Emergency communications centers have the following three common components:
- Call taking, where the problem is determined;
- Dispatching, where the emergency responder is assigned to the situation; and
- Technology, which makes it possible. In reality, the technology may vary from minimal phone and/or radios to a complex computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system capable of monitoring all aspects of the incident from the responders’ safety to the location of the vehicle.
But these key components are where most similarities end and differences begin.
Following the logic of efficiency, a merger intuitively seems to provide cost savings. The question then becomes how to evaluate unique aspects of the centers, or rather, how to make an “apples to apples” comparison of different emergency service communications centers to better appraise whether there may be potential savings.
When evaluating communications centers, it’s important to first understand the core functionality each dispatch center provides for each different entity.
Police service dispatch centers have three key functions. They categorize and prioritize the emergency, assign a unit to the call and start a record of the situation that will later serve as the legal foundation for any potential criminal charge—or even for the possibility of civil lawsuits.
The record-keeping portion is labor intensive and requires specific rules of governance within the technologies to accomplish the tasks appropriately and legally.
Fire communications centers that don’t provide ambulance dispatch serve two primary functions. They categorize and prioritize fire calls and assign units to the call. Although dispatch centers are integral to front line support in fire departments, on-scene control is almost universally provided by the scene commander. The responsibility for the scene is entirely field driven. Although response pre-plan assignments and other functions can be complicated, the technologies used in fire dispatch centers can be less complex and less costly than the other emergency services.
For emergency medical or ambulance services, the communications center has four key components. The center categorizes and medically prioritizes calls in strict adherence to clinical protocols, assigns calls to the appropriate unit, provides telephone instructions for medical care, and rebalances coverage and optimizes resources. This is accomplished by moving vehicles to the most appropriate post/location and is dependent on reliable and current demand-analysis.
The amalgamation strategy for merging different emergency services communication centers has to critically consider the similarities of components and the difference of functions early in the process. The difference between a successful evaluation and any eventual amalgamation—or not—begins with the careful consideration of the similarities and differences.
Questions to ask
In the initial stages, key questions to ask are:
- Is the call-taking function a protocol-based or experience-based method? In other words, are the dispatch processes carefully scripted using recognized protocols, or are they free flowing and largely based on each dispatcher’s experience? The more process driven (e.g., protocol-based) the call-taking function is, the more likely it is that efficiencies can be achieved when the call-taking function is merged. This is simply based on the standardized protocols, which are transferable between various emergency dispatch services. The more experience-based the call-taking function is, the more unlikely it is that the call-taking portion can be easily merged as each emergency service and its call-taking employees have their own disparate experiences.
- Is each individual agency willing to divest itself of the responsibility of its dispatching function, its specific units, and the subsequent assignment and follow up? More specifically, is the distribution of resources according to demand an optimal model for your service?
- What is the appropriate cost distribution for technologies? Is it call-volume based or is it in the base requirements of the technology itself? Should police departments pay more because they require more functionality and record archival? Should fire departments pay the least because their dispatching needs are the minimal of the three? And finally, does EMS have the predominant CAD because they have the most robust requirements?
Complex analysis required
These critical questions require a scientific approach to appropriately analyze options. Fault derivative mathematic models should be used. In communication centers, the most common math model is “Erlang C.”
It’s the model that analyzes call volume, the call-taker’s response time in answering the call, the amount of time it takes address the call and its varying complexity, and distributes these values over staffing requirements. Erlang C is a widely accepted and reliable method to facilitate development of staffing models for communications centers.
Although it may appear obvious that amalgamating dispatch centers will have cost savings, achieving success is difficult and knowledge based. Asking the right questions early in the process and applying the right models to determine workloads and staffing models are necessary to achieving real savings and not simply redistributing money between different levels of government.
The process of the evaluation and any integration are equally important and will determine whether savings may be achieved over time.
Communication centers are complex and essential nerve centers that need to be evaluated with core missions of each entity kept in mind to achieve success.