This week's class covers the Northampton Fire Department and Dispatch. I've separated this week into two parts. You will learn that the Fire Department does more than putting out fires and getting cats out of trees (they don't actually do that). You'll also learn that Dispatch, the people who answer our local 9-1-1, do more than that. Oh, and today's class ends with some fun.
Melissa Nazzaro has been at Northampton Dispatch since 2000, and its Director since 2006. She told our class more than you could even guess about Dispatch. If you look at the website for Dispatch, there isn't much there, and this makes perfect sense. If you have an emergency, you can call 9-1-1. And you can call it from anywhere. There isn't too much more to know. If you have a non-emergency here in Northampton, but are still kinda urgent about something, you can call the local number 413-587-1100. You will get the same people, but a different phone system and slightly different protocol.
Northampton has a civilian dispatch center. This means it is run by people who are not Police or Fire officials. This is a good thing. Those people should be fighting crime and putting out fires (and whatever else they do.) There are 12 people working at Dispatch and always 2 on duty. There were 4 on on December 27, 2009, the night of The Arsons. It used to be that if you called the Police, you got a police officer. But now you get a specially trained person who can dispatch one. If you have a fire, you'll get someone trained to tell you to get out of your house, so you can meet the fire truck when it arrives. Or if you are drastically ill, the person might talk you through how to deal with the emergency while you are waiting for the EMTs. If the next shift doesn't show up for some reason, the Dispatchers cannot leave. If there are extreme events (e.g. weather conditions) more Dispatchers might be called in to work.
Dispatch is located on the second floor of the new fire station on King Street. Their office has its own ventilation system and bullet-proof windows. (Hey, it's a new building and they have an important job, so what the heck.) If you call 9-1-1 from your cell phone, you'll get a different Dispatch over at the State Police barracks on North King Street. They serve all of Western Massachusetts. If your emergency is in Northampton, they will transfer you to the local one.
Our Dispatch has Secure Communications Accreditation. This means the facility and the people who work there meet high standards. Prospective Dispatchers are interviewed and have a hearing test. Any employee has at least 12 weeks of training and they usually get more. They also get refresher training and of course learn new things as they go.
Here, I quote from my copious notes: 16 hours 9-1-1 training, 8 hours incident training (NIMS/ICS), 40 hours training in basic telcom. They receive 64 hours in Emergency Dispatching training. That's EMD/EFD/EPD where M=medical, F=fire, and P=police. (Here's one link for illustration purposes. It is not the actual link to the people who actually do the training our people). Some of this training is in using something like a flip-chart to talk you through, for example, doing CPR on your baby.
There's more. 32 hours of training in suicide, domestic violence, stress identification and management, active shooter. Can you picture that there are specific trainings for civilians in this stuff? Now, where was I? 36 hours of ride-alongs (with emergency responders) and court observations. 250 hours with a trainer going over our city protocols (our specific procedures) and equipment. Unlike other training, they get scored and have to do well and it must be documented. Additionally, they learn about the Computer Aided Dispatch program and how to use the radios.
So perhaps you think that Dispatchers just answer the phone and then radio the Fire Department, eh?
Let me remind you here, that 9-1-1 Dispatchers are the people who talk the proverbial child through helping her mother deliver her new baby sibling. Just search the news headlines, and you will see this stuff happens all the time. It is not folklore.
Now imagine any of these scenarios: I'm going to kill myself. He's got a gun. I can't talk. I don't know where I am. Send help. The house is on fire. I smell smoke. And so on. And each on it's own phone call. Now imagine that you answer the phone and someone just had a car accident. You deal with it and hang up. It rings immediately and it's someone else who has a pain in their chest. Again you deal with it and hang up. Now it's someone is shouting, almost incoherently, and on a cell phone and will not say where they are. And so on. Every day. And Dispatch still must be polite and calm and quickly free the phone line for the next caller. And all this while on the radio with Police and Fire. And as soon as the EMTs arrive, the remote CPR instruction from Dispatch ends. For Dispatch, this event might be over, but they don't know how it ends. And so, the phone rings again. A nightmare.
To be fair, many people call 9-1-1 for non-emergency reasons and several emergency situations are resolved by Dispatch on the phone. But in our class we were told that whether they are answering the Business line or 9-1-1 it's equally likely to be a serious call or not. Dispatch must always suspect that something is wrong. Some people call, but are not clear even in what is wrong. I have a headache. Can you breathe? Oh, and sometimes the caller cannot speak English. And sometimes they cannot speak at all.
9-1-1 started with the first call placed in Alabama on February 16, 1968. Now about 240M calls are made to 9-1-1 every year. About one-third are wireless calls, and here in Massachusetts more than half are. Massachusetts makes about 3.3M 9-1-1 calls a year which are answered by one of the 272 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). Most recently, our state government has been talking about consolidating these to save money
Dealing with cell calls can be challenging, because Dispatch cannot identify the precise location of a mobile caller. This might vary in detail from within phone-shot of a cell tower to longitude and latitude. Such calls may not matter as much if the neighborhood has no side streets. Of course, there's also the chance that the caller may be in a moving car.
Last year in Northampton, there were 34,000 "events" with about 10 calls per event. An event might be a traffic accident. 10 people on average will make a call. If it's one of the drivers, they will get some assistance. If it is the fifth report, they will be told thank you we know. Dispatch also get Police-initiated calls. Most calls are medical-related. 834 events last year were fire alarms. Fire dispatches are far fewer, but those incidents take much more work and take longer to resolve.
If needed, Dispatch has scripts to read which are transliterations of 14 languages. They can also route calls through a real-time translation service. They even have protocols for directing people who are unable to speak (perhaps they are mute, choking or too scared) to respond by hitting touch-tones®.
Additionally, Northampton Dispatch receives off-hour DPW calls for the city. They have procedures which might specify what to do if you are locked out of the Water Treatment plant. Dispatch will know who to call or tell you whether to find the key under the mat. (For the record, I made up that scenario.)
Melissa Nazarro told us she has learned the ability to track two conversations at once, which she says comes in very handy at cocktail parties. She played a few old recorded 9-1-1 calls for us and described the handling of these calls.
Here is a FAQ about 9-1-1 for you in case want more information. But really what you mainly need to know is to dial 9-1-1 and to identify your location.
Here's some amazing statistics about 9-1-1.
That's some of what I learned about our unsung heroes at Dispatch.
See the next post, when it's ready to learn about our Fire Department.
And use the comments feature below or email me to tell me what you think.