The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 5, 2008

Carlisle’s dispatchers: working on the front line

If you have ever called 911, you know how important that voice at the other end of the line can be. When a call lights up Carlisle’s emergency desk, the dispatcher rapidly extracts the

Dispatcher Emma Burleson sits in front of the Communications Department console. Burleson resigned last week to move out of state. (Photo by Dave Ives)

necessary information: Who is calling? What and where is the emergency? and makes a quick decision on who needs to respond: The police? The fire truck? The ambulance crew? All of the above?

“You don’t take this job by coming off the street and answering the phone,” says Mike Taplin, manager of public safety communications. The job requires an excellent knowledge of the town and its resources, extensive training in emergency response . . . and a cool head.

All full-time personnel

In July the Communications Department went to an all full-time model, with five full-time

Mike Taplin, Manager of Public Safety Communications, has worked in Carlisle since 1993. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

dispatchers, including Taplin. The new staffing level has been working very well, according to Fire Chief Dave Flannery. Two new full-time positions were approved in 2006, but it has taken many months to get the right team in place.

In past years the department had three full-time and two part-time dispatchers. Part-time personnel had much higher turn-over and usually less experience. Although Carlisle does not have the volume of calls of the surrounding towns, it is unique within the I-495 area with an on-call Fire Department. With no full-time fire personnel, the dispatcher becomes especially important, taking all calls for the Fire Department and assigning personnel and resources. If a fire goes to a second alarm or a third alarm, it is the dispatcher who calls in additional companies. “It is in the best interests of the town to have experienced and highly skilled personnel that can service the Fire Department with high competency,” says Flannery.

One resignation

Unfortunately for the town, one dispatcher resigned and left the team at the end of last week. The town is advertising for a replacement. Although some applications have been received, it is difficult to find experienced candidates. “Carlisle is medium on the pay scale, but a lot of towns have better benefits,” says Carlisle Police Chief John Sullivan. For example, Carlisle and Concord pay 50% of the cost of health insurance, but other towns may pay 70% to 85%.

An inexperienced dispatcher requires a minimum of three months of training before being able to take calls independently.

The Communications Department reports to both the Police Chief and the Fire Chief, who set policies for the group. Taplin supervises the dispatchers and carries out other administrative functions such as arranging the schedule, training, maintaining equipment and implementing policies and procedures.

Dispatchers work one eight-hour shift, five days per week. With five days on and two days off, four dispatchers can cover 20 of the 21 shifts per week. The fifth dispatcher, the “flex-dispatcher,” covers the remaining shift, substitutes for staff that are on vacation, sick or in training, and on weekdays provides back-up for the busy 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift. Taplin frequently works the back-up shift, during which he is been able to take care of administrative tasks. When only one dispatcher is on duty, police officers who are certified to take 911 calls provide back-up.

In addition to covering all 911 calls in Carlisle, dispatchers answer the Police and Fire Department non-emergency lines, and perform a few front-office functions, such as selling dump stickers.On average, dispatchers take about 830 calls per month, including both 911 and non-emergency calls.

Assisting the dispatcher is a computer console, installed a year ago, which has the capacity to run two separate response systems, an advantage in any emergency when many calls are received at the same time.

There are about 30 emergency calls to the Fire Department per month, including calls for gas odors, carbon-monoxide alarms, fuel leaks and water problems. The Fire Department has a computer-aided dispatching system that helps the dispatcher assign the correct personnel and resources to a call.

In addition there are also about 30 emergency medical calls per month. During a medical call, dispatchers can follow an emergency medical dispatch protocol, a set of step-by-step instructions for dealing with the most common emergencies. However, in some urgent situations, says Taplin, this process is too time-consuming. Dispatchers who are certified EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) can provide medical advice without referring to written information.

Taking calls: from the difficult to the absurd

Taplin has worked in Carlisle since 1993, initially as a police officer and as a full-time dispatcher since 1997. He has responded to almost every kind of call. “I helped deliver a baby – twice. It worked out well for all concerned. I’ve had pursuits and break-ins in progress. A fire on Monroe Hill a few years ago went to five alarms, and during that event we had a burglar alarm and a medical emergency. They all got handled.”

Carlisle dispatchers rarely get calls from non-English speakers, but if they do, a translator can be on the line within a minute or two, provided the dispatcher can identify the language. The state 911 office provides this service at no charge.

Some situations can be emotionally difficult, Taplin admits. “You get calls – a choking baby – and they tug at you. But your job is to be the rock and the resource. It’s all part of the training.”

Does he get crank calls? “Oh, sure. But with caller ID they are eliminated quickly. We would get more if there were more pay phones in town. There’s one at the school. Every now and then we get a call from the school.”

Does one call stand out in his memory? Taplin hesitates for a moment. “A woman called one time screaming, ‘My baby can’t breathe!’ It was difficult to understand her. We sent the ambulance and the Fire Department and the Police. Turns out her dog was having a seizure. Her dog was her baby.” ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito