Extinguishing The Fear Of Fire Dispatching

Erin Eaton

Guest Writer

I work at Northwest Central Dispatch System (NWCDS), located in Arlington Heights, Illinois (USA). The combined population of the area we serve is approximately 500,000 and covers over 170 square miles (273 square kilometers). We dispatch for 11 police departments and 11 fire departments, handling approximately 1,677 calls per day and dispatching approximately 246,000 calls for service annually.

Not all communication centers are the same, but when you get down to it, many of us find ourselves struggling with the same basic issues in regard to fire dispatching. I want to share how my center began the process of developing a fire specialist team, improving our fire dispatching compliance, and introducing an after-action process between our emergency dispatchers and our fire departments.

The fire specialist idea came to me in early 2020. During a large-scale fire incident, we were noticing two reactions from the fire dispatchers: Some were excited for the incident, while others were overwhelmed. As the incident progressed, everyone wanted to help, and duties were being done by several people. This ended up being counterproductive because clear communication became more difficult, and tasks were sometimes done twice or maybe overlooked all together.

We thought we should streamline the process and make the dispatcher handling the incident feel a little more confident and a lot less overwhelmed. I took a hard look at my shift to determine who really excelled at fire dispatching and decided to organize a team to assist with large-scale fire incidents. I began approaching my co-workers to gauge interest, and most of those I spoke with were excited to get involved. We currently have five fire specialist team members working on our afternoon shift (1500–2300).

The concept of the team is that when we get a report of a structure fire, one of the available team members plugs in next to the dispatcher with the working fire and acts as an extra set of eyes and ears for the dispatcher. The fire specialist delegates any necessary tasks that need to be completed, such as notifying utilities and paging extra personnel. This allows the dispatcher working the fire to solely focus on the incident and direct radio traffic from the scene. We have a fire incident checklist on the computer and a laminated copy at each fire position. The fire specialist team member ensures the dispatcher has the necessary items completed from the checklist. If the fire requires assistance beyond the local level, we upgrade the incident to a Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) box alarm. The fire team member then shifts to assisting the MABAS dispatcher and any of the other fire channels that require a response to the incident.

While this program is currently being utilized only on our afternoon shift, the program has been beneficial to our center in many ways. The first way is that the fear of a large-scale fire incident has diminished due to the support the dispatcher now receives. Next, the confidence that the dispatcher has in their ability to handle these types of calls has improved tremendously. Additionally, we developed a fire review form that addresses several points of the incident and gives feedback to the dispatcher on how the incident was handled. By focusing on both positives as well as opportunities for growth, these reviews give the dispatcher a clear understanding of how they performed and where improvement may still be needed.

And finally, we wanted to involve our fire departments in the process. We have asked to be included in any fire department debriefings they have about these incidents. This allows the dispatcher to hear how things went on the other side of the radio and, if needed, get some closure for the incident. We found that when we communicated with the fire departments, they found the dispatcher’s perspective just as valuable as we found theirs.