Kevin Pagenkop

Kevin Pagenkop

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Kevin Pagenkop

While a dispatcher certainly needs active listening and multitasking skills and exceptional empathy to reassure emotional callers, there is an often-overlooked skill that is every bit as important as the rest.

Hint: It relates to a common concern involving protocol compliance.

When callers provide conflicting or vague answers to questions, dispatchers are taught to clarify responses. Without learning the most effective way to clarify, the non-compliant techniques used by dispatchers often confuse or anger the callers.

Answer: An emergency telecommunicator must understand the difference between closed-ended questions and open-ended questions.

A closed-ended question solicits limited responses (usually “yes”/“no” options). In many cases, the answers are provided in the body of the question itself.


“Is he acting odd because he is drunk?”

“Is the alarm going off a burglar alarm or a smoke detector?”

Closed-ended questions are detrimental to an emotional caller distracted by the scene (reason for the call) and not 100-percent focused on the person at the other end of the phone or engaged in the interrogation.

Rather than thinking about the questions being asked and providing thoughtful answers and accurate information, the emotional caller might absent-mindedly reply, “yeah, yeah, sounds good.” In addition, the emotional caller is asking for help and reassurance. The caller will often defer (or cling to) anything the dispatcher presents.

“Your husband’s awake?” is perceived to be a statement rather than a question and leads the caller into an affirmative response.

Freelance questions and leading questions are non-compliant behaviors; they do not give the caller an opportunity to freely clarify statements, but rather only serve to confirm the dispatcher’s perceptions of what he or she heard or what is believed to be happening. In these instances, the dispatcher inserts an opinion or a bias into the question.

“So you said …” is not an effective way to clarify information previously provided by a caller.

An open-ended question allows the other party to freely provide information. The dispatcher is not limiting the caller to specific options or “yes”/“no” responses.


“Why is he acting odd?”

“What type of alarm is it?”

Open-ended questions let the caller provide a narrative that effectively answers the specific question the dispatcher was clarifying and also spontaneously provide additional information to identify previously undisclosed scene hazards, signs/symptoms, or answers to apply elsewhere in the protocol.


Dispatcher: “Okay, tell me exactly what happened?”

Caller: “Please help me. My son has blood all over his face.”

Dispatcher: “I understand. Why does he have blood on his face?”

Caller: “He fell out of our treehouse. It’s almost 15 feet up in the tree. I think he broke his arm, too.”

This open-ended question effectively clarified the Chief Complaint Protocol selection and also answered two Key Questions found on Medical Priority Dispatch System™ (MPDS®) Protocol 17: Falls.

In many situations, simply re-asking the question as written is the most efficient way to clarify information. This is particularly appropriate when given a vague or confusing answer in regard to the Chief Complaint Description Question (MPDS Case Entry Question 3 and PPDS/FPDS Case Entry Question 4).

Acknowledging the caller’s response and then re-asking the question exactly as it is written—with an emphasis on the word “exactly”—is the best (and most compliant) practice. “Okay, tell me exactly what happened?”

In addition to the many skills that an emergency dispatcher must learn and employ, defining an open-ended question (and supporting its value as the most effective way to clarify caller information) should be taught during initial training and reinforced through continuing education.

The ability to differentiate between freelancing and clarifying is key to improving compliance as well as providing exceptional service.

And we all want to provide the best service, right?