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  • Writer's pictureTony

Dispatch, AKA: The Disaster-Telegram Miracle-Working Siblings of EMS

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

Atlanta, Georgia

Entering a house to care for a patient is always a surprise. Lest you think differently, field medics invariably discount the nature of the call for assistance by our dispatcher. It doesn’t change the speed of our response to the scene or decrease the serious nature of our approach to patient care activities. It relates more to the fact that we understand that people lie to our dispatchers. The caller may either overstate the problem, understate the problem, or not have the first clue as to what is going on at the scene while making up some calamity to bring the ambulance in a speedy response—hence, the absence of credibility given to the caller.

EMS, or public safety dispatchers in general, are invariably overlooked as a vital link in the chain of events that serve to save lives. If they aren’t accurate with gathering the needed information, the responders are delayed, and lives are forfeited. Furthermore, they are the people who keep us all alive with either warnings of impending danger or sending the needed resources to bail our silly asses out of trouble when bad things happen during a call.

Lest you think it is a simple task to write down an address and gather the information needed to activate an EMS response, it isn’t. Imagine, just for a moment, trying to gather something as simple as a street address from a hysterical person screaming into their telephone that an ambulance is needed. With enhanced 911, an address of the caller’s location is displayed for the dispatcher. However, the patient may be located away from the caller’s residence. Furthermore, “call blocking” might inhibit display of the location information. Therefore, the dispatcher engages the caller in a conversation to draw out very specific information about the nature of the call.

A good dispatcher is part counselor, part medic, part computer geek, part investigator, and part fortune teller, with a dash of politician and sprinkle of telepathy tossed into the mix for good measure. He or she is tasked with calming the panic-filled citizen to the point that the disjointed statements pouring out of their earpiece carry some semblance of sensible information. Humans mutilate the English language daily as a matter of course. A person under stress blubbers and babbles in a manner that might make you think that their language skills were tossed into a blender before being poured out into the dispatcher’s ear. Furthermore, dispatchers are tasked with instructing this same babbling person on the first aid needed for the victim prior to the arrival of the ambulance. Whereas most individuals respond well to the soothing tones of a dispatcher, others become hostile and abusive in the conversation. After being called everything shy of a “human being” on multiple occasions by multiple callers, most dispatchers develop a professional persona that has enough emotional thickness to deflect a shell fired by a tank. Given the nature of their daily lives at work, I find it hard to believe that the dispatch center isn’t stocked with a full-service bar; they need and deserve it.

Atop all this responsibility, the dispatcher is also tasked with managing the available EMS resources and their location, moving them to provide coverage for a faster emergency response as needed—a point of which, while sensible and entirely logical, prompts points of contention and a more-or-less adversarial relationship between the distant dispatchers and the little cherubs riding around the city in an ambulance. Our field medic perspective is that dispatchers are a necessary evil inflicted upon our lives to disrupt meals and moments of personal reflection (i.e., goofing off) between actual calls. Nothing is more annoying or prompts louder cursing than hearing your unit called by a dispatcher when your lunch is in mid-preparation, prompting rumors and speculation that dispatchers use spy satellites to time their call to that exact moment.

The tensions between these two entities are further strained by shuffling the ambulance from station to station across the city as it waits for a call. In the modern world, field medics view “resource positioning” and “GPS vehicle locators” as tools designed by a cracked and nefarious mind for the sole purpose of torturing the individuals riding inside an ambulance. It is not unheard of to have an ambulance visit a dozen stations over several hours of the shift without responding to a single call. For the dispatcher, the movement is nothing more than a “blip” going from point A to point B on the computer screen. For the medics in the ambulance, it is a lengthy journey in heavy traffic during sometimes adverse weather.

EMS supervisors are constantly tasked with mediating disputes about “our tones” when conversing with our dispatchers over the radio. Think of it as a dutiful parent attempting to resolve a perpetual and unending fight between brothers and sisters in a very small household. More than one EMS supervisor has shaken their head in rueful agreement with our thought that an acerbic tone colored with dripping sarcasm is our tool of choice when battling with dispatchers. Yes, we are going where we are told to go. Yes, we abandon our meals to handle a call. No, we aren’t going to be happy about it. However, we also understand that “tone” is a subjective opinion of the dispatcher and is retained as a tool in our arsenal since we aren’t allowed to utter, “Would you make up your fucking mind!” over the radio as we bounce like a ping-pong ball between stations.

On the other side of the coin, the dispatchers have their own supervisor who handles their end of the disputing children. Unlike many dispatch supervisors, Andre Jones was never one to spend a tremendous amount of time bickering on a telephone or radio with an EMS team. Andre was rather famous for departing the dispatch center to personally visit the offending EMS crew on the ramp of the hospital. Not a physically imposing person, Andre possesses the unique ability to verbally peel the skin from a paramedic in the most painful manner humanly possible without ever devolving to profanity or use of a raised voice during the entire one-sided conversation. Many a crew found themselves limping off to a station after a blistering explanation of his expectations of professional communication with HIS dispatchers. It should be noted that Andre, when acting as a dispatcher for EMS radio, could also deliver some of the best honey-dripping sarcasm-laden observations when communicating with the crews out in the field. However, he was so eloquent in the delivery that we loved having him as our dispatcher, a brother in arms and kindred spirit on the other end of the radio.

“Unit 212, please stand advised that the caller will be awaiting your arrival at the scene. With some modicum of difficulty, I have explained that GPS has eliminated the need for him to stand in the roadway jumping up and down. Let’s see if that lesson holds true.”

“Yes, 442, I do have Fire Service en route to your location. Rest assured that it is unnecessary to light the house ablaze to summon them. You handle the patient; we’ll operate the telephone.”

“Yes, 350. The caller gave that address as the patient’s location. Humans have this unique skill called ‘walking’; you might try looking in the general vicinity for someone bleeding.”

In the end, medics, police officers, and firefighters will always have a sibling rivalry of sorts with their dispatchers. Of course, we have the same sibling rivalry with each other in the field of public safety. Yet, as a cautionary note, I will observe that a citizen outside of our fields is never afforded the luxury of insulting or deriding our brethren. If a citizen believes that they can join in our bickering and bantering, they learn quickly how fast we will close ranks together to administer a verbal tirade of biblical proportions to the unwitting civilian offender. We are family; you ain’t.

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