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Priority Dispatch™’s police protocols unify dispatchers

Written by Audrey Fraizer

Janice Quintana knew the task ahead wouldn’t be easy. The director of the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) in Washington, D.C., said the majority of those answering and dispatching emergency calls at the Unified Communications Center (UCC) was skeptical when she announced another change was close down the road.

“The feeling was overwhelming for most, but I believed we had little choice other than to move ahead with the decision,” she said. “We have people here from different agencies and nothing we did was consistent.”

Moving ahead for UCC meant further merging the talent and backgrounds of dispatchers and call-takers consolidated from several agencies into one. Quintana wanted a consistent level of response to law enforcement and fire calls using a logical system of caller interrogation, similar to the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) dispatchers from the former D.C. center were already using, and a quality assurance process that produced verifiable data.

Going with the Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS) and the Police Priority Dispatch System (PPDS) from Priority Dispatch Corp.™ seemed like the direction to take. Although coordinating schedules for training and certification would be problematic notwithstanding the job of getting past the opposition she anticipated from dispatchers and call-takers.

UCC universal call-taker Edward Washington said the initial reaction, as Quintana had expected, was a normal response to change, any change. Consolidating smaller local agencies into one mega communications complex had taken its toll. Also, adding police and fire protocols to the mix was akin to the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back.

“We had a lot on our plates,” Washington said. “It took time but I feel we’re now at a point where most of us would be lost without the protocols. They’re like driving with navigation, directing us from one point to another.”

The OUC in Washington, D.C., which opened for operations in August 2006, is responsible for dispatching the Metropolitan Police Department, as well as fire and emergency medical services and public services, to 580,000 residents, 2 million visitors and thousands of civilian and governmental employees. The OUC received 1.3 million 9-1-1 calls in fiscal year 2009, including processing a record-setting 10,000 calls on the Inauguration Day of President Barack Obama.

The efficiency of OUC operations earned them the 2009 Outstanding 9-1-1 Program Award given by the E9-1-1 Institute, in conjunction with National Emergency Number Association (NENA), the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Association of State 9-1-1 Administrators, the 9-1-1 Industry Alliance and the Congressional E9-1-1 Caucus.

OUC CAD Technology Manager James Callahan attributes the award, presented in March 2010, to the virtual agency they created for the inauguration. The OUC virtually blocked off the entire length of the National Mall, and calls placed from anywhere in the dedicated area were answered remotely, bypassing central UCC calltaking and dispatch.

“It was life as usual in the district because the 1.8 million people at the event were in the separate jurisdiction we created for the event,” he said.

But there were other factors involved in receiving the award. UCC’s performance remains well above the industry standard of answering 90 percent of 9-1-1 calls within 10 seconds. In fact, in fiscal year 2009, the UCC answered 96.4 percent of the District’s 9-1-1 calls within 5 seconds and during the first half of fiscal year 2010, the center is trending at 98 percent.

All 9-1-1 calls are answered using the ProQA software version of medical, fire and police protocols, and as of April 2010, Callahan was directing CAD upgrades in the fire and medical protocols, as well as enhancements to ProQA and AQUA. “We’re good,” Callahan said. “We’re moving along at a reasonable pace and the protocols are working well.”

Prince George’s County Public Safety Communications Center (PSC), which uses the ProQA software versions of MPDS, PPDS and FPDS, is the second largest PSAP in Maryland and receives almost as many calls as the neighboring OUC.

The PSC coordinates dispatch for the county police department, 47 fire stations, nine municipal police departments and the county Sheriff’s Office. Call-takers and dispatchers are NAED trained and certified in the application of all three protocols and, on an average day, they answer five times as many police calls as medical calls.

The center implemented MPDS in 1999 and followed with FPDS in May 2008. Less than a year later, the police protocols went live on Jan. 6, 2009, a day Flaherty said will “live in infamy.”

“Call it my harebrained idea to do all three,” Flaherty stated. “Sure, there was a lot of crying and gnashing of teeth, but I wanted something based on real results.”

“Real results” depend on four areas of communications: the information gathered, the information passed to responding officers, pre- and post- arrival instructions given to the caller, and the actual response to the emergency. Implementation of the protocols has a major impact on the first three areas, which then impacts the fourth. The protocols make sure all the right questions are asked in the proper sequence all the time. In turn, the flow of information is streamed to the responding officer, and instructions sent from the call-taker back to the caller help prepare and maintain a scene. The fourth element, agency response, is left in the hands of the communications centers and the agencies they serve defined by local resources, safety and community standards. In other words, one community may choose to send the SWAT team to a robbery and another a patrol car, but both are based on the same protocol-defined level of response.

Sergeant Yakbisha Hines, public information officer for Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Office, said she has heard as much from its officers, whose duties include serving court-ordered warrants, writs, protective orders and other injunctions. Its Domestic Violence Unit responds to domestic-related calls for service.

Prior to the police protocol, Hines noted, officers lacked the information necessary for scene safety, particularly when responding to often-volatile domestic disputes.

“They [officers] tell me they’re now receiving the information they need,” she said. “The protocols are very helpful in preparing our officers to be safe in these types of situations. Not only do they know what happened and how it happened, but also the history of the call.”

Benefits

The PPDS shares the principles that MPDS and the FPDS follow, but with differences based on determining whether it’s a hot incident call (one in progress) or a cold incident call (one that occurred in the past), to decide what the level of urgency is to protect the lives of responders and those present. The information gathered is incident-specific and not emotionally biased.

In other words, dispatchers create illustrations through asking questions centered on factors critical to successful call initiation and response. For an incident in progress, the dispatcher asks questions determining the presence of weapons and their type, followed by questions pertaining to the caller’s safety, injuries and a suspect’s description. The answers enable the selection of pre-planned officer resource allocations and modes, as set by local policy. Pre-Arrival Instructions for inherently dangerous situations give the dispatcher precise direction for the caller during escalating, time-sensitive events, including safety instructions and securing an area “if safe to do so.”

Prince George’s County police dispatcher Samantha Walker says the importance of scene safety can’t be overstated, and with a background as a former police officer for the D.C. Housing Authority, she knows what she’s talking about. “Officers are safer,” she says. “They can learn more about the scene before going into it from what we’ve asked the callers.”

Built-in quality assurance (QA) is another big plus. The UCC QA program requires supervisors to monitor calls and the radio to provide coaching and feedback and to assess the need for additional training. The center also uses AQUA, a program developed to complement ProQA, the software version of protocol, in its collection of call-taking data. The data is stored and available for retrieval in case questions arise from a call and its subsequent dispatch.

Kenneth Mallory, OUC operations manager, said software-guided QA gives them more insight into the service they are providing. Even 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 the software, no question is skipped and they’re getting information the responders appreciate.”

Callahan said it was a slam-dunk. “The technology makes heads and tails of all the information we receive,” he said. “And, to make it better, there’s a national academy standing behind the center.”

Challenges

Admittedly, there are challenges to implementing a new protocol system. Take the issue of training. How do managers take key personnel away from jobs in a chronically understaffed communications center and still deliver a high level of service to the public? Because training in each protocol requires three days in a classroom, independent of the workweek, how do larger centers like the OUC and Prince George’s County find the extra time for classes and the continuing dispatch education credits necessary to recertify every two years?

Scheduling was more intense at the UCC, more so than the actual training, Quintana said. Training was conducted in small groups from each shift—not the entire shift at once. They calculated the number of classes necessary and set a deadline. Field responders accepting invitations to training left the sessions with comments similar to UCC personnel new to protocol.

“They liked it,” said Karl Millard, UCC assistant watch commander. “A lot of people went in not knowing what it was all about and once they went through, they saw the advantages. Protocol puts everyone on the same page.”

The Prince George’s County PSC training department met with floor supervisors, and described the change about to take place. They pushed to get training started as soon as possible and staggered the start dates of the certification courses.

“We wanted to avoid surprises and build collaborative teams,” said Don Aker, director of the training section. “We wanted the opinion makers on our side.”

New hires predictably did not resist the addition of police and fire protocols, at least nothing compared to seasoned dispatchers, some who have been on the job for 20 years and more. The veteran dispatchers were angry over the changes, particularly those associated with technology.

“They got stuck in the middle,” said training instructor Angela Vandyke. “The new ones like having the script because they don’t have to make up the questions. For the veterans, it was hard giving up what they had been doing.”

Aker and Vandyke worked closely with the longer-term dispatchers, playing up the positive and staying on top of QA to catch little problems before they became major.

Vandyke said things settled down after a three-month plateau. “They saw what it could do,” she said. “They might not always like the police protocol, but in the end they know scene safety is the issue.”

Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Office wanted to be sure they were left in the loop, and to share equitably in talks relating to protocol and dispatch regardless of the agency’s size or geographic borders. “Each agency and stakeholder should consider appointing liaisons as appropriate to communicate and collaborate with counterparts in the PSAP,” said Rolf Thorsen, a lieutenant with Prince George’s County Sheriff Department. “Such a formal or informal relationship will serve to resolve many, if not most, issues that may arise.”

Then, there are the frightened, angry and impatient callers spending precious moments asking why there are so many questions, rather than using the time to answer them. Because most callers may be unfamiliar with the process, they fail to understand that help is on its way while the dispatcher is gathering information pertinent to scene safety. A less salient feature—one that callers appreciate without realizing it exists—is the one-on-one contact. The dispatcher hangs on.

“Callers aren’t ping-ponged around,” Callahan said. “They stick with the same dispatchers throughout the call, guiding the callers while waiting for help to arrive.”

Final Judgment

Acceptance of protocol—medical, fire or police—correlates to confidence level. Acceptance occurs once call-takers and dispatchers are accustomed to protocol, comfortable in using the software or cardset, and, for universal call-takers, adept at switching from one set to another, depending on the call. “I like the consistency,” said Marcellus Banks, a UCC universal call-taker. “I can do all three and get on to the next call without forgetting what to ask. It’s all there in front of us.”

Scott Freitag, president of the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED), compares the progress of the PPDS to the evolution of the MPDS. While implementation of MPDS preceded the beginning of his nearly 15-year career with the Salt Lake City (Utah) Fire Department Communications Center, he’s heard the stories about the protocol’s initial acceptance. There were no champagne toasts.

“The same goes for police,” Freitag said. “Dispatchers don’t want to be told to change the way they’ve been doing their job. Give it time and people see the sense in the system and understand how it works.” A further example of this: “I thought this [PPDS] would never work until I started looking at the big picture,” said Assistant Watch Commander Karl Millard, who like others from the OUC and UCC had his reservations. “We’ve eliminated freelancing and putting the police officer at risk. Everyday we use it, the better we feel.”

What exactly are these protocols?

A protocol in the emergency dispatch environment is a predictable, reproducible process for addressing a situation or event. The Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS), introduced more than 30 years ago and considered “the standard” throughout the world, was the frontrunner of the Police Priority Dispatch System (PPDS), and the Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS).


The protocols require the work of two very unique entities: the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED), an academic and standard-setting body that develops and maintains the protocol for official release; and the Priority Dispatch Corp., a consulting, research and software company that develops the software delivering protocols to an agency’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, as well as other protocol-centric products and training. While other companies have attempted to provide products and training for emergency call-taking centers, the NAED and PDC partnership allows a comprehensive systems approach.

The protocols put dispatch at the starting point of emergency services, and are available in both cardset and dispatch software ProQA. Those answering the calls and coordinating response are the first, first responders. The process for every emergency call to the communications center begins with the Case Entry process to determine the location of the emergency and the true nature of the call.

The answer to the Case Entry statement, “Tell me exactly what happened,” leads the emergency call-taker to a specific chief complaint, where the caller is asked to provide critical information based off an organized set of Key Questions. These Key Questions are designed to gather relevant safety information and scene specifics for the officer, and to determine the appropriate response. Each question is there to satisfy one or more of the objectives required to safely and effectively dispatch that call. While awaiting response to the scene of the emergency, the dispatcher provides Pre-Arrival Instructions (PAIs), including steps to safeguard bystanders until squads arrive when faced with a bomb threat or, in the case of a sinking vehicle, the steps for exiting the vehicle to survive.

Differences among protocols relate to their purpose. Medical and fire protocols are configured around a “go now” line of attack, including those types of situations demanding an immediate response for life and death situations such as cardiac arrest, choking, structure collapse, aircraft emergency and a house fire. Police protocol operates within a much wider range of possible event types. Does the suspect have a gun? Is there any indication of a live bomb in the area? Emergency response personnel need to have this information up front, before entering a potentially dangerous scene. No matter the situation, the process begins when call-takers ask scripted questions to quickly gather accurate and precise information from the caller.
ProQA Dispatch Software integrates the protocols with CAD technology. It helps emergency dispatchers move through Case Entry and Key Questioning. It assists dispatchers in quickly determining the appropriate response for each case and clearly displays the response configuration assigned by local agency authorities. ProQA then guides dispatchers in providing all relevant Post-Dispatch and Pre-Arrival Instructions, as well as important safety information.

Audrey Fraizer has a Masters degree in Journalism and is the Managing Editor of the Journal of Emergency Dispatch. She may be reached at Audrey.Fraizer@prioritydispatch.com.

Published in Public Safety IT, May/Jun 2010

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