Shawn Messinger

Shawn Messinger

Story Vault

By Shawn Messinger

I prefer team sports more than individual sports for the same reasons I enjoy working as part of an emergency services team. Success on the court and in the field hinges on a group’s ability—each member’s contribution—to work together for the benefit of the team. Yes, there will always be the team’s star performer but for a team’s overall success, the responsibility is shared no matter where the spotlight falls.

Maybe it’s a part of getting older but watching Super Bowl XLVII took me back to my football career, beginning in junior high and continuing through high school, college, and post-college semi-pro ball. Despite the cuts, bruises, and two-times-a-day practices sweating out the heat, I enjoyed every minute of it, or at least I do in retrospect. I was no superstar. Like so many playing a team sport like football, I was just big enough, and just quick enough to play alongside the stars. I took pride knowing that my efforts, and the efforts of others like me, made it possible for the stars to be stars.

This is not unlike working as part of the emergency services team, where the police officers, paramedics, and firefighters tend to appropriate most of the public’s attention. The spotlight rarely shifts to the thousands of dedicated 9-1-1 telecommunicators; although the irony is the scrutiny media tend to place on 9-1-1 and it’s not because of star power.

Familiarity with 9-1-1 breeds the greatest respect for telecommunicators.

A taped 9-1-1 call we use during the police certification courses highlights the excellent job a calltaker accomplishes calming a 10-year-old boy hiding from suspects who have broken into his home. The calltaker tells the boy what he can expect when officers arrive and, also, explains how he can tap the answers to the PPDS interrogation using the telephone. She keeps the boy safely hidden until officers are ready for him to come out of hiding. Those unfamiliar with the calltaker’s role in the incident—and unfamiliar with a calltaker’s emergency services role, in general—might look past the critical role she played and focus solely on the actions of police officers.

I’m not undermining the field responders’ role by any means, but pointing out the potential to disregard the important role telecommunications plays in supporting the team. Telecommunicators have a history of being known as the “weakest link” in the emergency services team, and despite the growing evidence of the strength a dispatcher brings to the chain of response, it’s a view that continues to haunt the profession, even among those doing the job. For example, while working with a group of MPDS users a few expressed some frustration in the protocol adding an extra 20–30 seconds in the dispatch of ambulance crews compared to pre-protocol use. Mind you their times to dispatch were in the 60–70 second range, very respectable for new users to the system. I suggested that they might be looking at their role from the outdated “weakest link” perspective; in their minds, they were still trying to prove their worth to the process.

I defended their role in the process saying that the protocol system actually reinforces their importance. Up until a few weeks earlier, prior to implementing MPDS, telling the ambulance crew to drive faster was about all they could do to help and pacify the distressed caller. Protocol gives them the ability to provide immediate lifesaving Pre-Arrival Instructions while the caller is waiting for the ambulance to arrive. The ability to provide this assistance is well worth the seconds added to the dispatch process. They thought about that for a minute and then nodded in agreement; no one in the group had looked at it that way.

Commonly used expressions come to mind in making this point: “There is no ‘I’ in team,” or “We’re only as strong as our weakest link.” Some might roll their eyes and call these sayings cliché, but anyone who has played on or worked for a “team” with members in the “game” solely for personal glory knows the reality. They are based in truth.

Telecommunicators have the protocol, certification, and training bringing their profession to the same level demanded of others in the chain of response. They are an essential link in the critical care provided to the public. Similar to the generations of offensive and defensive linemen, blocking backs, punters, and long snappers, telecommunicators do their part to support the team. They kick off the chain resulting in the really big plays.