Over the holiday vacation, one of the things I did was catch up on reading. I had a pile of books on my bedside table that I’d been meaning to read for ages, and I finally got to most of them. One of the best was Erik Auf der Heide’s classic Disaster Response: Principles of Preparation and Coordination. From his insightful analysis of some of the largest disasters in American history to his still-relevant suggestions for improvement in the disaster planning process, Auf der Heide’s book is definitely worth reading.
What I noticed as I read, though, was the almost total absence of references to dispatch and communications. Auf der Heide does discuss inter-agency communications, communication with the media, and communication with the public, but of the dispatchers—the glue that holds a disaster response together—he says almost nothing.
This omission is all too typical of the many books and articles I’ve read on disaster response, planning, and preparation. Dispatchers are seldom mentioned, and when they are it’s mostly in the context of something that’s “also important,” a side note. I’d like to expand on the whole complex role of dispatch in disaster response, but that’s a book, not a blog post. So instead, I thought I’d reflect on a concept that’s growing in acceptance in the disaster planning community—the “emergent response group”—and the role dispatch can play in forming and managing such groups.
Unlike the pre-planned teams we often think of when we imagine disaster response (such as EMS teams of ambulances and fire trucks or hospital teams of nurses and doctors), emergent response groups are teams that form on the spur of the moment in response to specific needs.
For example, just after Hurricane Katrina, civilian boat owners stepped forward to rescue those stranded by the flood waters because the Coast Guard was overwhelmed with requests for help. In other disasters, local volunteers have formed emergent response groups to care for stranded pets until their owners could claim them, offer housing to displaced victims, or provide First Aid.
These groups are different from typical, pre-planned teams in a few ways. They’ve never worked together before and are often total strangers. They don’t know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and areas of expertise. They have not had the chance to build trust or rapport. At the same time, they don’t plan to work together long; they come together to solve a specific problem or achieve a particular task, and when that’s done, they disband. (Learn more about emergent response groups here.)
So what is the dispatcher’s role in such groups? If you have worked in emergency communications for any period of time, you can probably guess: the dispatcher may be called upon to act as manager, director, or coordinator for such teams, perhaps at just those moments when the communication center is already at its absolute busiest.
Dispatchers are obvious candidates for this role. From the console in the communication center, the dispatcher has a high-level view of the disaster. The calls coming in help her see where victims are, while reports from police and ambulance responders let her know where the worst-hit areas are or where particular kinds of help are needed. This information is often not available to spontaneous, usually volunteer emergent teams, but if made available by the dispatcher, it could help direct such teams to where their skills and energy will be of most use.
In addition, dispatchers are experienced in managing teams from a distance, visualizing an emergency or disaster scene and allocating resources where they’re needed. This is important even when dealing with pre-planned teams of responders who have worked together for years, trust each other, and know each other’s plans. For emergent teams that don’t have these advantages, dispatch can provide an even more valuable service—organizing a spontaneous grouping of a few people who want to help into a unit with a clear goal, access to needed resources and information, and a de facto leader.
What amazes me most, in fact, about the many articles that discuss the concept of emergent response groups, is how few of them even mention dispatch. Here is a large organization of trained professionals with a high-level view of the situation, experience managing emergency scenes from off-site, and the ability to direct services and volunteers where needed, and yet almost no one thinks of using them.
So what can be done? Next time your agency, city, or medical control gets together to discuss disaster response planning, speak up! Let administrators know what a valuable resource they have in their dispatchers. And if possible, ask for dispatch to be included not only in the planning process but in the training.
Emergent response groups are made up of willing volunteers from the community—people with skills, resources, and energy and the desire to use them to help others. Dispatch could support this huge potential work force and put it to its best use. For the best outcome, though, dispatchers need to be prepped and trained, so get yourself a seat at that planning table. If the moment comes when your community is in crisis, such preparation may well mean lives saved.