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Random Thoughts: How PSAP Managers Must Make Sense of it All

Author: Barry Furey

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

Date: 2017-07-31
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As I sit watching the summer slowly slither away, I am faced with what many would call a high-class problem; idea overload. While the bane of many columnists is the dreaded “writer’s block,” where no coherent thoughts can come, I find myself mired in a completely opposite situation. In fact, over the past few weeks I have written – and personally rejected – a number of columns for publication.

The first was based upon discussions held with my peers in dispatch management. After ruminating over the sad state of affairs concerning PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) staffing, we independently reached the foregone conclusion that it will likely take a failed 9-1-1 call leading to the death of a celebrity to get anyone’s attention. In a world where Tiger, Kathy, and Kim’s posterior dominate the news, it seems pretty clear where our focus lies. My wife vetoed this because she thought the piece sounded like I was endorsing the idea. While I assure you that I would not personally miss many of the rich and famous, the intent was to put into words the frustration expressed by many over our inability to fix what is a fixable problem.

The second column shelved dealt with the burden placed on communications centers by tracking off duty personnel. You know, the ones who work every Friday and Saturday evening at local watering holes and night spots to keep the peace. That one will be back, with a little fine tuning.

Because I get many of my ideas from the Internet, my cup is running over as of late. In Chicago, an engine company came under gunfire while responding to an alarm. What policies does your dispatch have in place when advised of such situations? Who do you notify? What resources do you send to help? 

Image Right: Not your everyday newspaper story – nor your everyday 9-1-1 report. Who are you gonna call? - via CNN

On the lighter side, Oregon offered up a 9-1-1 call regarding eels on the highway. Yes, eels. Slime eels to be exact. This caused me to think about the variety of seemingly crazy things that telecommunicators hear that make perfect sense to the caller. One center I managed had an elderly lady advise us that there was a Martian on her porch. It turned out to be a juvenile who had huffed fluorescent paint. Still and all, her “little green man” was real, and so were these eels. But, that also brings up another point about handling animal calls. Whether it’s killer bees, gators, snakes, or stampeding livestock in a downtown urban environment, we’ve got to have the numbers to call for all of these situations. And, we have to have them ahead of time because problems tend to escalate when we delay.

From New South Wales in Australia came the story of bullying in emergency services, with a specific reference to someone having a telephone book thrown at her head in “the control centre.” I’ve often been concerned about the treatment that some probationary employees receive from old-timers who seem to forget their past (and sometime's current) lack of familiarity with policy, procedures, and equipment. Although I have heard some horror stories over the years, they were mostly verbal altercations, and I thankfully never witnessed any physical encounters. In discussing this topic in another forum, respondents called bullying “a cancer” in our culture and offered a counterpoint to my own theory that “we eat our young.” One telecommunicator advised me that since agencies are now desperate to keep new hires, there is little accountability required for those freshly aboard. Apparently, this has not set well with senior staff who are now leaving. While I cannot personally validate this experience, I mention it because communication managers must carefully think through a growing number of decisions, because for every action, there is unquestionably a reaction. And that reaction may, indeed, be worse than the problem you started out to fix.

Which brings me to this realization. Just as I was forced to face a quandary when it came to deciding on this column, you, too, will have to make increasingly frequent decisions concerning staff, budget, and technology and will have many paths from which to choose. I managed my first PSAP in 1979; my last in 2015. A journey that began without Computer Aided Dispatch, 9-1-1, and even recording, ended with virtual computers and texting. A “just the facts ma’am” approach to getting the problem, name, and address from callers had morphed into formal protocols that regulated engagement and took two people to review these interactions on a monthly basis.

Next Generation 9-1-1 and FirstNet are just two of the many plates now set upon your table. With the exponential speed of technological development, it’s almost impossible to know what’s being served in the next course. But it’s your job to plan accordingly, and to be accountable for any wrong decisions you make along the way. Idea overload and information overload are actually one in the same; except in your case, you can’t defer action until next month. And while I like to think that my words here have some value, they pale in comparison to the life and death consequences attached to the choices you routinely make. Go out today and make the right ones.

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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