Emergency Medical Dispatch System Puts Help at 911 Dispatchers' Fingertips

Culpeper, Va., uses public safety group's life-saving guidecards and training program.

by / June 9, 2009

Dispatchers at the Culpeper Public Safety Communications Center in Culpeper, Va., can now confidently give out life-saving information to desperate 911 callers. Before this year, those dispatchers weren't allowed to give out any information. They'd dispatch a first responder and tell the caller to call 911 again if anything changed.

The difference now is the addition of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International's (APCO) Emergency Medical Dispatch System (EMD), deployed in January.

"If you have a baby not breathing, with the EMD program you can give them the prearrival instructions to save that baby's life, otherwise they could be waiting several minutes," said Julie Troutman, APCO director. "Every second counts."

The program consists of a training curriculum from APCO and a set or sets of customizable EMD guidecards, from which dispatchers can quickly find the appropriate response to the call.

The guidecards feature more than 30 different complaint types that range from cardiac arrest to abdominal pain and include scripted medical instructions. The guidecards walk the dispatcher through a series of progressions to follow depending on the nature of the call. The guidecards are available in hard-copy form or on software.


Software 'Didn't Work'

When Nicola Tidey arrived in Culpeper to become the communications center's training coordinator she said, "Oh no, not again."

As a dispatcher in New Jersey, she was accustomed to using EMD, where it's mandated statewide. "You have to be EMD-certified in New Jersey. It's a statewide, comprehensive EMD program so you can go to any agency and everybody is doing the same thing," she said.

Then she left to take a job at the Fauquier County Sheriff's office in Virginia where there was no EMD program. That soon changed. She then left to join Culpeper nearly two years ago and found a similar situation. "They didn't have anything -- nothing," she said. "They were basically telling 911 callers that if anything changes, call us back on 911. They were not allowed to say or do anything."

She set out to change that.

It took a year to deploy, a few more months than anticipated because of scheduling conflicts. Two Culpeper dispatchers, including Tidey, were trained and the guidecards were customized. Culpeper opted for the paper guidecards, not the software.

"We tried the software program in Fauquier and it didn't work," Tidey said. "We found we were spending more time trying to tab through and find the right things on the computer whereas with the guide it's right there and I can flip through it and find everything I need. It takes 10 seconds as opposed to taking a minute, and it doesn't crash.

"We know the guidecards don't crash, don't need virus scans or anything like that. They're portable, we can bring them onto the command bus, we can bring them back into the [Emergency Operations Center] if we need to."

As part of the program, APCO provides training to a senior staff member who can pass along that training to dispatchers. It's a 32-hour course that Tidey completed online in about six weeks. The program, including training and seven sets of guidecards, cost Culpeper $6,000.


[Photo by Jason Pack DHS/FEMA News Photo]