A dispatcher’s job is incredibly complex. Most dispatchers are constantly doing at least five things at the same time: answering phones and gathering information about what’s happening on the scene, tracking units through both linear time-sequence software and two-dimensional maps, communicating with responders via the radio, keeping track of hold times for non-emergency calls, and simultaneously ignoring and keeping an ear open to the sounds of the dispatch center itself. And that doesn’t even include the split-second decisions they have to make at every turn.
It’s no wonder that so much of the dispatcher’s work relies on instinct—the tacit knowledge built up through years of experience.
At the same time, it’s pretty clear that it would be inefficient and costly to expect every dispatcher to start from scratch and learn the profession through the painstaking work of experience. Moreover, it’s possible for even the most experienced professional in any field to develop some bad habits as well as many effective ones—and there are some interactions that need to go right the first time, such as dealing with an abuse victim who is trying to communicate with the dispatcher without letting her abuser know what’s going on. Finally, we all know that some of the things we say are based on experience are actually just based on tradition—doing things the way we’ve always done them.
For these reasons, the experience that guides dispatchers and administrators in so many situations needs to be supplemented and supported with research.
What is Evidence-Based Practice?
Evidence-based practice got its start in medicine when clinicians and researchers began to insist that treatments should not only work—have some positive effect on patient outcomes—but actually be demonstrated to work.
The same concept has been extended to many other fields. Teachers, for example, study their teaching practices to determine what actually helps students learn. Businesses conduct internal research to find out the best ways to locate and support talented employees. Sports trainers incorporate research in anatomy, nutrition, and biology to improve their athletes’ performance.
In this larger context, the definition of evidence-based practice has expanded as well. Rather than referring only to patient outcomes or treatment types, evidence-based practice now refers to any process of incorporating scientific evidence into everyday practice.
In short, evidence-based practice brings together three things: scientific evidence generated by researchers, expert knowledge based on experience, and user and customer perspectives.
Combining these three things effectively is not always easy, but doing so can help ensure that our practice meets both the current standards in the field and the expectations of those we serve. (You can find more detailed information and definitions here, here, and here.)
Evidence-Based Practice at Dispatch
Emergency dispatching has been moving toward evidence-based practice for the past thirty years, but progress is still slow and piecemeal. There are several reasons for this: the scientific research itself has been lacking, dispatchers and administrators are not likely to read the research, and administrative and political realities sometimes make adopting new practices difficult.
I’m not going to go into all three of these issues here. Instead, I’m going to leave you with a claim and a challenge.
The claim is this: incorporating some element of evidence-based practice into your work as a dispatcher or administrator (or, even better, into the running of your agency as a whole) can improve job satisfaction, customer service, and situation outcomes. Staying aware of the most recent research in your field and adopting best practices certainly aids in these outcomes, and conducting your own research studies and sharing your findings with others may do so even more.
And so we come to the challenge: make evidence-based practice part of your work, in some small way, starting today.
Find and read some of the increasingly available research on dispatching, telephone triage, next-gen 911, communications center administration, business management, policing, fire operations, emergency medicine, or whatever other field is relevant to your agency. Challenge yourself to change a bad phone habit based on research about customer service and patient outcomes. Start your own small research study to find out the causes of turnover in your agency or areas of confusion in your center. Do something to start integrating your years of experience with evidence that can support and refine your practice.
Challenge yourself to do this for a few weeks, and you’ll find areas of interest in your work that you didn’t even know existed—and perhaps improve the vital services you provide to your community in the process.