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Implementing Dispatch Protocols

Written by Audrey Fraizer

Stephen Walker took over as police chief for the small town of Edmonston, MD in 2007. Walker took a close look at the affiliated agencies and the services they provided. One of these was the Prince George’s County Public Safety Communications (PSC) in Landover, MD and its role in dispatching Edmonston’s emergency police calls.

He saw firsthand how a small town could easily get lost in the shuffle and could have a hard time accessing the resources it needed, especially if there were some major incidents going on in other parts of the county.

Walker started the process of switching dispatch to a much smaller, possibly more responsive center in nearby Hyattsville, MD. In January 2009, however, events changed his mind. No longer was his small town being delegated to the back seat. Prince George’s County was answering his town’s emergency police calls much faster and with a consistency to send his officers the resources they needed, given the situation.

Walker approached Prince George’s PSC Director Charlynn Flaherty. What was PG County doing differently? Or had Walker’s perception been wrong at the start? Turns out, Prince George’s County PSC had added the Police Priority Dispatch System™ (PPDS™) to the existing repertoire of medical and fire protocols used at the communications center. Now, instead of switching to the center in Hyattsville, Walker plans to suggest that it adopt the same protocols used in Prince George’s County PSC.

The protocols—PPDS, the Medical Priority Dispatch System™ (MPDS®), and the Fire Priority Dispatch System™ (FPDS™)—are three defined sets of emergency dispatch instructions developed and maintained by the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (NAED™). The Priority Dispatch Corp. (PDC) is contracted to put the systems into manual and software formats for use at communications centers worldwide.

Prince George’s County PSC, which uses the ProQA® software version available for each protocol system, is the second largest PSAP in Maryland, right behind Baltimore, and receives almost as many calls as its neighboring center, the Office of Unified Communications in D.C.

The PSC processes more than 1.5 million 9-1-1 calls per year and coordinates dispatch for the County police department, 47 fire stations, nine municipal police departments and the Office of the Sheriff. Call takers and dispatchers are trained and certified in the application of all three protocols by the NAED, 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 in January 2009.

The actual results, of course, depend on the agency. Protocol doesn’t dictate what goes on at the center. Protocol complements the agency. It provides a consistency augmented by clear local policy. As an analogy, protocol is like buying a car. The car dealer isn’t going to tell you how to drive the car, and protocol isn’t going to tell you how to run your agency. If your policy dictates sending an Animal Control truck to a robbery in progress, go ahead. But at least you understand the level of emergency through the use of protocol.

Prince George’s County Police Dispatcher Samantha Walker is a former police officer for the D.C. Housing Authority. According to her, the real results boil down to scene safety for the responding officers. “We never forget to ask the right questions—many of them are for officer safety—because they’re right in front of us,” Walker said. “Officers are safer and have more complete information upon arriving at the scene because of questions we now ask the callers.”

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

Prior to the police protocol, Hines said, officers lacked the information necessary for scene safety, particularly when responding to often-volatile domestic disputes. “The officers tell me they are 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.”

Janice Quintana is the director of the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) in Anacostia, a suburb in the southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. The OUC Unified Communications Center (UCC) was in need of help with its diversified batch of call takers and dispatchers after it opened in August 2006 as part of the district’s consolidation. Central to the plan was providing state-of-the-art public safety services to 580,000 residents, 2 million visitors and several governmental agencies from one major center.

Because the OUC has only two end users—D.C fire and D.C. police—having multiple agencies move their dispatching elsewhere wasn’t the issue, as had been the case at Prince George’s County PSC, Quintana explained. Rather, the mix of differing backgrounds, training and experience dispatchers and call takers brought with them from their local communications centers as part of the consolidation put the OUC at a disadvantage. Too many ways of doing their jobs would hinder their ability to provide excellent and equitable help to their public across the board of emergency services.

The rate of violent crime is comparable to New York City, and the current crime index rivals the indexes from the higher population figures of the 1960s. The relatively high crime rate adds to the more than 1.5 million emergency calls per year for police, fire and medical rescue. Another 2 million calls are answered by the 311 Mayor’s Citywide Call Center, located in the same building.

The consolidation of several agencies into one meant either creating a unified approach or accepting the multitude of approaches carried over from the once separate agencies. Quintana chose to bridge the divide. The former operations manager for the Mayor’s Citywide Call Center wanted the same sort of results she was seeing with the medical protocol already in use when she arrived at the UCC. She didn’t want six different response scenarios described by six different callers for the same police or fire situation.

Quintana wanted a standardized level of care through the use of a logical system of caller interrogation, no matter the situation. Just as urgent, she needed a structured quality improvement approach to determine whether the service her center was providing was meeting public requirements. She also wanted the ability to measure these outcomes from actual data. In other words, quality assurance had to be built into the system.

A uniform protocol system fit the bill. It is standardized, consistent, and the ProQA software has the capability to gather and organize data. However, not everyone in the center was as enthusiastic about adding the police protocol. Universal Call Taker (UCT) Erica Morris, who has been handling police, fire and emergency medical calls in Washington, D.C. for the past 16 years and at the UCC since the consolidation four years ago, said the plan to implement police protocols just wouldn’t fly with their citizens.

“The callers didn’t want us to be asking a lot of questions,” she said. “They can get really irritated with us when we do.” Experience with caller impatience, and the knowledge that it is a reaction that will probably never change, was one of the major reasons some dispatchers and call takers in one of the nation’s busiest emergency call centers resisted the addition of police protocol.

Morris and others could see the sense in asking the medical or fire questions. But asking questions for situations requiring law enforcement? No way, Morris said. Veteran dispatchers had no interest in changing the way they had always handled calls. “We already knew what to ask,” she said. “The questions were second nature, and we didn’t want the format of structured protocol slowing us down.”

Six months after implementation, center statistics proved Quintana’s belief, as they did Flaherty’s in Prince George’s. The move to police protocol hasn’t slowed down the process but, in fact, has made dispatch faster. According to D. C. statistics, the center has already achieved a formidable goal of answering 95 percent of all calls—medical, fire and police—at an average speed of one second from the time the call comes into the center.

Prince George’s statistics show similar results the year following implementation. “We’re answering them faster,” Flaherty said. “Everyone is asking the same questions, and that improves our processing time.”

Looking back, UCC Universal Call Taker and Watch Commander Edward Washington prefers to call hesitance on the part of some dispatchers and call takers more of a resistance to change. He said call takers and dispatchers were exhausted from a year of disruption relating to their moves from smaller agencies to a mega communications complex. “It took time, but six months after going live most of us would be lost without the protocols. They’re like driving with navigation turned on—we’re at the wheel, but they direct us from one point to another,” he said.

Scott Freitag, NAED president, compares the rise in use of the police protocol to the evolution of the medical protocol. While implementation of MPDS preceded the beginning of his nearly 15-year career with the Salt Lake City, UT Fire Communications Center, he has heard the stories about the protocol’s initial acceptance.

“Dispatchers don’t want to be told to change the way they’ve been doing their job,” Freitag said. “Give it time and people will see the logic of the system and understand how it works and can then evaluate its ability to make their job better and the public and responders safer.”

Audrey Fraizer has a master’s 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 Law and Order, Mar 2010

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