Saturday, April 18, 2009

In Praise of Dispatchers

Dispatch "Dis*patch"\, n.

1. The act of sending a message or messenger in haste or on important business.

2. Any sending away; dismissal; riddance.
To the utter dispatch of all their most beloved comforts. --Milton.

3. The finishing up of a business; speedy performance, as of business; prompt execution; diligence; haste.
Serious business, craving quick dispatch. --Shakespeare.

4. A message sent with speed; especially, an important official letter sent from one public officer to another; -- often used in the plural; as, a messenger has arrived with dispatches for the American minister; naval or military dispatches.

- Webster's Unabridged Dictionary

You'll have to excuse me for tooting the horn of my own profession for just one day.
I'm called to recognize those on who we as a society rely to safely and effectively coordinate critical resources, no matter what types of resources they may be.

This week marked National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, which was established back in the early 90's to recognize the contributions of those who toil in relative obscurity and 'interesting' work environments, through political and cultural quagmires, and with uncooperative and often hostile citizens (and sometimes responders), to get the right help to where it's needed.

I've been doing this sort of thing for over 25 years. The fundamentals of the profession really haven't changed much, even though just about everything else has - right up to what they call those who do this job. As you can see from the definitions above, the emphasis of the word was on speed and haste. Now the emphasis is on the tools and skills used, with unwieldy, PC-sounding titles like "Telecommunicator" or "Communications Specialist". They sound more professional, but still don't do justice to the skill sets required.

The last time I was called a "Dispatcher" was while working at Life Flight in Pittsburgh. Around 1990 our job titles were abruptly changed to "Air Medical Communications Specialist" after the FAA objected to the use of the title "Dispatcher" in an aviation-related position without being licensed by the FAA as a "Dispatcher".

It turns out that such a position has a lot of responsibilities for flight planning, routing, and calculating such things as fuel loads and weight and balance. They also maintain contact with commercial aircraft while in the air to advise of changes in weather, or to communicate other information on behalf of the airline they're working for. Another name for this job responsibility is "Flight Superintendent".

Coordinating resources at this level is an awesome responsibility, just as dealing with a sometimes frantic general public can be, to go along with Law Enforcement, Fire, EMS, Public Works, and Human Services personnel, all whose demeanor can approach a similar level at times.

As time passes, and the priorities and challenges of this life change, I've been buoyed by the quality of the young people who have challenged themselves to get past the long screening process and lengthy training program, and continue to carry themselves in an honorable and professional manner. You know who you are.

One big difference in many parts of the United States is in how Telecommunicators are generally regarded and trained. This is something that has improved in the years that I've been in Colorado, but there are still many places in this country where those who serve as the critical link between citizens and public safety professionals are regarded as no more than clerical staff. Their agencies receive the same priorities with regard to funding. In fact, over the years some legislatures in other states have seen fit to attempt to raid 9-1-1 surcharge funds, in the same way that Colorado dallied with tapping a worker's compensation fund. Politicians and priorities, hmmm....

Grand Junction and other areas in Colorado have an excellent public safety communications system, from the Technology through the Processes all the way to the People. While that doesn't mean that there isn't room for improvement in many areas, it does mean that there are responsive, professional people on the other end of the line, ready to address just about any situation thrown at them.

The reported difficulties in finding the kind of people who can accomplish this on a consistent basis is also that much more of a validation that they are an equal part of the team that protects lives and property in Mesa County.

I've dispatched with a walkie-talkie, cell phone, and clipboard in the passenger seat of a car, in closet-sized rooms with dust bunnies the size of cats, in rental office trailers with borrowed carpets to try to improve the acoustics, in the basement of an old train station, in a large, well-equipped truck that incorporated many of my own design ideas, and in the Emergency Operations Center for a major metropolitan area.

Now I'm back in a hospital in a windowless room, but maybe there's a chance for some light on the subject. Perhaps it's time for me to take "Dispatching" to a different level. Who knows where I'll end up?

This coming week includes some tough anniversaries in our recent history as a state and a nation. More about that later. May your week ahead be a peaceful one.

1 comment:

Daryl said...

Excellent post. Well done.