Tracey Barron

Academic Research

By Tracey Barron

Scientists conduct research for many reasons and while findings could mean the next Nobel Prize in medicine, chemistry, or physics, recognition cannot be the motivation that, for example, leads to understanding a cell’s transport systems, G-protein-coupled receptors, or (a personal favorite) discovery of the elements radium and polonium by Marie Curie, which received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911.

In other words, research doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, although the quest does originate because of curiosity or the need to solve a problem. Few scientists have the freedom and luxury to select their own problems to solve but instead are employed in an industry and part of a multi-disciplinary approach to develop greater expediency and cost-efficiency in comparison to the competition.

No matter the reason prompting research, every scientist must define the problem in a way that arrives at a conclusion—something to act upon and which lends to the growing body of literature available on the topic. Most often subjects chosen for study have a history—a procession of scholars and academia—and the existing literature requires a systematic review prior to launching what might lead to groundbreaking results.

A library of literature is a priority, and something emergency dispatch was lacking when Jeff Clawson, M.D., proceeded on his idea to develop a medical protocol for the dispatch environment nearly 40 years ago.

At that time—the mid-1970s—dispatchers and dispatch services were the last to receive public funding set aside for emergency services, if considered at all. Moves to recognize dispatch as a profession meant Dr. Clawson starting without a past to fall on; he began dispatch research and experimentation at square one.

Since few, at that time, considered emergency dispatch as any sort of link in the chain of survival, Dr. Clawson first had to establish its value as an early prioritization point. He had to prove the value of dispatchers as providers of responder information and providers of instructions that could help save a life prior to the arrival of response on scene. He needed science to validate the value.

Over the years, the College of Fellows that Dr. Clawson created within the Academy has conducted ongoing review of “standards of care and practice” and an evaluation of the tools to meet or exceed these standards. Its findings have been influential in developing systems to improve dispatchers’ ability to identify and triage a caller’s problem, provide the appropriate instructions or help, and send the most appropriate response safely.

Research and findings have led to recognition of dispatch as a vital link in the chain of survival. The science of dispatch hasn’t stopped. Well-conducted scientific research is adding to an existing although still minimal body of literature providing meaningful interpretation to an increasingly complex system.

How much do we have to draw on?

That was a question asked in a recent study into past, present, and future emergency dispatch research. The team conducting the study reviewed existing literature—a total of 149 papers (114 original research, and 35 seminal concept papers)—to identify both gaps in research and potentially fruitful extensions of current lines of study.

The results weren’t groundbreaking. The curiosity to ask the question and the ability to design the research, however, did provide the first systematic review of dispatch research. The results gave us a catalog of the literature available and identified the gaps in research. We have clearer avenues for future study.

The systematic review revealed four major issues that continue to dominate dispatch studies: dispatch as first point of care, standardization of the dispatching process, resource allocation, and best practices for dispatching. The gaps include a lack of consistent metrics, the near-nonexistence of research in fire and police dispatching, and a relative lack of studies in many areas of interest.

Overall, results indicate a need for greater participation in research by communication center administrators and others “on the ground” in emergency dispatch, as well as increased collaboration between research organizations and operations personnel.

That’s what research is about. We discovered the gaps and, also, have the base of work on which the future progress of emergency dispatch—and future evolution—will be built. For this reason, this is a prime moment in which to identify the priorities around which such progress should grow.

I don’t know if anyone involved in the science of emergency dispatch will ever be nominated for the Nobel Prize. I doubt that’s on any of our agendas. The work has led to the goals of research—knowledge, greater understanding, and the ability to devise new applications—and if that’s the only ground broken, that’s all the motivation I need to continue.