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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It All Starts Here – 911

Dispatchers work on up to seven data screens.
The room seemed quiet. A large number of the “boat lights” were on, and the frequently changing colors indicated that things were busier than they appeared. (“Boat lights” is a dispatcher’s term for the colored lights at each dispatch position that indicates if the console is occupied, if they are talking on the radio, or if they are on the telephone.)

This is where it all starts. The public knows to call 911 to report an emergency—it is automatic. However, it is up to the proficient staff (and layers of technology) to make sense out of what they are being told and to get the correct responders to the correct location. It is a very tough job.

I was at the Dakota Communication Center (the DCC) to meet with Director Diane Lind.  The DCC is a joint powers entity that handles the 911 needs of Dakota County. That means they dispatch for 12 fire departments, 12 police departments, and three fire EMS services. Last year they handled 184,118 calls to 911 and 144,152 non-emergency calls for service.

What is the most difficult type of call?

Diane immediately said it is the calls that involve weapons: “The information on those calls changes so quickly.” By the time the staff hears and then broadcasts the information to the responders, the situation has changed.

In addition, some people “over-report” what is happening and some “under- report.” Diane reflected on some elderly callers who waited a long time—perhaps too long—to call 911 for help, as they didn’t want to bother anybody.


911 phone information and data is broadcast
Has technology made dispatch easier?

Adding to the difficulty is that most callers do not have all the information, some even confuse perception with reality, and many 911 cell phone callers don’t know exactly where they are. The technology can help, but the accuracy varies and the phone GPS data won’t tell the responders which floor to go to, or the unit number of the apartment building that needs help. It doesn’t provide “vertical data.”

Can a person text a 911 call? No. The cell/wireless providers are starting to provide a return message to anyone who texts 911 telling them to use their phone and verbally call 911.

What about the internet phone services? The Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) calls now make up almost 7% of the 911 calls at the DCC. Subscribers to these systems need to keep their 911registrations current with their provider and remember to update that information it if they move. Unfortunately some do not. These calls go to the internet provider who forwards it to the 911 center for the most recent address listed.

What about the future?

Diane reflected on the ongoing technology and workforce changes. Fortunately, she said the newly hired staff is able to pass on their keyboard and technology skills to the veterans. The veterans in turn are passing on their communication skills, composure, and experience.

As I headed out the door, I looked back and again noted how calm and quiet the room appeared—but the boat lights told a different story.

Remember:

                                           Responder Safety = Public Safety

Up next…Why “Joint Powers” Organizations and Task Forces Need Insurance

In the meantime, stay safe and be careful.

Rob

Monday, August 5, 2013

“America Burning”: A Look Back

Savage Fire Department's community outreach

This past May marked the 40th anniversary of the release of “America Burning.” The report took two years to complete and was the result of Congress and two presidents taking action on what was termed “America’s fire problem.” It was a statistical review and analysis of the nation’s fire losses and put hard numbers to what many firefighters knew was happening. The data in the report became a documented foundation for change and for understanding.

“America Burning” contained 90 detailed recommendations and was a recognition that firefighting occurs at a local level.  As a result, the National Fire Academy and U.S. Fire Administration were created to support local departments. Many of the current federal grant programs—such as the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants—were the result of the reports directive to improve firefighter training and upgrade the level of response and staffing.

The timing of the report could not have been better, as it coincided with the new technology and development of the affordable home smoke detectors. In addition to recommending smoke detectors for all homes, there were recommendations for sprinkler systems, clothing, and mattress flammability standards, and for public education including educational programs in the schools. I remember departments increasing their public outreach and targeting every school for education on home fire drills and “Stop, Drop, and Roll.”
Savage Fire Department public education in schools

The report also called for the better tracking of fires nationally. The National Fire Incident Reporting System came on line in 1977, and the Minnesota Fire Incident Reporting System data that your crews complete is fed to the national system through the State Fire Marshal’s office. 

Many of the periodicals and articles that have reflected on the importance of the report also note the new challenges facing the fire services, including: the threat from wildfires, the high number of automated false alarms, and the use of faster burning materials in current lightweight construction.

“America Burning” is credited with the decline in fire deaths, injuries, and overall reduction in fires. It called for a coordinated multi-point approach with a focus on prevention and suppression of fire that has been successful. It is important to know how we got where we are as we prepare to face the challenges ahead.

Remember:

                                                Responder Safety = Public Safety

Up next…It All Starts Here - 911

In the meantime, stay safe and be careful.

Rob