Voices in My Head (Or on My Radio Rather)

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What happens on the other side of this mic? Who are the faces behind the voices I have come to know and (usually) love? How do they decide what they should send me to do? What happens when someone calls 911 with an emergency or the non-emergent number simply needing transport? I’ve always been curious what happens in a comm center, so the other day I went and sat in my dispatch center for work for four hours. It was quite enlightening and intriguing to me as I observed all the things that happened and the teamwork between the seven people working there.

The dispatch center I was in actually dispatches a variety of vehicles for a variety of things. At the most basic level we have medical transport. Simple wheelchair transport  or “wheelie vans” for those who cannot take themselves to doctor’s appointments or need a ride home from the ER. We also take a lot of people to dialysis, physical therapy, and transferring between medical care facilities. Next we have what we refer to as “90 cars”. Ninety cars are non-emergent ambulance transport. If someone is stretcher or bed bound or if they have special equipment such as IVs, ventilators, or other such things, we can take them in a 90 car to the same types of places we would with a “wheelie van”. Next we have our 911 ambulances. These are the folks that come if you call that lovely three digit phone number in an emergency. We also have a critical care team that takes the super sick folks. Now that you have a bit better idea what types of services we provide, let’s look at how they dispatch these services.

I was first given a headset and told I could sit next to John, one of the call takers. All he did that shift was sit and answer the phone anytime someone called. Over and over he would answer the phone, “This is John. How may I help you?” Then would follow particular questions to get the appropriate information to hand over to the actual appropriate dispatcher. “Where are you? What’s your name? What do you need? What is the nature of your emergency? Do you have the bleeding controlled? Is there an RN on scene? Where are we taking the patient? Do they need any special equipment? What is the patient’s weight?” If it’s a call that needs to be triaged, aka a 911 call, John finds out the nature of the problem and then flips to the appropriate page in his large book next to him. The page has the appropriate questions to ask and first aid treatment to give before the ambulance arrives. As he asks the questions, he quickly enters all the information into boxes on one of his three computer screens. When he is done taking the call, he yells out, “Code 1 triage for Bob!”

Bob is the 911 ambulance dispatcher. He sits hunkered behind his four large computer screens. One screen has the CAD up on it. On this he sees all 911 activations. Next to that is a tab opened to “Google maps”. Next screen contains several windows open. One has all his ambulances and what their status is or what post they’re at. When he gets a triage call, he has one minute to get an ambulance headed towards that call. He first looks where the call is. Then he looks at his available ambulances and sends the closest one to the call. His next screen contains a map that also tracks all the ambulances, so he can help them get close to the call or see how close they are. He is also constantly listening to the radio traffic of the units and entering things they say into his computer system. Sometimes he has to call the hospital with patient reports if the ambulance can’t get thru. And he’s keeping track of the status of the hospitals and if they’re accepting more ER patients at the moment. All he does all day is manage those emergency ambulances, and it’s a full-time job. He has fifteen ambulances he is responsible for. He’s been doing this for 24 years, and has acquired quite the skills.

At first the radio was quiet, while I was with Bob, so I got to ask questions and learn a little how he thinks. Then it got crazy busy and I got the thrill of watching him in action. Catching the calls. Directing the ambulances. Copying radio traffic. Calling a hospital. Keeping all the units straight. Shifting available ambulances around to maximize coverage of the area. And every once in a while, he’d tell me, “I’m not ignoring you. If you have a question, you may ask it.” I didn’t. His multi-tasking skills were incredible, and the way he could understand radio traffic was superb!

After sitting with John and Bob, I moved to over to James and Joe, the wheelie van dispatchers. I plugged my headset into James and sat down to learn how these guys dispatched me. These are the folks that I listen to all the time. They are the ones that give me directions and help me when I get lost. James is a newbie, so he’s partnering with Joe until he learns the ropes better. James showed me some of the distinctions of wheelie van dispatching versus the 911 ambulances. How they check on our locations every fifteen minutes. How they decide who to send where. How they shift vans around to get calls covered in the fastest time possible. James speaks quietly when he answers the phone or talks on the radio. He keeps his voice calm and doesn’t let anything ruffle his demeanor on the radio. When his mic is off, he vents his stresses to Joe and Robert and tries to learn exactly what to do. He is doing his best, but hasn’t quite mastered all the crazy multi-tasking skills that the veteran dispatchers have.

Joe is one of my favorite voices on the radio. He’s always direct and is a stickler for following protocol, which I greatly appreciate. It was great fun to watch him in action. Training TWO new people at once. Listening to the radio. Logging radio traffic. Planning the moves for the next four hours. Rerouting calls when bridges went up. Answering the phone and taking calls, while simultaneously talking to his supervisor and copying radio traffic. His ability to track multiple conversations, plan ahead, have fun and make people laugh, and still somehow keep a semi-sane head on his shoulders? No way I could do that! [I also learned that Joe makes faces on his side of the radio about the same time we as drivers are making faces at him. That made me laugh when I caught him doing it.]

The dispatch center was way louder than I expected it to be. Multiple radios on. People yelling. Talking on their headsets. Calling out for a quick conference with the head dispatcher Robert. It was chaos! But in a sense controlled chaos. Everyone worked together to get the community taken care of in a timely manner. It was incredible experience to have!

I came away convinced that the only thing I could ever manage to do in there was answer the phone or log radio traffic, but not everything all at once. No thanks. I’ll stick to my mobile office and one patient at a time.

Now you know. When you dial those three numbers on your phone, it triggers a flurry of activity in a chaotic dispatch center where they send you the help you need in the most timely fashion possible. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t get the service you do.

Dispatchers. The unsung heroes of EMS.

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