James Thalman

James Thalman

Best Practices

By James Thalman

EUGENE, Ore.—There’s a famous 9-1-1 call from four years ago in which a young father is two levels into panic mode beholding his pain-riven wife in the midst of a breech birth of their son. The situation could have been become infamous had it not been for the quick pivot and good hands of veteran Central Lane Communications dispatcher Cassie Ezell.

The about-to-be dad is completely beside himself—a condition the dispatcher’s supervisor and more than one listener calls “pretty much a basket case.” He comes all but unraveled when his new son starts to present but his tiny shoulder becomes lodged behind the mother’s pelvic bone. The father only knows this because Ezell has come to the guided conclusion through the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) post-dispatch interrogation that the infant’s body is blocking his entrance to his life on Earth.

By following the prompts on Protocol F: Childbirth–Delivery Panel 6, Ezell knows that after three hard contractions and still no birth she must switch to Panel 16, 17, and ultimately 18, all the while reassuring the father: “I’ve done this before; listen very carefully, and I’ll tell you what to do next.”

The mood of the situation seems to flip immediately, and the change is palpable, even over the phone. The father’s demeanor turns from intense anxiety to clear-headed calm as he is not only told what to do next, he clearly believes that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

The call is a watershed moment for Central Lane Communications; not only did it occur at almost the same time that the center decided to go for ACE status—which it achieved this past April officially at this year’s Navigator conference in Baltimore—it is the documented proof that the center is a model for how dispatching is done, not just in central Oregon but throughout the Northwest.

“Cassie did nothing short of a phenomenal job, as anyone who hears that call can tell,” Communications Supervisor Cynthia Altemus told The Journal in July. “We play that call whenever we get a chance for all kinds— public and public safety—of audiences. Every time, people will come up after—men included—and say, ‘When I have a baby, I’m calling you guys no matter what’s going on.’”

Altemus takes that as the high praise that it’s intended to be. The center has set a standard of the can-do, no-matter-what first, first responders. It’s not something they say. It’s what they do, and they do communications for public safety agencies and cover a region of about 300,000 people in Lane County. They are part of a new unified rural fire department. They handle calls—police, fire, and medical— for the twin cities of Eugene/Springfield and are part of discussions of a plan in the works to join the Eugene and Springfield fire departments. It’s such a sure thing that the fire chief’s business card says Springfield on one side and Eugene on the other.

The unification is made possible under a new Oregon Revised Statute provision that allows public safety departments of similar size or approximate regional connection to join forces to get the most out of public funding. That has made for a lot of territorial reconfiguring, not to mention some retooling of attitudes about who is responsible to whom and for what exactly.

“It’s pretty much a day-at-a-time thing for us,” Altemus said. “We’re the designated PSAP and the generic one when people aren’t sure. If we don’t handle a jurisdiction exactly, we know who does and will get the caller into the right hands.”

The 9-1-1 breech baby call isn’t just a trust-promoting illustration that Central Lane knows what to do in some big-time hours of need, the incident is a metaphor— achieving ACE designation was its own kind of difficult birth.

“It was a goal of management, but it wasn’t a shared goal within the center somehow, if that makes sense,” Altemus said. “I think other comm. centers will know what I mean; those who have decided to become an ACE will understand anyway. It was as if the harder we tried or the more we focused on it, the more difficult it seemed to get.”

ACE designation wasn’t just the natural order of things that some centers report. “Our level of expertise was high enough, but we didn’t quite have all the pieces in place,” Altemus said. “We had incredible support from our police and medical agencies, meaning they backed us and really never had a discouraging word about our performance. But somehow, we just didn’t quite bring the energy into the right focus.”

From the outside looking in, it’s no wonder drawing the bull’s eye was kind of a moving target. The center covers a region of about 270 square miles, including Eugene proper, providing emergency medical dispatching in addition to routing other emergency calls for Lane Rural Fire/Rescue, which just blended two rural fire districts under one administrative umbrella.

Knowing which calls were to be handled and which are hand-offs is an abiding chore itself, and with fire districts and other public safety agencies taking advantage of a state revised statute to get the most out of public funds by joining forces, dispatching became a moving target within a moving target for the communications center. Not to mention, every city’s public service and safety agency has either moved into new buildings or are about to by this fall.

“Externally, let’s just say we’ve had about every challenge, and going after an ACE got put aside a few times the past four years,” Altemus said. “Somehow though, the less we worried about trying to get it, the more it seemed to come to us. It’s like we got out of our own way, and things just kind of started to flow and fall into place.”

New in the mix—although mostly internally to the fire and rescue in the area—is the unification of Lane County Fire District No. 1 and Lane Rural Fire/Rescue. The official start date of the unified service was July 1, but things have been humming organizationally for a good year.

Lane Fire Chief Chris Heppel said on KKNU-FM’s Community Forum hosted by long-time journalist and public safety agency advocate Tracy Berry that the communications center has a lot to deal with, but fortunately the new and improved fire and rescue approach has become just another part of the job at Central Lane.

“Continuity and consistency are part and parcel to all aspects of emergency services,” Heppel said. “We’ve got both in our communications center, no matter how agencies are organized or reorganized from within.”

Altemus said the support of the responder agencies is a huge plus. “We know it’s not that way in a lot of places,” she said. “I always like to say, partly tongue-in-cheek: “You guys do the germs and we’ll do the rest.”