November 18, 2013
By Audrey Fraizer
St. Joseph County Fire Dispatch is the little center that did.
Reminiscent of the popular children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, the center in South Bend, Ind., relied on optimism and hard work to reach what might seem an impossible obstacle for a center of its size.
Repeating the little blue engine’s famous words, “I think I can, I think I can”—at least, perhaps, under their breaths—the 15 dispatchers, Dispatch Director Coni McCloughen, and Operations Manager Nancy Lockhart were able to turn the mantra into “We did it, We did it, We did it” in a relatively short eight-month haul.
And all it took, aside from the “I can” attitude, was a little help from their friends.
“We didn’t want to recreate the wheel, and we were looking for someone to offer to help us through the process,” said Lockhart, who is quite proud of the fact that their center is the “first and only” Medical Accredited Center of Excellence (ACE) awarded in the state of Indiana (on Nov. 11, 2012). “We contacted Susi Marsan, and she gladly accepted.”
Marsan, training coordinator for Grady EMS communications, and Betsy Cobb, Grady EMS quality assurance coordinator, had actually made the “all points” offer after achieving the same goal a year earlier and coming on stage to accept the award at NAVIGATOR 2012. At the same conference, Marsan and Lockhart co-presented sessions relating to training and emotional recovery in a stressful profession. McCloughen co-presented two sessions at NAVIGATOR 2013.
But not everyone interested in pursuing ACE goes to NAVIGATOR, and not everyone knows someone with ACE experience.
“That’s why we decided to put Grady out there,” Marsan said. “Not everyone has the same opportunities, and we believe it’s important to mentor those who want to achieve ACE but [who are] without the benefit of attending the workshops.”
Aside from ACE and everything that goes with the accreditation, St. Joseph County Fire and Grady EMS have little else in common, demographically speaking.
Grady EMS is the hospital-based emergency care component of Grady Health System; it provides basic and advanced life support emergency ambulance services to any resident and visitor within the city of Atlanta—approximately 134 square miles. With a fleet of 46 ambulances and a staff of 300, Grady EMS has provided EMS services for 120 years.
The Grady EMS communication center is a secondary Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), and it receives more than 120,000 emergency calls per year processed by two dispatchers, four calltakers, and one supervisor per shift on a 12-hour rotating shift. The PSAP moved to an upgraded facility in February 2011. They use the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) and are one of four ACEs in Georgia.
St. Joseph County Fire Dispatch is a secondary PSAP serving unincorporated South Bend, which comprises about 400 square miles and provides fire and medical dispatch to 108,000 residents. The center receives an estimated 13,000 emergency calls per year processed by three dispatchers on first and second shifts and two dispatchers on the night shift. They use the MPDS and the Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS).
The communication center is located in Clay Fire Territory Station 2, built in 1962 and remodeled in 1998. Station 2 (renamed to Station 22 in 2013) is one of five fire stations in Clay Territory, and houses the fire chief, operations chief, fire marshal, division chief of EMS, training officer, deputy fire marshal, and—since 1982—the 19-foot by 24-foot space allocated to dispatch. Prior to establishing a dedicated dispatch center, calls were answered in a funeral home and forwarded to a volunteer fire department for response.
The dispatch center introduced the MPDS in 1994 at a time when county police dispatchers answered medical calls. It offered a measure of preparedness, especially for the self-reliant population of rural South Bend, Lockhart said.
“We don’t have minor calls,” she said. “Our calls involve very sick people. Around here, they don’t want to rely on public services for help, preferring to fix things on their own.”
Five years later, St. Joseph County Fire assumed control of ambulance/EMD dispatch in unincorporated parts of the county, and the state has since mandated certification for all emergency medical dispatchers. ACE was always on their “to do” list but it wasn’t until NAVIGATOR 2012 that Lockhart and McCloughen dug in their heels.
“We wanted to do it right,” she said.
St. Joseph County Fire had questions ready: where to start, how to get people on board, and how to keep the momentum going throughout the process. Lockhart and McCloughen didn’t need their hands held through the process, but more-or-less wanted a kick-start and someone reliable to go to, if necessary. In other words, their center closely mirrors the resourcefulness of the residents under their jurisdiction.
Cobb knew St. Joseph County was in the same position as Grady EMS had been eight months earlier; that being brand new to the ACE process, beginning the very first point of the 20 needed for accreditation, and with the same aspiration to be “above and beyond” in their commitment to the public.
The best approach was showing St. Joseph County Fire the Grady EMS ACE binder—the point-by-point documentation for the 20 Points of Accreditation, a real page-turner for ACE aspirants. Since much of the information is not meant for eyes outside of Grady EMS, Cobb had legal draw up a confidentiality statement. She also provided suggestions for motivating personnel.
“There are a lot of changes over a short period of time, and you have to make it a great experience for your center,” Cobb said. “At Grady, we had moved into a new center and had the new version 12.0 (MPDS) to get up to speed. We made sure our people were involved from the start. Everybody had a part.”
Cobb and Marsan held countless training sessions with their staff, and Cobb relied upon inexpensive and creative awards, such as $5 bills in helium balloons (out of pocket), gift cards, casual dress days, and added longer breaks during which Cobb would work for the dispatcher during his or her time away from the console.
They offered their “success tips,” advice, and cheerleading abilities to McCloughen and Lockhart.
“We made ourselves available,” Marsan said.
Lockhart was amazed at their level of help and encouragement.
“Their support and their ‘you go guys’ were really helpful,” Lockhart said.
St. Joseph County Fire put together an award system: designing their own T-shirt contests, cooking challenges, rides with the fire department, and posting the names of QA “superstars” on a magnetic board. Dispatchers were involved from day one; after all, Lockhart said, “It is about their work. It’s about what they do daily.”
They studied the Grady EMS 20 Points binder; followed the recommendations of Ivan Whitaker, the IAED™ QA task force member assigned to evaluate the 20 Points submitted by St. Joseph County Fire; and listened closely to Kim Rigden-Briscall’s NAVIGATOR talk “How to Impress Your Board of Accreditation Reviewer.”
“They were a tremendous help,” Lockhart said. “They made sure we stayed moving in the right direction.”
St. Joseph County Fire celebrated its ACE at a combined firefighter/dispatch Christmas party. They produced a video, highlighting what ACE means to the center and individual dispatchers.
McCloughen attributes their success to the ones who made it happen.
“This is a compliment to them, and they wear it like a badge of honor,” she said. “They’re proud to say what they do for the public.”
Lockhart said the process wasn’t easy, although “rightfully meticulous,” considering the significance and what ACE represents for the public. Her advice to others in the running for ACE?
“Find a strong mentor,” she said. “Susi and Betsy were invaluable.”
Marsan said the offer to mentor still stands, although she is not quite sure where the offer will take them, or how many might take them up on it.
“We really didn’t know what we were getting into,” she said. “But it’s the right thing to do. We’re here to help.”
Accredited Centers of Excellence
14 City of Miami Department of Fire & Rescue; Miami, Fla., USA
29 El Paso County Sheriff’s Office; Colorado Springs, Colo., USA
48 M.D. Ambulance Communications; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
53 Citrus County Sheriff’s Office; Inverness, Fla., USA
54 REMSA (Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority); Reno, Nev., USA
79 Rehoboth Beach Police Department 9-1-1 Center; Rehoboth Beach, Del., USA
92 American Medical Response – Oregon Communications; Portland, Ore., USA
111 Montgomery County Hospital District EMS; Conroe, Texas, USA
114 Raleigh Wake 911; Raleigh, N.C., USA
134 Guilford Metro 911; Greensboro, N.C., USA
140 Cape County Private Ambulance; Cape Girardeau, Mo., USA
141 Metropolitan Area Communications Center Authority; Centennial, Colo., USA
142 Salt Lake City Department of Airports; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
4 Mecklenburg EMS Agency; Charlotte, N.C., USA
17 City of Hialeah Public Safety Communications Division;
Hialeah, Fla., USA