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Is one dispatcher enough? Officials investigate

October 16, 2013 - Should the Oxford Village Police Dispatch Center have one or two dispatchers on duty for each shift?

It seems like a simple question, but no one appears to have an answer right now, so a committee of township and village officials is going to investigate the matter and report its findings at the Wednesday, Nov. 13 township board meeting.

The issue was raised by Supervisor Bill Dunn at the township board's Oct. 9 meeting.

Dunn explained that in a recent public meeting, a village councilman said that "one dispatcher is better than two or three."

The supervisor was paraphrasing comments made by village President Pro-Tem Dave Bailey at the Aug. 27 council meeting.

Bailey had said there's an "advantage" to having one dispatcher on duty – "A call cannot fall through the cracks if there's one dispatcher there."

"I totally, totally disagree and I was asked by some residents to look at our existing contract (with the village) to see if we're getting the adequate dispatch services that we're paying for," he said.

The village dispatch center currently handles all of the township's fire and emergency medical calls.

For this service, the township is paying the village $36,071 this year. That fee will increase to $37,153 next year and $38,268 in 2015.

Right now, the village dispatch center operates with one dispatcher on duty for each shift. Sometimes there are two dispatchers on duty when there are special community events or severe weather threatens the area, according to village attorney Bob Davis.

That single dispatcher answers all 9-1-1 calls in the village and township. That individual dispatches all of the calls for the village police dept. and Oxford Fire Dept. Police-related 9-1-1 calls in the township are transferred by the village dispatcher to the Oakland County Sheriff's communications center in Pontiac.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, the village dispatch center will also receive all of the Village of Lake Orion's 9-1-1 calls and provide dispatch services for its police department.

Given one dispatcher is going to be handling calls for all three of these entities, Dunn said his "fear is we don't have enough protection" if multiple emergency calls come in simultaneously.

Dunn expressed his concern about the potential liability of not meeting certain established standards regarding the number of dispatchers needed to handle emergency medical and fire calls.

The supervisor noted his motivation in raising these issues is "not anything political."

"It's coming up in the news and I've had people ask me to investigate it," said Dunn, noting he had already discussed these issues with the village manager and attorney, so he's not trying to "ambush someone."

Dunn wondered if the village is in violation of its service contract with the township by only having one dispatcher on duty per shift.

The contract, which expires Dec. 31, 2015, states, "The village dispatch services shall comply with all applicable medical control standards for emergency medical, ALS, fire, EMD and EFD services."

In light of this provision, Dunn then recited the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) 2013 standards which state, "Communication centers that provide pre-arrival instructions to callers shall have two telecommunicators (i.e. dispatchers) on duty and present in the operations room at all times."

The village dispatch center currently provides pre-arrival instructions by offering Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) services to callers that need them.

EMD involves dispatchers asking callers a standardized set of questions about their emergency situation and staying on the line with them in order to provide instructions prior to the arrival of public safety personnel.

For example, EMD dispatchers give callers instructions related to CPR, choking and child birth. The Pontiac-based Star EMS provides backup EMD services to the village whenever needed.

Oxford Fire Chief Pete Scholz noted there's another NFPA standard that requires having more than one dispatcher on duty.

He pointed out that a fire chief, or whoever is running the scene of a major incident such as a structure fire, has "the authority to (request) a dedicated fire dispatcher for the entire time of that incident."

The NFPA standard states, "When requested by the incident commander, a telecommunicator shall be dedicated to communicating on the incident tactical channel and relieved of other duties within the communications center."

"That means a dispatcher can only be talking on the radio or doing whatever is directed by the incident commander," Scholz said. "That means they can't answer phone calls for anything else that comes into dispatch at that time. They can't be talking on other radios doing police dispatch during that time. They're not expected to (attend to) somebody walking up to the window."

Scholz said the dispatcher basically has to be ready to respond to whatever request the incident commander makes be it for mutual aid from another department or additional manpower.

The main reason for assigning one dispatcher to manage all emergency communication is to protect the safety of on-scene fire personnel. The chief said if a firefighter gets trapped somewhere and a "May Day" is called in, the dedicated dispatcher must be on that radio "at all times."

"They can't do anything else," Scholz said.

As far as Dunn's concern over liability, Scholz said, "If something happens to one of my people or anybody else in this community and we know . . . at this point in time that there's not two dispatchers (on duty), that's the concern I would have as far as opening us up to liability."

Davis spoke on behalf of the village. The attorney stated his hope that a committee consisting of township and village officials could be formed to study these dispatch issues and report back in 30 days. "I think there are some things that none of us know that require additional research," he said.

That being said, Davis responded to Dunn's concerns in a point-by-point manner.

Davis explained the NFPA standard Dunn cited does not apply to the dispatch contract language that obligates the village to "comply with all applicable medical control standards."

"I called the NFPA and I asked them, 'What do you have to do with medical control standards?' and (the answer was) nothing. (They) don't get involved in medical control standards at all," the attorney said. "And I think the (fire) chief would agree with that."

"Correct," Scholz said.

Davis then handed out copies of a May 24, 2012 letter that the Oakland County Medical Control Authority (OCMCA) sent to the village police.

"It was a pretty good letter," he said.

In this letter, the OCMCA informed the village that after evaluating its EMD method, the county agency determined it "reached and, in many cases, exceeded the expectations set by the PSRO (Professional Standards Review Organization)."

"Now, Supervisor Dunn, I'm not trying to say that that's the end of that story," Davis said. "I'm trying to say that my understanding of NFPA is they won't touch a medical standard and that the only standard for medical control standards is administered through the county. But I want to research that with you."

Another issue that Dunn raised was the fact that when Oxford was inspected by the Chicago, Illinois-based Insurance Services Office (ISO) in October 2009 to determine its Public Protection Classification (PPC), the village dispatch center was given full credit for having an "average of 2.00 operators on duty at the communications center" and "an average of 2.00 operators awake at all times."

PPC basically translates into the level of fire protection a community has. PPC is based on reviews of the fire department (50 percent), water supply system (40 percent) and fire alarm and communication system (10 percent).

After objectively reviewing the fire suppression capabilities of a community, ISO assigns a PPC rating from 1 to 10. The lower the number, the better. Class 1 represents exemplary fire protection whereas Class 10 indicates the area's fire suppression program does not meet minimum criteria.

Oxford Village and areas within the township with access to fire hydrants are currently rated Class 3, while the rest of the township is Class 5.

Most insurance carriers use PPC ratings for underwriting and calculating premiums.

"With all honesty, I'm not sure as we stand here today, how the ISO inspector came up with the average of two (dispatchers on duty)," Davis told township officials.

Davis noted the report doesn't state there must be two dispatchers on duty to get full credit, it states there must be an "average" of two. He then handed out language from the ISO outlining how it gives credit for a dispatcher.

To receive full credit for operators on duty, the ISO must review documentation that shows a communications center meets NFPA "call answering and dispatch time performance measurement standards."

"This documentation may be in the form of performance statistics or other performance measurements compiled by the 9-1-1 software or other software programs that you are currently using," according to the ISO. If the necessary data is not available, the number of needed dispatchers is determined according to a table based on call volume.

"You'll see everything in that paragraph except they don't count bodies," Davis said. "It's not a body count, it's a statistical analysis of how responsive and efficient you are with your calls and then, they assign you a value. It's not bodies, it's a value."

To Davis, there's "some confusion" here.

"I've been through the ISO program," Davis explained. "The guy (inspector) walks around with a clipboard and checks pencils. It's very specific. And it's hard for me to believe that when it came to the ISO concept of dispatch, that anyone told him there were always two (dispatchers) on duty or that he observed a schedule that would have said (there are) always two on duty."

Davis wants to speak with the ISO inspector to find out how and why Oxford was given full credit for two dispatchers.

"I'd like to work with the (fire) chief to see if we can't contact the ISO people because Mr. Dunn raises a great concern," the attorney said. "If you've got an ISO rating based on two, how did they get the two? I'd like to figure that out with you and see if we can resolve that."

Trustee Sue Bellairs asked if the village can check its time cards and work schedule for the day the ISO inspector was here and see if there were two people in the dispatch center on the day of the review.

"I did ask that question," Davis replied. "At some points (during) that day, there were three people in there. And at some points, there was only one person in there. But there (weren't) two (dispatchers) sitting there the whole day."

"But were there two sitting there when they were doing the review?" Bellairs asked.

"They were in and out the whole day on lots of issues, so I don't know," Davis replied. "Often times, there's two people in that room, but they're not dispatch . . . They're not always there for dispatch purposes . . . There's police officers sometimes in there. I've seen two people in there."

Davis said the dispatcher work schedule is in "plain view" in the village communications center and it clearly shows one per shift. He believes the inspector probably would have seen this.

Davis told township officials he's done some investigating and he "can't find anyone from the village who ran up to the ISO guy and his clipboard and said, 'We always have two (dispatchers).' It's just not true."

Given the addition of Lake Orion's calls, plus the fact that there's 40,000 vehicles traveling M-24 every day and the township's growing again, Dunn wants to know, "How many dispatchers are we going to have?"

Village Manager Joe Young said, "At this point in time, based on the call volume and our response time in handling those calls," the village believes one dispatcher is warranted. "We will continue to evaluate that" on a regular basis, he said.

"We want to do this analysis over the next 30 days and we want to see if there's an issue," Davis added. "If there's an issue, we want to bring back a solution. If there isn't an issue, we want to be able to show you that there is not an issue.

"But either way, we need to understand these (concerns) that you've raised."

"I think as a contractee, we have to determine what service level we're comfortable with," said township Treasurer Joe Ferrari.

Given the township is currently paying approximately $3,000 per month, Ferrari asked, "Do we feel that should buy us one full-time, dedicated fire dispatcher? . . . Our issue is what do we feel we need to provide to our residents?"

It was noted the village is in the process of establishing a reserve dispatcher program, in which trained volunteers would help full and part-time dispatchers staff the communications center whenever needed or possible.

"That's not in place yet. We're just in the process of getting that established," Young said. This would give the village a second dispatcher on duty at certain times.

Young indicated the reserves won't be able to work until they're trained and certified, which is a "three to six-month process."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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