NOT A ONE-WAY CONVERSATION
December 3, 2014
By Art Braunschweiger
There’s a particular utility company I have to call anytime my fire department needs it to respond to a blown transformer, a wire down, or an emergency shutoff. Once I’ve provided the utility company operator with the address, I am subject to a series of scripted questions:
“Is this in a gated community?”
“Is the fire department on-scene?”
“Is anything preventing emergency personnel from responding to the scene?”
“Are any poles or wires down?”
You get the idea.
So one day, having been through this enough times to have it memorized, I decided to help the operator out. After she pulled up the address, I volunteered (politely, and—I thought—helpfully): “It’s not in a gated community, the fire department is on-scene, nothing is preventing emergency personnel from responding to the scene, and there are no poles or wires down.”
The briefest moment of silence followed. (She was probably thinking “smart-ass.”) And then she replied, with a hint of reproof in her voice, “Sir, I have to ask you these questions.” And she proceeded to ask every one even though I had already given the answers to them.
As emergency dispatchers, we don’t have to ask a question if the caller has explicitly stated the answer to it. But what happens if the answer to a question has been volunteered up front, but we weren’t ready for it? Obviously, we should all have good active listening skills, but there are times where we’re not 100 percent confident in recalling what was said. Asking the protocol question as scripted might give the impression that we weren’t listening. The safe alternative would seem to be to feed the answer back to the caller in the form of a question as in, “You said she fell down five stairs?”
Unfortunately, this is leading the caller.
The Academy’s performance standards don’t allow it, and for good reason: What you think you heard might not be what the caller meant.
Here’s an example. At the opening of a call, when asked for the address of the emergency, the caller—a panicky mother—reports that her son was playing in the backyard when a large dog ran up and bit him. As the ED starts to calm her down in order to get the address, she says, “The dog ran around the front of the house. I don’t see him now.” Once on Protocol 3: Animal Bites/Attacks, the ED reaches Key Question 2—“Where is the animal now?” Recalling what the caller said, the ED says, “And you said the animal left?” This is not the same question. In the example above, the dog had left the yard, but was somewhere in the front of the house—thereby posing a danger to responders.
There’s a way to confirm what we heard without violating the performance standards and without sounding like we weren’t paying attention.
Three short words will do the trick: “Tell me again.” In the case of the dog bite example above, you would ask, “Tell me again—Where is the animal now?” This lead-in phrase preserves the protocol script while sending the message, “I’m pretty sure I remember what you said, but I just want to make sure.” This isn’t altering the protocol script; it’s simply applying good communication skills to enhance the flow of conversation.
Sometimes, we concentrate so much on the protocols that we don’t pay enough attention to our callers when they get ahead of us. When they do, making a conscious effort to focus on what they’re saying can help reduce the need to re-ask questions. There’s no performance standard that addresses active listening or retention, but both are key skills that can help avoid spending valuable time on a question that’s already been answered.
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