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Terrorism Preparedness: PSAPs Get Ready for the Future

Author: Mike Scott

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue. 

Dispatch and 9-1-1 centers across the country are used to dealing with crisis situations on a daily basis, but the recent terrorist attacks and biological scares have placed an even heavier burden on one of the nation’s first lines of defense.

Despite the scares, dispatch centers have quickly improved channels of communications with federal, state and local law enforcement and medical agencies. Most importantly, the job of gathering information from callers anxious about perceived biological, chemical or human threats remains the same for all dispatchers: determine the validity of a call and take appropriate measures to follow-up on suspicious evidence.

The credo of dispatch centers is to treat every call as if it is a legitimate emergency. That didn’t change after the September 11 attacks even as the anthrax scare hit the United States beginning in Florida, New York City and Nevada. Christina Russell, manager of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department Dispatch Center in Pontiac (MI) said the usual procedures remained in effect although there has been more communication between the center and other areas of law enforcement.

“I think the special units we work with are more prepared than ever before,” said Russell. “The FBI is working more closely with local departments throughout the country.”

Local fire departments remain the first responders for hazardous materials and bomb scares. As a result, these departments have continued to remain on alert for 9-1-1 calls. For dispatchers and fire department personnel alike, this has meant receiving an education in certain types of dangerous chemical or biological agents.













This banner and flag, fastened to a building overlooking Ground Zero, encouraged rescuers
during the weeks following the September 11th attacks.  Photo via CA TF3.

As the first terrorist activities unfolded, dispatch centers across the country quickly put precautionary procedures in place. As a result of the organized attacks, procedures were issued for all fire, rescue, and EMS stations in Frederick County (MD) along with the county’s dispatch center. Departments were placed on high alert. All leaves for employees were canceled for the next seven days, and all off-duty shifts were placed on standby.

The initial crisis situation continued for several days following the September 11 attacks. Stations were locked down and units were instructed to remain in the station unless on an emergency. Stations were fully staffed and manned 24 hours a day. In Emmitsburg, Vigilant Hose Company (VHC) Chief Frank Davis, with the cooperation of Ambulance Company 26, moved all units and personnel to the firehouse while remaining in constant communication with the dispatch center.

“Not knowing what to expect, we could manage all our resources better by being together in the event of a major incident,” said Davis. “Not only could they effectively staff equipment and cover shifts, but services such as food, sleeping arrangements, and information were not duplicated.

The second round of terrorism scares occurred in mid-October when anthrax was mailed to several media outlets and congressional offices around the country. Russell said dispatchers have also been educated about such illnesses as smallpox and anthrax. This education has come from the country’s Center for Disease Control (CDC), the FBI and state and local health departments.

“We’ve been working with emergency management to ensure that our dispatchers are aware of certain symptoms,” she said. “If there is a high volume of calls with the same types of signs and symptoms, we know to pass that along to the proper authorities.”

The high volume of calls has continued. On October 15 alone, four post offices in the Detroit Metropolitan Area, plus a portion of Detroit Metropolitan Airport were closed because of suspicious powders. None of the substances contained anthrax or any other dangerous biological agent, but the work that goes into assuring a danger does not exist is taxing enough for the dispatch system.

Indeed, the time taken by fire, EMS and police dispatchers in handling calls regarding suspicious substances since the first terrorist attacks have received mass media coverage. At least some experts believe the anthrax so far discovered is not the specially made type of the disease that would be used in a biological warfare attack.

“Dispatchers have to understand the public’s fears and be empathetic,” said JoAnne Hollman, a communications supervisor for Outagamie County Sheriff’s Department in Appleton, Wis. “You can’t be complacent when a potentially serious call comes in but you don’t want to overreact. In this atmosphere, there is a great deal of fear out there.”

Hollman also trains dispatchers throughout Wisconsin through her home-based business, Pro Telecomm, Inc. She said dispatch centers throughout the country have set protocols that have been updated by national, state and local law enforcement agencies, but the basics of being a dispatcher are still very important.

“We need to ask questions and get a good understanding of what the (situation) is,” said Hollman. “Each caller is different, some may be aware of something unusual and some may be very hysterical. But the basics are still the where’s and what’s. That’s what a dispatcher needs to find out.”

Homeland Graffiti in Manhattan shared the sentiment of
many a New Yorker in the aftermath of the attacks.
Photo by Ron Eggers

Clark Staten of the Emergency and Research Response Institute teaches chem/bio/nuclear (WMD) response issues to both emergency and military agencies. In late October, Staten said the early episodes of anthrax hoaxes, mixed in with a very few real incidents, are designed to be “weapons of mass distraction,” rather than “mass destruction.” It is this type of distraction that has plagued dispatch centers since September 11.

“We believe (the perpetrators) wish to wear out emergency service agencies, cause fear and confusion in the American citizenry, and to attempt to undermine the public confidence in the government's ability to protect them,” said Staten. “In reality, American emergency response agencies can manage these sporadic incidents with few victims...the problem comes when we have larger-scale incidents involving mass exposure, or involving bio-agents that are actually contagious or infectious...which anthrax is not.”

Staten cautioned all emergency and governmental agencies, and even the public against “taking their eye off the ball” with regard to other threats. He also encouraged all dispatchers to consider every call realistic threat. “We do not know what we are dealing with, so we must be on alert,” he said.

The national media coverage has also made a dispatcher’s job more difficult because of the fear it has resulted in among the public. This coverage is necessary in today’s real-time world, but Russell said it has led many citizens to be more aware of their surroundings, resulting in at times an overwhelming number of calls related to suspicious individuals, powders or gases.

“I have really noticed that if the news is reporting some type of incident, our calls for similar (suspicions) will really rise,” said Russell. “If the president makes a speech that calls for people to be more vigilant and dial 9-1-1, that’s what everyone is going to do.

“There’s a real correlation between what is being reported in the news and the types of calls we are receiving in the days that follow. After the news coverage dies down, our volume of calls are much lower.”

Regardless of what happens in the coming months, the basic role of a dispatcher has not changed. Richard Behr has worked in the public safety industry for nearly 30 years as a dispatcher, trainer and instructor in California. He is Board Certified in Emergency Crisis Response and wrote a book titled, “Under the Headset, Surviving Dispatcher Stress.”   Behr said dispatchers are responsible for handling hundreds of calls per day that can lead to trauma and emotional stress. The recent world events are an expansion of this thought.

“I worked a call early (in my career) where two police officers and an innocent bystander were shot and that was hard for me to cope with,” said Behr. “Stress differs with dispatchers because you take ownership of every call and you feel the grief and pain a caller or officer can feel.”

“You can’t always be in control of situations, but you can be in control of your response to them,” he added. “By using those tools, dispatchers can be their own caregiver,” said Behr.

Hollman stresses the importance of empathy. The number of calls has nearly doubled where she dispatches in Wisconsin since the attacks, but as a rule dispatchers need remain patient. In times of societal crisis, Hollman said fear needs to be extinguished whenever possible and this is another part of a dispatcher’s role.

“I have found that I need to have compassion for callers,” said Hollman. “I try not to instill or add to their fears because I don’t know what they may have gone through. We represent the first line of defense and the law enforcement community, so in many ways we are the first line of defense.”

9-1-1 Magazine actually tackled the subject of how dispatchers would take a crucial lead in the battle against a continuing terrorist threat in a 1998 article by Nancy J. Rigg. The foreshadowing is eerie but stresses how the job of a dispatcher would change and evolve during this new type of war.

If the new terrorist battlefield is Anytown, U.S.A., the new foot soldiers are wearing law enforcement and fire-rescue insignia, not military fatigues. And although local agencies may have hazardous materials, mass casualty, and disaster response plans in place, the lack of in-depth WMD training and equipment has sparked intense concern and thoughtful debate.

Perhaps the most pressing question centers on whether or not first responders will be able to recognize a chemical or biological sneak attack to begin with, and distinguish it from other forms of mass casualty, including chemical spills. “9-1-1 dispatchers are really key to this whole situation,” said Suzanne Fournier of CBDCOM, adding that the initial identification is the "first step in saving lives..."   The clearer the communication is about what is visually observed on scene, the easier it will be to send out the right type of response units, saving time, as well as the lives of both the victims and first responders on scene.”

Since that article appeared in 9-1-1 three years ago, the role of dispatchers has not changed. And as the country works its way through this latest war, which has already, been waged on American soil, the importance of police, fire and EMS dispatchers will only increase as another method of Homeland Security.

Mike Scott is a freelance writer for several national and local magazines and newspapers. He lives in White Lake, Michigan.

Training remains the backbone of dispatch centers

During these stressful times, dispatchers are encouraged to get back to basics when it comes to their on-the-job performance. Training is a continuing process, said Christine Russell, Oakland County (MI) Sheriff’s Department.

Training methods vary with videos, handouts and even stress management classes being implemented. Practically every dispatch center utilizes an extended training process where a new employee is observed and advised by an experienced dispatcher for as long as six months, in a live setting.

In Oakland County, these individuals are called communication-training officers (CTOs).  “It has to be a hands-on setting because experience is a key,” said Russell. 

Dispatchers will rise above the current stresses in their job and remember that the following list can make the difference in saving several lives:

  • Good Memory Skills. This includes short and long-term memory skills. There are dispatch situations that generate from a repeat address, or a repeat vehicle license plate. A dispatcher with the ability to recall past situations can often be helpful in determining the best course of action. A dispatcher with strong memory skills can also suggest response alternatives that have been successful in the past.
  • The Ability to Multi-Task.  Dispatchers are often responsible for doing many things at once, not, the least which includes communicating with the caller and appropriate public safety personnel concurrently. A dispatcher must be able to listen to the caller, and if necessary, keep that person online if required. Excellent verbal communication skills, the ability to actively read and digest information are just a few of the tasks required of a dispatcher.
  • An Appropriate Level of Education. Most agencies require a high school diploma and job-specific training courses are also important.
  • A Positive Demeanor. As everyone knows, a dispatcher’s job is often stressful, so having a positive attitude is very helpful, not only for an individual’s performance, but to maintain high staff morale.

In dealing with stress, successful dispatchers should be able to identify the influences on attitude formation in and about the dispatcher’s job, understand methods of decreasing on-the-job cynicism and increasing staff satisfaction, and how to be equal to the tasks of monitoring, identifying and responding to stressors.

- Mike Scott


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