Sweet Escape

Cynthia Murray

Cynthia Murray

Best Practices

It was time to add a little spice to the routine Emergency Dispatcher training, according to Ruby Hilton, Emergency Dispatcher Performance Lead at General Motors OnStar (North Carolina, USA). The instructor-led scenario practice utilized only one method of learning, so Hilton asked herself what was popular in the market that might add a fresh approach.

“At that time, escape rooms were a hit,” Hilton said. “We thought, ‘Could we do this?’” Hilton formed a proposal for the administration, detailing the idea and a measurable objective of the hands-on team building experience. With permission and a small budget, the creativity began with the formation of a small committee.

“We asked some of our talented team members to make posters and create items using watercolors and other craft elements,” Hilton said. “They were excited because they helped build it, and it piqued others’ curiosity.”

The theme of their first escape room was “Backstage at Bernie’s Magic Show,” a comedy show with a popular magician. The team members had backstage passes. When they entered, “Bernie,” the CPR training mannequin, was unconscious on the floor, and they were asked to find clues to discover what had happened to him.

“We warned the teams that they were being framed for Bernie’s murder and reminded them not to leave their fingerprints on everything,” Hilton said. With a baby monitor in hand, the hosts were able to watch the team members in their hunt for clues, offering hints if everyone agreed to use one, which added a penalty to their time.

Each team of 3­­-6 players had only one hour to escape. At the end, they took group photos with signs that said “I didn’t get out. It’s not my fault!” or “We did it. Too easy!”

The clues were designed around Protocol Rules, Axioms, and Determinant Codes. Hilton chose to focus on trends within the agency to help EMDs brush up on weak areas. The combination of a lock could be a Determinant Code, with several scenarios to consider (e.g., overdose, fall, heart attack). Though teams had materials to reference, being well-versed was an advantage.

“We like to throw in some twists,” Hilton said. “For instance, we had a first aid kit with a lock on it and no key. It was just a decoy to throw them off.”

Beyond the fun of watching the puzzle unfold, Hilton points to the evidence of both learning and cohesion that result. “You can see the difference in calls and quality trends,” Hilton said. For example, Emergency Dispatchers became well-versed in considering Priority Symptoms, overuse of Protocol 26: Sick Person (Specific Diagnosis), and correct selection of Protocol 2: Allergies (Reactions)/Envenomations (Stings, Bites) over Protocol 6: Breathing Problems.

“We have learned about creating a fun environment to incorporate different learning styles, encouraging people to work together, and building interest,” Hilton said. “Earning buy-in from our dispatchers has been more about people than protocol.”

These escape room activities are flexible and variable, based on so many creative themes. In fact, Hilton’s center recently launched an EPD-centered bank heist training, which was quite an undertaking.

Though popular and effective, Hilton only hosts an escape room training every other quarter to prevent burnout. “You could scale down the event or host an escape room Training only once a year and go all out,” Hilton said.

Hilton shared her committee’s escape room training ideas at NAVIGATOR, which was an honor. “I am elated that others have been able to pull it off,” Hilton said. “That was the goal.”

One such follower, Jennifer Marasco, saw OnStar’s escape room training ideas highlighted in an IAEDpresentation, and she loved the energy and creativity.

As a Quality Assurance Coordinator at North County Dispatch Joint Powers Authority (JPA) (California, USA), Marasco hoped it would breathe a bit of excitement into her center after a few rough years of trickle-down difficulties. The North County center had been through some large shifts in administration after several personnel had left abruptly. Like many centers, they have dealt with an incomplete staff, a constant workload, and a need to unify the team.

“I want to produce a better service and level of care in 911,” Marasco said. “I want our callers to trust that they will be treated with respect.” Marasco has been the main person tasked with getting the North Comm QA program up and running again, which includes promoting the value of QA, reviewing calls and policies with the calltaking staff, and sometimes addressing hesitations from those working in the trenches, such as, “Why do I have to ask this question?” or “Why do I have to stay on the line?”

“That’s what inspired me,” Marasco said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I can get people excited and help them learn the value of the protocol without even realizing they’re learning.’”

Marasco presented her idea to her administration at the end of July, a few months before her planned October Escape room event. She began crafting clues in August, frequenting DIY gems like the dollar store and library sales.

Marasco felt apprehensive about writing the escape room storyline, so she turned to Artificial Intelligence with her theme of “Mad Scientist,” which helped her generate the words she could alter to fit the Protocol. Throwing in personal details brought the story home. “We used our medical director’s name as the scientist who went mad seeking unobtainable perfection,” Marasco said.

When she discovered some Emergency Dispatchers would be on leave during the escape room event, she enlisted their help in planning and preparing clues so they could still get Continuing Education credit. A few of these clues included a scribbled journal, the book “Dead Heat” (death by incineration), different colored formulas in the fridge (patient changing color), puzzle pieces with a poem, a key, and a locked box. 

Marasco took an entire day to set up her own office space to look dark and abandoned. The fire department loaned a training mannequin, surgical gauze, and yellow body bag to create the atmosphere of a real event.

“We locked everything in the room and told the staff that everything else was fair game,” Marasco said. She set up a stationary computer where staff could use ProQA® to solve the clues.

Following OnStar’s method, each clue dealt with a specific teaching point in the Protocol, such as selecting the appropriate Determinant Code or gathering the right information. Marasco emphasized the use of the Additional Information tabs. For instance, if a clue described a patient as both “pale and purple,” the team had to focus on “purple” because it is a color of significance.

Due to managing 24-hour shifts, limited office space, and other priorities, Marasco asked supervisors to run the escape games separately for each shift, which introduced some difficulties. “Some of them didn’t realize they had to do the clues in order,” Marasco said. “But all those who participated did successfully ‘escape.’”

“I think our staff members were surprised it was hard,” Marasco said. “But I wanted them to have to think about it.” She realized starting with 10 clues may have been a bit too difficult for the first run, but the experience has been a learning curve for her, too. Next time, she plans to oversee the escape room training personally to give more guidance with her objectives in mind.

Marasco also loves the idea of sharing what she has learned and created. “I have kept most everything in a box and offered to lend it out to sister agencies,” Marasco said. There is no limit to the cooperation that this sort of training and team building could create for the future.    

Escape room emergency dispatch training tips:

  • Submit a clear proposal to the administration for permission and budget.
  • Involve your team and use DIY sites and dollar store finds to create the training.
  • Do not give excessive clues. Create a clear story (quality over quantity).
  • Focus on common trends or protocol clarifications for your center.
  • Prepare hints ahead of time for consistency and fairness.
  • Make teams of 3-6 people for more fun and solving power.
  • Invite, encourage, and adapt to meet your staff’s learning styles.