thomp­son said, the call taker will ini­tially ask call­ers to state their emer­gency. Then, the call taker must ver­ify the lo­ca­tion with the caller and find a good ad­dress along with a phone num­ber.

Af­ter that, he said, they will fol­low the out­lined ques­tion flow chart de­pend­ing on the emer­gency and send what­ever ser­vice is re­quired from the re­sults.

All 911 calls are han­dled in the emer­gency ser­vices build­ing. There are two dif­fer­ent agen­cies in the call cen­ter: one for fire and emer­gency ser­vices and an­other for the sher­iff’s of­fice com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Dis­patch­ers are cer­ti­fied in emer­gency po­lice dis­patch, fire dis­patch and med­i­cal dis­patch. From those cer­ti­fi­ca­tions, Thomp­son said, they know what ques­tions to ask and when.

“Dis­patch­ers’ first role is to pro­tect the of­fi­cer. That’s their first role, it’s scene safety,” Thomp­son said. “Same thing with the fire depart­ment and paramedics and EMTs. The way we do that is ask­ing our ques­tions.”

Bill Smith, a vol­un­teer fire­fighter with and pub­lic in­for­ma­tion co­or­di­na­tor for the Charles County Vol­un­teer and Emer­gency Ser­vices Depart­ment, said the dis­patch­ers are es­sen­tial to what they do and how they op­er­ate.

With ap­prox­i­mately 2,500 calls over the last year or so, Smith said, the fire depart­ment has not had a ma­jor in­ci­dent where a vol­un­teer has been put in dan­ger or in­for­ma­tion has been faulty. That is a re­flec­tion on how good the dis­patch­ers are, he said.

“Some­times cit­i­zens get frus­trated be­cause they ask so many ques­tions, but that helps us on the street,” Smith said. “We did not have many calls that we had is­sues with.”

Smith said most of the dis­patch­ers han­dling fire and emer­gency ser­vices have some vol­un­teer fire ex­pe­ri­ence and know ex­actly what ques­tions to ask. They send ex­act notes into the call sys­tem with spe­cific in­for­ma­tion vol­un­teers may need and that makes han­dling the emer­gency eas­ier.

Lt. Stan­ley Gre­gan, the com­man­der of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions depart­ment of the Charles County Sher­iff’s Of­fice, said dis­patch­ers are not appreciated enough for the work they do. They give ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion, he said, and make sure of­fi­cers and first re­spon­ders are safe go­ing into emer­gen­cies.

“The rea­son why an of­fi­cer or a para­medic can get a save is be­cause the dis­patcher kept that per­son alive un­til we got there,” Gre­gan said. “The po­lice and med­i­cal per­son­nel carry de­frib­ril­la­tors, but the dis­patcher has some­one there do­ing CPR and keep­ing the blood flow­ing un­til some­one with more ad­vanced med­i­cal skill gets there.”

The more in­for­ma­tion dis­patch­ers can get from peo­ple, the eas­ier it is for po­lice to do their jobs, Gre­gan said. In essence, he said, dis­patch­ers are in­ter­view­ing peo­ple the po­lice will then in­ter­view when they ar­rive at the scene.

Thomp­son said while dis­patch­ers do have a lot of ques­tions to ask and he un­der­stands how peo­ple can be frus­trated in stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, once a caller di­als 911, they are es­sen­tially help­ing solve an emer­gency.

For ev­ery call, some emer­gency per­son­nel will be sent to the scene — no mat­ter what the is­sue is. Even if the emer­gency is min­i­mal, help will be sent. But the in­for­ma­tion call­ers send will al­ways be es­sen­tial, Thomp­son said.

“We have to trust them based off the in­for­ma­tion they’re giv­ing us,” Thomp­son said. “They’re feed­ing us the in­for­ma­tion. We trust them.”

STAFF PHOTO BY MICHAEL SYKES II

A dis­patcher in the Emer­gency Ser­vices Call Cen­ter is tak­ing a call for a mulch fire while mon­i­tor­ing the lo­ca­tion and phone num­ber of the caller on mul­ti­ple screens on Tuesday after­noon.

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