This week at the APCO Canada conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Scott Robinson, a communications operator with the Vaughan (Ontario) Fire and Rescue Service, led an educational session that explored methods for achieving peak performance in fire communications. Holding emergency call-takers accountable is a big step in the right direction, he said.

According to Robinson, call-takers often are take-charge, Type-A personalities. This is good on one level, as such people typically are decisive and capable of intuitive thinking, he said. But on another level, it can be bad, as they also don’t like to follow procedures and don’t like to be trained. “They’re often know-it-alls,” Robinson said. “No one likes to be disciplined, but they often view coaching as a form of discipline.”

When procedures are ignored, mistakes are made. Robinson stressed that while it is one of the most difficult things to do, holding people accountable is an effective way to ensure that procedures are followed. “It’s the best thing to do,” he said. “Hold your people accountable, and your performance will be enhanced.”

In another session, Eric Parry, police consultant for dispatching software vendor Priority Dispatch, said the key to accountability—and the ability to obtain vital information about an emergency--is the definition of measurable outcomes. And the key to meeting that objective is the establishment of rigid protocols that every call-taker follows every time. “If they know what they’re supposed to do, they’ll do it,” he said. “If you don’t establish protocols, you give them an out.”

Parry played audio recordings from five incidents to illustrate his point. When protocols were followed, the call-taker stayed in control of the call, stayed on point and gathered the necessary information. When they weren’t, the call-taker lost control of the call, frustrated the caller, repeated questions and generally failed to obtain vital information.

When establishing a protocol, it is important to specify that the same things—such as capturing the call-back number of the caller, the location of the incident and what happened, and the imparting of instructions—happen in a specific order and that the procedure is repeated for every call. “That’s what keeps the genie in the bottle,” Parry said, adding that it also provides a safety net for the call-taker, the agency and the municipality in terms of liability exposure. “The purpose of protocols is to make sure that benchmarks are met in order to ensure an appropriate response,” he said.

Several attendees expressed concern that adherence to rigid protocols would retard the ability of call-takers to think. But Parry scoffed at the notion. “Protocols don’t take the brain away. It’s just a system to ensure that benchmarks are met,” he said.

Curtis Brochu, manager of public-safety communications for the city of Calgary, Alberta, agreed.

“If you left the information gathering to individual thinking, you would get too much variation,” Brochu said. “Responders need a baseline to effectively and safely intervene in those situations. Protocols provide that baseline and provide a consistent, measurable level of performance.”