Speakers participating in the recent National Academies of Emergency Dispatch conference in Orlando, Fla., extolled the virtues of emergency fire dispatch, or EFD, a protocol-based approach to 911 telecommunicating that helps to ensure that call-takers provide the life-saving instructions to victims and that dispatchers send the proper personnel and equipment based on the specific incident. However, they also cautioned that communications officials hoping to sell fire-service administrators on EFD had better do their homework — and have their houses in order.

Jamie Young, fire communications manager for San Mateo County, Calif., which is located just south of San Francisco, said that public-safety answering point officials should make sure that their centers are effectively handling emergency calls before they suggest upgrading to EFD.

“You want to avoid the flaming arrow,” Young said. “You don’t want to hear, ‘What make you think you can do the new thing if you haven’t mastered the basics.’”

Assuming that the basics aren’t a problem, communications officials still should think through what they’re proposing before going to the decision-makers and purse-string-holders, Young advised. For instance, will the advent of EFD require additional staffing or overtime? How much training will be required, and where will the money be found to pay for it? Will EFD have an adverse effect on response time, which not only can increase the likelihood that lives and property will be lost, but also could cost the department considerable money if it were to lose a subsidy that’s tied to response-time performance.

“Meeting response-time standards is a big factor in terms of emergency response,” Young said.

All are critical questions that the communications official considering a move to EFD must be able to answer — because, rest assured, the fire chief or other administrators will be asking them, Young said.

Mike Thompson, battalion chief with the Rapid City (S.D.) Department of Fire & Emergency Services, agreed, adding that, “You have to be prepared to prove everything that you say.”

Predictably, given the economic times, the biggest question usually concerns money. Budgets are being cut, fire stations are closing and personnel is getting laid off across the country, which has created an environment in which it is much more difficult to move new initiatives forward. “Most fire chiefs are just trying to hang onto what they have,” Thompson said.

“They’re not thinking about expanding operations.”
Young agreed, advising attendees: “If you’re dramatically cutting resources right now, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it prudent to move forward with EFD?’”

Even when all of the tumblers fall into place, the individual circumstances of a particular jurisdiction can throw unanticipated hurdles into the path of an EFD-deployment effort. For instance, the area served by Young’s PSAP has the Pacific Ocean on the west, San Francisco Bay on the east, and mountains running down the middle. “That creates geographical challenges; each chief has different needs, and those needs needed to be addressed in the protocols,” Young said.

Speaking of those chiefs, there are 14 of them, and the sheer number created its own set of challenges, according to Young. “It’s a feat to get them all to agree on whether to say ‘copy’ or ’10-4’ over the radio,” she said. Nevertheless, they all eventually agreed to move ahead with EFD and on a deployment plan. The establishment of a steering committee — where they “battled a lot of it out,” according to Young — was integral to the process.

When all of the hurdles have been cleared and EFD is in place, the result is magical, according to Young and Thompson. For starters, stringent compliance with the protocols ensures that the right crew and equipment will be dispatched based on the type of incident, because the call-takers consistently ask the right questions.

“The biggest priority for the chief is to get the right piece of equipment to the incident — the closest engine isn’t always the right engine,” Young said. “For instance, you don’t want personnel standing at the edge of the water waiting for the water-rescue people who should have been dispatched.”

The protocols also enable dispatchers to make quicker and better decisions in terms of shifting resources to where they are needed, according to Thompson.

“If I have a large structure fire on one side of town and another breaks out on the other side of town, I know that dispatch will handle it and get the right equipment there, based on the protocol,” Thompson said. “I don’t have to give it a second’s thought. That’s a great comfort.”