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Everything about Lee County (Miss.) E-911 Communications says team

Written by Audrey Fraizer

Everything about Lee County (Miss.) E-911 Communications says team. A four-minute video on YouTube highlights photos of dispatchers at work, at play and attending award ceremonies with the rock song With Arms Wide Open playing in the background. While the band’s lead vocalist Scott Stapp wrote the power ballad in honor of the birth of his son, the song could also be seen as a tribute to those welcoming whatever comes their way.

“We had access to lots of pictures so we put it together to show people what we do here,” said Jo Escher who with dispatcher Kristina Cooper pulled the video together for posting on the Lee County community page. “It doesn’t show the total reality but at least it gives people a better clue.”

Lee County E-911 Communications, in the northeast corner of the state, is a consolidated center serving 81,000 residents, and providing dispatch for 18 fire agencies, 10 law enforcement agencies, and one ambulance service. Their team of 20 dispatchers answers 7,000 calls each month, rotating between 12-hour shifts.

The video has done more than serve as a reality check for the public; it has also proven a gathering point for co-workers, said Escher. “You know like any group of people who work together, we have our moments,” she said. “Buy, hey, they like the video. It’s cool. We make a great team. When the nail’s to the wall, we pull together and get things done.”

The Lee County team contributes to the goal of providing the best care he or she can to the citizens calling 9-1-1 for assistance in a fire, medical, or law enforcement crisis. They use ProQA®, the software version of the Priority Dispatch System, for each separate service: the Medical Priority Dispatch System™ (MPDS®), the Fire Priority Dispatch System™ (FPDS™), and the Police Priority Dispatch System™ (PPDS™).

Lee County E-911 Communications implemented FPDS and PPDS nearly 12 years after introducing MPDS, but for much the same reason: standardization. “We had been experiencing complaints about inconsistencies in the police and fire dispatch we provided,” said center Director Paul Harkins. “My Board of Commissioners and I felt that going to standardized protocol would give us the consistency we needed. We’re getting there.”

Standardization is a key component of the protocol developed by the nonprofit National Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (NAED™), and Priority Dispatch Corp., the research and software company contracted with the NAED to deliver the protocols in a usable manual and CAD compatible format. Similar to the intense research and field expert recommendations behind protocol design is the hard work on the part of dispatchers to achieve and maintain certification.

Standards like certification, training, and quality assurance are the core of quality emergency dispatch and the very reasons Priority Dispatch Systems are the protocols of choice for nearly 3,000 communications centers worldwide. From the start Training and certification are parts of the system Jeff Clawson, M.D., advocated strongly from the day he devised emergency dispatch protocol more than 30 years ago. “The person in the dispatch office has to be able to handle anything from multiple structure fires, armed robberies, chemical spills, to the myriad of problems that are going to be present from EMS,” Dr. Clawson said. “The individual cannot be placed in the position where the dispatcher is just a locator, finding an address and then sending response. You’re talking about a professional emergency services dispatcher, the nerve center of EMS.”

Dispatchers must attend a three-day EMD, EPD, and/or EFD course taught by NAED certified instructors. The courses are a professional level of training recognized all around the world, and they often exceed the minimum requirements many states have legislated during the past several years. Passing the comprehensive test given on the final day of coursework qualifies the student for certification.

Continuing Dispatch Education (CDE) hours are required to recertify every two years, with the number depending on the number of individual certifications (i.e., single certification as an EMD requires 24 credits, while dual certification as an EMD and EPD requires 36 credits). Communications centers are encouraged to develop CDE programs—such as onsite focus groups examining specific protocol—and additional credits are available from attending the annual NAED-sponsored Navigator conference and completing 10 test questions accompanying CDE articles published in The Journal of Emergency Dispatch, which comes out six times a year.

Monitoring for quality assurance is a standard in the process keeping dispatchers at the top of their profession, and a major player in meeting NAED standards. “The QA gives us a measurement of performance,” said Janice Quintana, director of the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) in Washington, D.C. “That was important to me.”

Built-in Quality

The Office of Unified Communications (OUC) in Washington, D.C., follows the quality assurance program recommended as part of the protocol’s licensure. QA trained and certified supervisors monitor calls and provide coaching and feedback; they assess the need for additional training and make sure the opportunity to meet training goals is readily available. ProQA has a built-in logic system that gives dispatchers a pathway of predetermined questions to move along during interrogation. ProQA’s data capture feature allows data analysis and review through the companion software AQUA™.

Kenneth Mallory, OUC Unified Communications Center (UCC) operations manager, said software-guided QA gives them more insight into the service they are providing. Even legacy employees convinced they didn’t need scripted protocol and QA because of their existing expertise are coming forward in praise of the police protocol. “There were mumblings for a long time,” he said. “They were used to working from memory, repetition, and experience with little or no QA. With the software, no question is skipped and they’re getting information the responders appreciate.”

The triad of protocol—standardization, training, and quality assurance—is critical to the success of protocol in all its forms, said Rolf Thorsen, a lieutenant with the Office of the Sheriff in Prince George’s County (Md.). “Quality assurance is particularly important,” he said. “It is the rubber meeting the road integration of standardized systems with trained employees.”

The QA aspect has another benefit: the process gives centers the ability to withstand legal challenge. Why? The liability is reduced; centers can prove the use of best practices according to nationally identified standards. If dispatchers are properly trained in using protocol—and apply their training correctly—and policies regarding QA evaluation are in place at their center, they have the proper documentation necessary for protection against a lawsuit.

Value Added

Harford County (Md.) 9-1-1 covers the county’s 440-square mile area of land at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay along the Susquehanna River in addition to calls for service from the Harford County Sheriff's Office and the county's Volunteer Fire and Emergency Medical Service System. Calltakers and dispatchers are certified in all three disciplines and are required to complete 24 hours of CDE every two years to recertify.

The center doesn’t hire dispatchers based on field experience, but rather focuses on the more subtle qualifications of the job: multi-tasking, the ability to remain calm in a crisis, and people skills. “It doesn’t matter their background,” said Melissa Blessing, 9-1-1 training specialist. “They are trained and certified. They ask all the same questions. Callers always receive a consistently high quality of care.”

Harford County 9-1-1 was the first center in the United States to achieve a triple Accredited Center of Excellence, or tri-ACE, from the NAED. An officially recognized ACE means the center practices a high standard of excellence for emergency dispatch in the medical, police, and/or fire protocol at both the dispatcher level through certification, and at the communication center level through a rigorous 20-point accreditation program. Chief among the points are compliance to the protocol, certification, training, and continuing dispatch education. For example, point three requires current Academy certification of all personnel authorized to process emergency calls.

Satisfactorily achieving the 20 points takes concentrated effort, and for most agencies the process can take a year or more. Final approval includes NAED review of submitted documentation and onsite visits. Achieving a single ACE is no easy task; so just imagine how it was for Harford County 911 to be the first in the country to achieve triple ACE. “The hard part was convincing our people they could do it,” said Tami Wiggins, Harford County 911 training and quality assurance supervisor. “I wanted to show that a tri-ACE was a way of saying ‘here’s a reward for the great work you do day in, day out.’”

Challenges

Admittedly, there are challenges when introducing protocol. Take the issue of training. How do centers take key personnel away from jobs chronically understaffed and still deliver a high level of service to the public? Since certification in each protocol requires three days in a classroom, independent of the workweek, how do mega centers like Prince George’s County Public Service Center (PSC) in Maryland and the UCC find the extra time for classes and the continuing dispatch education credits necessary to recertify every two years. Quintana said UCC took a creative route.

Training was conducted in small groups from each shift—not the entire shift at once—and the insistence on earning certification in each of the three protocols also worked in their favor. “We didn’t have to worry about transfer time or staffing what could turn out to be three centers,” she said. “And if nothing else, training kept them engaged. It gave them a forum. They had something to talk about.”

Then there’s the protocol licensure recommended review of call for quality assurance. No doubt everyone prefers accolades to criticism, but there are ways to deliver negative feedback in a constructive form, such as emphasizing teamwork and public responsibility without humiliating or punishing the employee. “You have to stay on it,” said Don Aker, one of three trainers at Prince George’s County PSC. “We play up the positive and work hard to catch the little problems before they become major performance issues.”

A substantive issue at the Office of the Sheriff for Prince George’s County was the difference between that agency’s classification of domestic-violence incidents when compared to the larger police department, which is both the primary public safety agency in the county as well as PSC’s primary customer.

Lt. Thorsen said resolution resulted from face-to-face meetings and collaboration between mid-level managers from both PSC and the Office of the Sheriff. The PSC requested a follow-up meeting several months later to assess the success of the resolution. “Each agency and stakeholder should consider appointing liaisons as appropriate to communicate and collaborate with counterparts in the PSAP,” suggested Lt. Thorsen. “Such a formal or informal relationship will serve to resolve many, if not most, issues that may arise.”

Data configuration has been a major point of contention between police and the Prince George’s communications center. Because of competing software systems, data from police ProQA hasn’t been displayed in an easy-to-read format for officers relying on their mobile data computers (MDCs). This was not the fault of protocol. Public safety software vendors may choose whether or not to use the Academy's recommendations in their projects, and the NAED does release a list of their approved protocol options to any requesting public safety agency.

For Harford County 9-1-1, Wiggins said the agency’s issues boiled down to whether PPDS could keep up with the high volume of police calls it receives. It has.

Harford County Sheriff’s Department Supervisor Capt. Marc Junkerman said acceptance of protocol—medical, fire, or police—correlates to the responder’s confidence level. Standardized protocol leaves no room for second-guessing. “The dispatchers create illustrations for our responders through the questions they ask,” he said. “We have to trust the right questions are being asked. It’s got to be right the first time, every time, because we have lives at stake.”

Published in Public Safety IT, May/Jun 2010

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