Robert Conary (left), director of the Regional Communications Center talks shop with dispatcher David Brady. BARBARA NORRIE PHOTO

Emergency dispatch protocols have support but need publicity

By Barbara Norrie

Special to The Ellsworth American

ELLSWORTH — If you dial 911 today, you might be struck by how the dispatcher answers your call.

“What is the address of your emergency? What is the number you are calling from? OK, now can you please tell me exactly what’s happened?”

This drill now precedes a series of prepared questions specific to the nature of the call. It might seem dryly bureaucratic in the midst of your emergency, but it’s part of a strategy to expedite the response.

The Hancock County RCC (Regional Communications Center) has been in operation as a licensed PSAP (public safety answering point) since 2003, handling the county’s estimated annual average of 29,000 calls.

Starting in 2009, the state imposed on Maine’s PSAPs updated response protocols. These include asking the caller for his or her address and phone number before getting to the nature of the emergency.

Fire departments and ambulance services agree that the protocols are a step in the right direction. Trouble is, nobody informed the public. The Emergency Communications Bureau, which operates under the Public Utilities Commission, took action to implement the changes, but refrained from providing public education regarding the new system, delegating this responsibility to local PSAPs. Initially, most of Maine’s PSAPs were reluctant to issue any public statement, feeling that there should be a statewide message to avoid confusion.

The current protocols call for a sequence of questions that help a dispatcher gather and relay important information to first responders so that they can assess a situation’s severity. This allows responders to judge location, the number of personnel needed, appropriate equipment and proper “exit protocol” (instructions for callers remaining on the line awaiting response services). Before the protocols were adopted, dispatchers were trained, but generally relied on their own judgment to obtain relevant information from callers, who are often in a distressed state.

Of the state’s 24 PSAPs, the Hancock County RCC was the 12th busiest in 2018. RCC Director Robert Conary recognizes that due to the lack of funding for publicity and public education, the general public is unaware of these protocols and may be frustrated with dispatchers when they call 911.

April Canavan, 28, of Franklin worked at Hancock County RCC as a dispatcher for two years. Of the protocols for answering calls, Canavan said, “They are an anchor for dispatchers.” A dispatcher “exists in a bubble,” having to separate emotions from their personal lives when they begin a shift. Having these systems in place are tools that assist in the daily adjustments.

Ellsworth Fire Chief Richard Tupper and Deputy Fire Chief Gary Saunders agree that the information gained from this system of questions has assisted in their ability to serve the community. “It actually saves time and lives,” Saunders said. “We are better able to absorb this critical information en route, and in real time.”

Pre-911, emergency fire calls were made to a designated local number and were answered by the Ellsworth Police Dispatch. The Fire Department was notified as calls came in. Occasionally, callers would use the fire station’s business line, which was discouraged, because it used up response time and generated disorder. The RCC’s new procedure allows first responders to get updated information as they travel to an emergency, using that information to determine what resources they may need.

Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) protocols were the first to be implemented. That was 10 years ago. Kalen Quint, a Northern Light Emergency Transport supervisor, endorses the medical protocol and the information it provides. “It can greatly reduce the likelihood of mortality of a patient at the hospital,” Quint says, given the rural nature and geography of Hancock County.

Eric Mailman, paramedic and Hancock operations coordinator for Northern Light Emergency Transport, said “In an area with so many rural regions, EMD is a tremendous help,” and as a paramedic the information RCC dispatchers gather “is part of the continuum of care that follows a patient all the way through the Emergency Department at hospitals. EMD is a valuable resource.”

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