There are some jobs where the person performing the job paints a picture for others. Artists, journalists, musicians and others use their crafts to explain or relate what is going on at a given moment.
The importance of one such job is shown in life or death situations they face every day.
Telecommunicators must paint a picture of what is going on at an accident, medical call or crime scene. They must gather that information as best they can from the call they are taking from those in a situation of distress.
Nita Dubble, the retired director of telecommunications for Iroquois County, spoke about the job that tele communicators have to do to get that information to the responding agencies.
“I was a telecommunicator and I’ve trained a lot of telecommunicators over the years,” she said. “What I always said to them when they first sat down in the chair is ‘you have everybody in Iroquois County in your hands, and how you respond or don’t respond can make a difference in life or death’. And that’s how important the tele communicators are.
“We all know how important communications is,” she said, “whether it is relationships or radio transmission during an incident.
“Communications problems and successes played an important role on Sept. 11 in the attacks and the aftermaths,” she said, noting that the system was overloaded as everyone tried to take care of responding that day.
“Radio communications served a vital role in coordinating rescue efforts from New York Police Department, New York Fire Department, the port authority police and emergency medical services. Many radio communications were modified to address the problems discovered after the bombing investigation.
“I know in working several years in Iroquois County, there were different times when we had to change our protocols depending on the event we had happen,” she said, “and it made a difference in what we did in the future. Whether it be education, change in the way we did things or equipment changes. We found that calls for service increased and so did our radio communications. At that time we only had one frequency that we actually paged our fire and EMS on, other than IMH, and we also had that same frequency as what we did all of our radio transmissions on. We found that got to be a lot of work for one frequency, so we changed to two different frequencies to be able to dispatch on one and be able to do our radio communications on the other.
“In the first 17 minutes of Sept. 11 there were 1,000 police, fire and EMS arrived on scene. Soon after the arrival the resources were overrun by needs. I can’t imagine what dispatching this incident would have even been like. When I teach an emergency medical dispatch class, one of the chapters is resource allocations. We have the students list resources that we could possibly need at any incident imaginable. We have dispatched a surgeon and helicopter to a factory accident and at car accidents when there are three or more injured, it’s an automatic helicopter dispatch if someone has been thrown from the vehicle.
“A big change we made several years ago is box alarms. Box alarms are when the fire departments set these up at the beginning of the year, and then as an occurrence happens in their town it tells us how many fire departments to send to that. I was definitely against box alarms when they first introduced them to me. I thought it would be too much work for the dispatchers, but wow, what a difference they’ve made and I’m definitely a believer today in the box alarms.”
She said in New York during the Sept. 11 responses, they had so many people who responded that they, in the next few days, ran out of telecommunicators to respond because everyone had already worked so many hours.
“In Illinois we have a Telecomunicator Response Task Force,” she said. There are 213 tele communicators who are trained throughout the state. Should a large incident happen, she said, those telecommunicators are trained to respond and help out as needed. They go out of state, too.
“There were some levels of confusion present in the incident in New York. Commanders didn’t have adequate information and inter-agency information sharing was inadequate.”
She said at one point the New York center was following protocol and advising callers from the World Trade Center to stay put and wait for instruction from firefighters and police. The people on scene were sending some people from floor to floor to tell people to evacuate.
“Dispatch had no idea these people were doing this,” she said. “Unfortunately this type of thing happens a lot. The public and first responders think we can see the scene and we know everything that is going on. You know, that crystal ball that we have in the dispatch center.
“They learned that from this incident from situation awareness. The 911 center was overrun by call volumes they had never seen before. Everything thinks TCs know everything about a scene. I think some people think if they call 911 we can hit a button to turn their electricity on after a storm.
“But adding to the confusion in New York, radio recoverage problems, radio traffic blocking and building system problems occurred inside the burning buildings. The facts show that some of the equipment worked as designed and users made the best of what was available to them. That is something we sometimes learn on the fly.
“I can remember a time when we had a major cut in a phone line and we learned that day that line carried all the cell phone and telephone lines that made Iroquois County work. Some how, and I still don’t know how this happened today, my phone actually worked. (Milford Fire Chief) Frank Hines made one phone call to me on my cell phone and we felt like we were the only people in Iroquois County who were able to talk phone to phone. We were both afraid to hang up because we were afraid we would lose connection.” Calls were being handled by Kankakee County as the phone line problem was being rectified in Iroquois County, she said. At one point, she said, they had to put equipment in the St. Anne police squad car, so that information could be layer between Kankakee County and Iroquois County.
“It just shows when things get tough you have to think outside the box,” she said.
She said the tele communicators are only as good as the information they are being given and the protocols that are in place. “Telecommunicators are taught to paint a picture,” she said. “When I teach this in the EMD class one thing I tell them is they need to get enough information that when the firefighter, the policeman or ambulance person gets in there they can paint a picture in their head from what you are telling them. They can decide what they are going to need at the scene.
“Sometimes people ask us why the dispatchers ask all those stupid questions, and many times we’ve been hung up on. I wish the public would understand that we are simply doing that to help them. It’s not that we are being nosy. It’s not that we have anything else to do. It is simply that we are trying to get the necessary information and the correct information to be able to send you help.”
She said that there are times when a tele communicator will ask someone at an accident scene to go from car to car of the vehicles involved in the accident to see how many people are involved and how hurt they are. That helps them understand what kinds of injuries they may be dealing with and how many ambulances need to be sent, she said.
There were several things that happened during the Sept. 11 calls, she said, that caused some changes to be made in the way calls were made. “Recordings from the incident also indicate that with dispatch being overloaded there were delays in radio calls. Unfortunately this occurs, especially in overwhelming situations. Many 911 telephone calls to dispatch were disconnected or routed to other calls as “all circuits are busy now”.
“Stats show about one third of the radio messages transmitted during the incident were incomplete or unreadable. Some recordings show two or three conversations occurring simultaneously on particular channel. They learned that police, fire and EMS were not able to communicate with each other because they all had their own channels.
“Unfortunately through this event and several others we all learned a lot about communications. As a telecommunicator we do the best with what we have. At times a first responder gets to the scene and sees something different than what we dispatch. I was very lucky during the majority of years when I was 911 director that I had an awesome 911 board to work with, that was constantly working with me to make things better in Iroquois County.
“I am very thankful for that. I enjoyed being a tele communicator. It’s a profession, like a lot of professions, that isn’t for everyone, but I loved it. My hats off to those tele communicators in New York. I can only imagine what they went through that day and the days after. To all you first responders, thank you, and stay safe.”