Mike Rigert

Mike Rigert


By Mike Rigert

Imagine a world in which every child, from age 8 on up, knew that he or she could dial 911 to get help during an emergency. And in this hypothetical world, not only would children (and therefore, adults) know when and how to phone for emergency assistance, but they also could anticipate what types of standardized questions the emergency dispatcher would pose to them and what information callers would need to provide.

What kind of impact would such a scenario have on community medical, fire, and police response? Needless to say, the resulting impact on that society would be equally life changing and lifesaving.

But what if this fictional place was not some far away utopian planet but rather the actual near future of the area in which you live? Thankfully for present-day Earthlings, the future is now, as many public safety agencies are actively engaging young and old alike to develop a more informed citizenry when it comes to emergency calls. More and more, communication centers are investing in the significant returns that a dynamic and sustainable community outreach program can give residents—and dispatchers.

Put simply, helping residents better understand 911 better positions calltakers to give them the most effective response possible.

The public sector

Public safety agencies and communication centers worldwide are grappling with pertinent issues surrounding the use of emergency dispatch service, the national emergency number(s), and opportunities to reach out to the public for help in improving emergency response. For some agencies, educating folks about when and how to contact emergency dispatch centers, and what information callers should be prepared to provide a calltaker with, is a priority. Others are using community outreach programs and presentations to instruct residents how the emergency dispatch system works, explain why dispatchers using the Academy’s Priority Dispatch System ask the questions that they do, and even provide interactive opportunities to don a headset to experience taking mock emergency calls.

Regardless of what types of community outreach/public education priorities and objectives agencies are engaged in, one thing remains constant: The more instructional contact communication centers can have with the public in getting their messages out, the greater the overall impact will be. Whether it’s helping the community to correctly use the emergency dispatch service or reducing mishaps that tie up limited agency resources, it ultimately leads to more effective emergency response performance and the ability to save more lives.

The young and the restless

It goes without saying that each agency’s priorities for community outreach are based on a variety of factors, including country; culture; population size; and available resources, such as personnel and funding, unique geography considerations, etc. What may be important for a communication center serving a large urban populace within a small geographic area may be very different from the priorities of a PSAP that serves a small, primarily rural population than covers a sizable swath of land.

In Italy, a major aim of agency 118 Genova’s emergency dispatch community outreach is to connect with youths. Eight times a year, the agency invites local high school-aged students to come learn about their communication center by participating in drills to practice calling the 118 national emergency number along with hands-on training to follow a dispatcher’s Pre-Arrival Instructions over the phone to perform chest compressions on a mannequin. The students rotate through different stations during the events that include listening to an actual recorded emergency call and seeing how the dispatching process works.

Dr. Andrea Furgani, an ER physician and Q instructor with 118 Genova, said students learn when to call 118 and when not to call. They also learn about the Key Questions that calltakers will ask during an emergency, and why it is important to have the answers to those questions.

At the end of a presentation, Furgani said they will often ask the children who the first responder is during an emergency. After getting some answers, such as an ambulance or doctor, the answer he gives them is always the same:

“If you’re the caller, you are,” Furgani said. “Follow the dispatcher’s instructions.”

Farther west along Italy’s Mediterranean Sea coast, in the district of Imperia, Laura Alberto, a nurse and EMD instructor with 118 Imperia, said her agency also focuses community outreach on the next generation. Under the moniker “Primo Soccoroso a Scuola,” or first aid school, emergency communicators give two-hour lessons about making an emergency call and explain why PAIs are so critical during certain medical scenarios. During the event National First Aid Week, 118 Imperia meets with elementary school children who watch a video simulation of a call that requires BLS response to help them understand what the experience would be like in real life.

“It was really neat to get the kids involved and see them interested in learning more about 118 and what happens in the communication center,” Alberto said.

The agency also fields a booth at the area’s annual Festival della Salute, or health festival, in April hosted in the city of San Remo where community members can learn about everything from how to properly use emergency communications to healthy foods to yoga 101. Alberto said they got an unexpected reaction this past spring at the festival when the staff screened its 118 calltaking video for a group of lifeguards.

“By the end of the video, they were applauding us,” Alberto said. “They had no idea how much effort and training goes into assisting 118 callers when there is an emergency. It was very touching to see their reaction.”

Patron Dame

Chris Hartley-Sharpe, Head of First Responders and also a 30-year veteran of the London Ambulance Service (yes, that London), said one piece to the community outreach puzzle is education. LAS serves the Greater London area of the U.K. with a resident population of 8.6 million and averages 1.8 million calls for service per year. A common practice that drains precious response resources is patients with less serious conditions that call the ambulance service for help largely because they are either unaware of or unable to reach non-emergency resources, he said.

But a major focus of the agency’s community outreach efforts comes from getting the word out about a network of public access AEDs throughout the community connected to the communication center. Promoted by the London Ambulance Service through the public ad campaign “Shockingly Easy,” the idea is to encourage individual organizations to acquire their own AED and recruit volunteers that can then be mobilized to help during cardiac emergencies.

“We have just gone live with an app (that) alerts them to the location of the cardiac arrest and the location of the closest community defibrillator,” Hartley-Sharpe said. “The alerts are generated automatically by our CAD system using MPDS determinants as the trigger.”

How does LAS measure the program’s success? Survival rates, Hartley-Sharpe said.

LAS’ average overall survival from cardiac arrest from all causes is 9 percent. However, if a person happens to be at one of the 3,000-plus locations that have public access to an AED, the rate skyrockets to 59 percent, Hartley-Sharpe said.

“At sites that operate the LAS accreditation standards, the survival rate is 75 percent or greater,” he said.

Perhaps the London Ambulance Service’s biggest community outreach splash has come from an unexpected source. Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren, known for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth (she was knighted a “dame” by the same monarch), became a staunch advocate for the agency after a scare that affected her personally. In 2012, during a premier of one of Mirren’s films, a friend had a cardiac arrest and was saved by the quick thinking of a CPR-trained police constable with the agency’s Voluntary Responder Group. The police officer used an agency public access AED from a nearby London subway station to treat Mirren’s friend.

Mirren visited LAS headquarters, received some CPR training, and has become a patron of the VRG’s registered charity that provides financial support to the certified voluntary medics that respond to emergency dispatch calls alongside traditional first responders.

“In these situations speed saves lives, and having immediate CPR and defibrillation saved his life, without doubt,” Mirren said, according to the U.K. press.

Have ambucycle, will travel

Thirty-six hundred miles to the southeast, Israel-based United Hatzalah is an organization with international scope that provides free EMS response to all through certified volunteer EMTs, paramedics, and physicians in the community who typically can arrive on scene within three minutes. Authorized by Israel’s Ministry of Health, United Hatzalah has its own EMS communication center (averaging 800 calls per day) that coordinates and shares call information with the government’s medical, fire, and police dispatch centers. They utilize an app that identifies and dispatches the closest medics (often, in the same neighborhood as the caller and driving traffic-skirting, medical gear-equipped scooters called “ambucycles”) to the scene.

As might be imagined, a unique emergency communications and response entity such as United Hatzalah also has more specialized community outreach needs than most agencies. In addition to the necessities of being completely self-funded through donations and recruiting and training volunteers, the group also conducts public education campaigns to get people to understand that their medics can fill the time gap and provide lifesaving care prior to the arrival of ambulance crews. Unlike in other countries, Israel has no single national emergency number, so callers must dial several service numbers depending on what type of emergency they need assistance with.

Dovie Maisel, Vice President of International Operations for United Hatzalah, said their agency utilizes “every means possible” to share their public awareness message with their intended audience, from social media and word-of-mouth endorsements, to working with the news media to share their success stories.

“Volunteers are our biggest advocates,” Maisel said. “We don’t have to encourage them because this is their passion in life beyond their personal lives. It’s about engagement in the community.”

Back to butt dials

In our modern smartphone age, technology can save lives. However, its often-inadvertent misuse can also cost lives.

Rhonda Hinch is a Public Safety Dispatcher III with the Harford County (Maryland, USA) Department of Emergency Communications. In addition to celebrating her 28th anniversary with the agency on Aug. 1, she has a total of 32 years of experience in public safety, getting her feet wet early on as a volunteer firefighter and EMT.

Harford dispatches medical, fire, and police for 12 separate agencies and serves a quarter of a million people. In 2014 alone, Harford Co. DES responded to nearly 240,000 calls for emergency aid covering a jurisdiction of 437 square miles.

Hinch, who was the recipient of her agency’s Above and Beyond the Call Award in March for her notable work with the 911 Education Program, said pocket dials are No. 1 on the most wanted list of emergency dispatch faux pas in Harford County. In fact, butt dials have gotten so bad that the agency began tracking numbers on them last year. Between January and mid-August, they received 14,501 accidental cellphone calls and 2,139 via landline. Following closely behind in the getaway car at No. 2 are calls to emergency dispatch for non-emergencies, she said.

“It’s not abuse,” Hinch said. “It’s more misuse.”

To help reduce the fraternal twin culprits of wanton and reckless freelancing with a cellphone, Hinch has marshaled Harford Co. DES’ resources. Public education campaigns are unleashed regularly at local fairs, communication center tours, school presentations, and the like.

“In addition to 911, we have the police non-emergency phone number printed on all the squad cars in the county,” Hinch said. “You can Google anything and find the number.”

Harford also reaches out to local schools each spring, giving emergency dispatch presentations to second-grade students. They also conduct frequent communication tours for school groups, Scouts, and agency EMTs who are required to take the tour as part of their training. Well-behaved youth groups get to take a special walk through the calltaking floor to listen to dispatchers taking actual calls.

“We want to teach them what happens on both ends of the radio,” Hinch said.

The agency also has what it calls its Gold 911 program for recognizing local children who perform well, follow instructions, and stay calm on the phone during real emergency calls. Hinch and colleagues make a special presentation of the Gold 911 Award during school assemblies with invited government officials and media in attendance. Sometimes, they’ll even play the audio of the call for the student body. Hinch said Harford Co. DES tries to make a big deal about the assemblies in order to underscore the importance of teaching the children about appropriate emergency number use.

They’re currently working on improving the measurement of their community outreach efforts. Second-graders fill out a brief survey at the conclusion of the school presentations, and Hinch said they’re considering expanding the survey program by email to include visitors that have taken the communication center tour.

Hinch said Harford Co. DES gets a lot of help from the agency’s public information officer who pitches relevant stories to the media and administers their social media outreach that includes Facebook, Twitter, and their official website.

“When we present a Gold 911 Award, she’s really good about posting pictures and the stories,” Hinch said. “She’s always posting about something.”

In the end, running an effective community outreach program to promote an agency’s critical emergency dispatch role comes down to personnel, Hinch said. Those individuals need to be well-informed, well-spoken, and genuinely enjoy reaching out to the public and the media to share their message. It’s all about engagement and making connections, she said.

“You want to make it fun, exciting, and interactive,” Hinch said.