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New Q&A protocol in place for 911 emergency callers
Communications officer Owen Sullivan is among the dispatchers using the new priority dispatch system Jan. 14 at the Fremont County Communications Center. Photo by Eric Blom

New Q&A protocol in place for 911 emergency callers

Jan 22, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The program guides dispatchers through a series of nationally standardized questions tailored to fit any situation.

Anyone calling 911 for emergency services in Fremont County might notice a change in the way dispatchers answer the phones.

The Fremont County Sheriff's Office Communications Center implemented the Medical, Fire and Police Priority Dispatch System in December in an effort to provide a uniform response to local emergencies.

The $44,000 program guides dispatchers through a series of nationally standardized questions tailored to fit any situation.

"So when someone calls in a (drunk driver), every dispatcher -- no matter if it's their first day on the job or if they've been here 20 years -- is asking the same questions ... in the same logical sequence," public safety communications director Carl Freeman said.

In the past, he said, each dispatcher would ask questions in an order dictated by their own personal "style." For example, after finding out where a potential drunk driver was spotted, one staff member might ask what color the suspect vehicle is. Others would request the vehicle's direction of travel, or get the caller to explain why the driver seems drunk.

"We all got to the same end point," Freeman said. "We just got there a different way."

Now, dispatchers are prompted by a computer program to ask questions based on the specific problem at hand, beginning with a series of six queries that are uniform for every call.

They begin with the phrase, "911, what is the address of the emergency?"

Next, dispatchers ask for the reporting party's phone number.

"Those questions we never deviate from," Freeman said. "We have to know where we're going, (and) if we get cut off we can call you back."

The third question requests the caller's name, then dispatchers ask the person on the line to describe "exactly what happened." Question No. 5 is, "Are you at that location now?" and the final query asks when the incident took place.

Next, dispatchers move on to questions that show up on their screens based on the specific situation. Freeman said the first question usually has to do with weapons.

In the drunken driver scenario, if no weapons are involved, the computer prompts the dispatcher to ask what the suspect vehicle looks like and where it is headed. The driver is described next, and then the dispatcher asks why the reporting party thinks the suspect is impaired.

At a certain point, the program tells the dispatcher that enough information has been gathered to send out a field unit. For drunken drivers, Freeman said the trigger point to dispatch police comes after a vehicle description has been obtained.

"As soon as we get the vehicle description we give it to field units then go back and get more information," Freeman said.

The dispatcher can relay the additional information to officers as they approach the scene.

Previously, Freeman said, some dispatchers would wait until they had gathered all possible information about an incident before contacting law enforcement.

"That could cause somewhat of a time delay," Freeman said.

Others would send out each bit of information as it came in, he added, so officers didn't always know what they were looking for.

Learning curve

Freeman said the main drawback to the new system has been getting used to it. The change has impacted dispatchers, officers and the public, and Freeman said some citizens who frequently call 911 have become frustrated by the protocols.

"Like businesses with trespassing complaints," Freeman said. "Some don't like it because it's like, 'Just get someone here. I've called you for the past 15 years with these complaints, why are you asking all of these questions.'"

He said the additional information makes it easier for law enforcement to apprehend the suspect who is the object of the call.

Dispatcher Alex Keeley added that the standardized questions help her and her coworkers take control of the conversation.

"I can understand where it would be frustrating for the public too, but overall it's for their benefit," she said. "We're asking them appropriate questions instead of just random questions."

The protocol is comforting to dispatchers who are often thrust into medical situations with which they have little experience. In April, for example, Keeley was asked to help deliver a baby over the phone. She said she was able to give her caller accurate information about the procedure despite the fact that she had never seen a delivery take place.

"The protocol at least allows us to give information that has been proven to work," she said. "It keeps us a little more calm -- we know we're doing something correct instead of just telling people what we think."

The list of questions also helps ensure dispatchers don't forget any critical pieces of information, she said.

Everyone who uses the system undergoes a certification training course and must meet continual quality improvement benchmarks. The dispatchers are certified by the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch and must recertify every two years.

Local dispatchers responding to medical problems and fires have been using the program since April 2013, Freeman said, and it has been applied to law enforcement calls since last month. Freeman said 60 percent of calls to his center are regarding law enforcement, with the rest having to do with fires or medical problems. Currently the Fremont County Sheriff's Office Communication Center has a staff of 13 which dispatched 25,779 calls for service in 2012.

Freeman's dispatch center serves the Fremont County Sheriff's Office, the Shoshoni and Lander police departments, Fremont County Emergency Medical Services, the Fremont County Coroner's Office, Fremont County Emergency Management, the Lander Volunteer Fire Department and the Fremont County Fire Protection District including the Lander Rural Fire Department, the Dubois Rural Fire District and the Jeffrey City Rural Fire Department.

The Riverton Police Department and Riverton Volunteer Fire Department have their own dispatch center that does not currently use the priority dispatch system, and Freeman said the program is not in place for the Wind River Police Department, either.

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