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Public Safety Dispatching: A Full Plate

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-12-09
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I am writing my last column of 2016 in that magical time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when shoplifting increases ten-fold, people call 9-1-1 because they’re stuck in traffic at the mall, and anyone who takes a sick day at the center had better come back to work missing major body parts.

Gone are the days when I had to wolf down candied yams between license checks and keep the turkey gravy off the keyboard, although I remember them well. I spent my Thanksgiving at home this year, surrounded by my kids, my wife, and the majority of my wife’s family. It was a full house. And our plates were full, too. Among the obligatory dishes and the green bean casserole (are Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and French’s onion straws even sold the rest of the year?), was a pumpkin pie with a ginger snap crust, which was the hit of the day as far as I was concerned. We all finished with full stomachs.

But the fullness of this joy is overshadowed by sadness. Agencies from coast to coast are suffering tremendously, as the war on public servants rages on. While I never understood the killing of a cop, like many, I rationalized that an occasional death essentially came with the territory. Enforcing the law and protecting the public peace assumes some risks by nature, especially in situations where emotions run high. But the slaughter that transpired during 2016 can in no manner, shape, or form be called occasional. It is brutal, constant, and appears to be the new norm. In my wildest dreams, I could not have foreseen that firefighters would also come under attack. Absent cases of outright civil disobedience, firefighters were historically granted safe passage to areas that were often hostile to police. But, that’s all changed. Now they’re victims of drive-by shootings.

It’s hard to imagine, too, that Emergency Medical Service personnel are taking self-defense classes and wearing body armor. The knowledge of applying a tourniquet must now be supplanted with the knowledge of Taekwondo. Even telecommunicators are not immune to the violence. In July, an Arkansas’ dispatcher was shot, likely because he was wearing a police department t-shirt, when he stopped to help a stranded motorist.

Twenty-sixteen also offered a proverbial kick in the teeth to our profession, when it was decided once again by the US Government’s Office of Management and Budget’s Standard Occupational Classification Policy Committee, that dispatchers and call takers were clerical rather than protective class employees. I’ve never known a clerical profession where a typo could literally get somebody killed, but, hey, what do I know?

One place where the past year did offer full plates, however, was work load. It manifested itself on a daily basis in the form of 9-1-1 centers that were understaffed and often pushing their people to the limit. When I see the schedules of friends who are still on the line, I wonder how they don’t die from overwork or kill someone else through the sheer lunacy of the number of hours and days they put in. It is through divine providence and an unyielding work ethic that we do not see significantly more errors than we do. The toll on staff, however, is in plain view as systemic burnout and turnover continue unabated.

Throughout the past twelve months, the incidents kept rolling. Some were minor; others made headlines. My current home, North Carolina, bore the brunt of Hurricane Matthew, which ignored forecaster’s instructions to turn dutifully out to sea and instead stayed inland, creating massive power outages and flooding.  Thousands of people were displaced, twenty-eight died, and over $1.5 billion in property was damaged. That was in October. In November, the state went back for more, this time with a series of wild fires that ravaged our western counties. This second helping of calamity contained a medley of 34 different blazes that consumed over 60,000 acres and permeated the air with smoke and haze a hundred miles to the east.

Not to be selfish, North Carolina shared its bounty with neighboring Tennessee, and by December our televisions were bringing us nationwide reports of the devastation in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, where, as of this writing, 14 people have lost their lives, and 1,700 homes and businesses have been damaged or destroyed. These fires, and others like them, will leave a scar on the landscape for generations to come.

But, more than that, they will leave a scar on those individuals whose job it was to manage the chaos when it appeared to many callers that Armageddon had arrived. There is bound to be some unseen damage to all those telecommunicators who put in extra-long hours handling an unimaginable volume of telephone and radio traffic while oftentimes not knowing if their own homes were still standing. In these close-knit communities, almost everyone knows someone who was personally affected by these tragedies.

So, as we move ahead to 2017, let’s clean our plates and prepare for the future. As for me, I’m fed up with this year. But whatever tomorrow serves up, 9-1-1 will never bite off more than it can chew. Happy holidays, everyone.


With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in four states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See 


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