James Thalman

James Thalman

Story Vault

By James Thalman

If emergency communicators can be on a roll, the public safety dispatchers in the city of Hialeah, Fla., are on one.

In October 2009, separate dispatching centers located six miles from each other merged into a one-stop shop—a 3,000-square-foot communications center with 15 state-of-the-art consoles—for 50 police, fire, and medical dispatchers. Less than two years later, the City of Hialeah Public Safety Communications Division became a triple-accredited emergency dispatch center by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED).

As part of the consolidation, a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system was added, making the division one of the most effective comm. centers in the country as well as one of three tri-ACEs in the world while residing in a state widely regarded as the forward point of how emergency dispatching gets done.

Hialeah, the fifth-largest city in Florida, is growing like a strand of bamboo, and the dispatching center handles nearly 345,000 calls each year. Hialeah Director of Communications Chief Lazaro Guerra said the tri-ACE designation was a point of pride across the center.

“Not only does it show us that we’re actively seeking to be excellent in emergency response, technical capability, and the definitive example of public safety, it shows the nearly 300,000 residents we serve that we’re doing all we can to achieve those goals across all three agencies,” Guerra said.

The nationwide recession and the burst of the housing bubble six years ago hit Florida particularly hard. Having a new and improved communications center gives Hialeah residents a kind of ace up their sleeve when it comes to maintaining a new sense of community as the economy continues to rebound, not just economically but in its sense of community.

Obtaining the designation was well worth the effort, Guerra said, noting, “and it does take effort.” To other agencies considering whether to go for it, “the decision to do so must be a group decision. You don’t make it if everyone isn’t on board,” including the overseeing boards. “And it won’t stick if you don’t make maintaining and achieving excellence an integral part of the daily routine, and I do mean every day.”

Quality improvement and assurance has to be part and parcel to every decision, both inside and outside the center, “not just for now but forever,” Guerra said, noting that slippage can seep into a center unnoticed and quiet like dry rot in a home’s foundation. “Quality doesn’t just happen to come by, it has to be invited, and welcomed, and tended to, and made part of a center’s environment.”

The center didn’t have a lot of ground to make up in meeting the standards for becoming a tri-ACE, but it was bobbing below acceptable levels in how well dispatchers were following the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) structured calltaking guide. Case review scoring was hovering around 90% adherence, but some tweaking was needed to stop a small, slow leak in keeping top scores aloft.

“Again, the main fix to the adherence requirements was a buy-in from everyone that it mattered,” Guerra said. “Everyone decided that it’s not about the score but what those case review scores mean to how well we’re doing in responding to people in their moment of need.”

Florida has been through a lot of changes the past seven or eight years—financial upheaval and a lot of community ties that bind with it, Guerra said. “We’re remaking and helping rebuild the confidence and connection in our community, and that makes us both proud and keeps us humble.”

To achieve accreditation, Public Safety Communications dispatchers must meet specific standards for certification and the agency must submit an ACE application form along with a detailed, self-study of 20 specific categories. Accreditation is voluntary and involves review of everything from the center’s description to procedures outlining a quality improvement plan, continuing dispatch education, and compliance to the life-saving IAED emergency dispatch protocols developed by Academy Co-founder Dr. Jeff Clawson.

Hialeah and other agencies that have taken getting and keeping ACE designation seriously all have unique ways of running and improving operations. But, they are indistinguishable when it comes to the one big thing common in centers that actually achieve it: Every person, full and part time, was on the team and pulling individually from the start.

“It’s not showing off to the region you serve, although being an ACE does give a center an ego boost for sure,” said Brian Dale, IAED Accreditation Board chair. “It’s really more about what you’re showing the folks inside the center. It’s really about the internal workings and improving operations inside the control center, not controlling overseers or public opinion.”

Dispatching is like the front door of your house—the parts you don’t notice, Dale says. Without a well-seated and square jamb and hinges and turnable knobs and locks, “a door is more wall than door. It will move maybe, but it won’t swing.”

ACE designation is really a sworn, active commitment to providing the public the smoothest, efficient functioning to handling the flow of information from incoming call to coordinating outgoing response vehicles.

In one way, if there was an Uber-Protocol for communication centers, structured and continuous attention to quality improvement would be it, Dale often tells students, staff, and veteran center supervisors. Quality assurance and improvement is the real bottom line of any center. Not engaging in reasoned, full-team quality improvement is like a sink without a faucet or a clock without hands—not all that much help.

Every center director or supervisor shouldn’t be daunted when hearing about a center becoming an ACE but instead view it as an engraved invitation to take quality improvement seriously, and accept it.

“It comes down to that single decision, and then a daily decision to keep at it,” Guerra and every other ACE-designated center supervisor says in so many words.

“It’s the easiest and hardest decision, but it has to be a decision,” says veteran center supervisor Tom Norvelle. “It won’t happen by accident; accidents happen out there, not in here. And, it’s the definitive example of ‘Easier said than done.’ Then again, what in the world isn’t easier said than done?”