Op-ed: Why first responders need a dedicated communications network

Op-ed: Why first responders need a dedicated communications network

By Claude Cummings – Guest contributor

As one of the most devastating storms to ever hit Texas, Hurricane Harvey taught us many lessons. One of the clearest is that we need to equip Houston’s first responders and public servants with the strongest communications platform available — and now we can.

First responders are the brave men and women who worked around the clock before, during and after Harvey made landfall, making quick decisions to keep our families safe and our city running. Since the storm was so severe, public employees were also tasked with performing critical support functions so first responders could effectively coordinate recovery efforts and relay emergency updates.

This op-ed article appears in bizjournals.com dated June 21,2019.

To read the full article please click on the button below.


Why Train?

Why Train?

Heidi DiGennaro

When you started, everything was overwhelming. There was fear or excitement in touching the equipment, the constant dread you might break something, and the encouragement to go ahead from your trainer. Training seemed to take so long, and there was something both terrifying and liberating about operating on your own. Now you have a few months, years, maybe a decade or two (gulp!) of experience and everything has changed and some parts remain the same.

Technology moved forward, and in some cases, outpaced our ability to keep up with it. Forward momentum with technology has created challenges and caused us to adapt to keep up. The work—talking to the public and the field providers and ranting at the console when your foot comes off the pedal—has stayed the same. So why train and why train constantly?

Policies and procedures

If you do not have a strong foundation of what to do, policies are meaningless. They are words on a paper or screen if you do not find a way to apply them. It’s not the time to look up an active assailant procedure during an active assailant incident. The same goes for an MCI when heat exposure or a multi-vehicle accident occurs. It’s not good management to quarterback people about how they handled an incident and remind them about the policy they haven’t looked at since it went into effect.

Build confidence

Spend five minutes reading a policy or highlighting a procedure on the off chance you might need it. Mortar the gaps and cracks in your knowledge to create a stable base to lean on when the worst happens. Supervisors need to lead and to lead by example, knowing your procedures and policies. Use any roll call time to go over something, anything, every day.

Public safety

You never know what will happen, and refreshing yourself makes you smart and promotable, if that’s your intent. Training classes teach you what the agency/department does, and it saves you the embarrassment of fumbling for words when someone asks about a certain policy and whether you even have one. Knowing policies and following them during crisis is your best defense when someone outside your organization starts tearing apart your actions.


When you follow policy, your agency should defend your actions.

I’ve seen a few things in my 24-year public safety career, from police dispatcher, to calltaker, to backup fire dispatcher, to supervisor, to shift manager, with several other specialties in between. I have met people who know the policies, know exactly what to do, and how to do it when the equation Chaos + Oscillation Device + the Smelly Spread presents itself. Training saw me through the worst incidents. I use our roll call time to review, to train, and to amuse.

It’s simple—start now

Pick something to go over and search the internet for an image that matches your training topic. Word of caution: Tell your supervisors so they know your internet history will be a little “interesting.” Make learning humorous—there is always a “fail” out there on any topic. One minute, five minutes, 20 minutes—the time is never wasted. Even if one person remembers what you went over during a critical moment, everyone succeeds. An incident does not turn into a cluster. Someone survives because you and your people knew what to do.

That’s why we train.

Vision to Reality

Vision to Reality

Andre V. Jones

“KSU SR42, 18J, Lot D, looking for a white Honda Civic, 1805 hours KNHD245” was the start of my career in public safety telecommunications (at Kennesaw State University [KSU], Department of Public Safety & University Police, Kennesaw, Georgia, USA). It was not, however, the career I initially chose. I started off wanting to be a doctor. More specifically, an OB/GYN. My logic was that people would always have babies (job security).

While at Kennesaw State University, I would listen to the city and county radio and dream about being as awesome and professional as those I observed. I would go home, and I would pretend I was 911 dispatcher, handling and dispatching the WORST events. Make no mistake, this was not child’s play. I had maps, manuals, everything! This was very detail-oriented and well-organized role-playing.

As it were, I would go down another path of “job security” related to emergency services and emergency management, on-boarding with Marietta E-9-1-1 (Marietta, Georgia) and later consolidating with Cobb Department of Public Safety 9-1-1/Communications Bureau (Marietta, Georgia). When I got behind the console, tragedy did not faze me because I had already dispatched every emergency there was. I had accepted that the caller’s crisis was not my crisis, and I was there to help them, not become part of their experience.

These abilities I attribute to my dream, one that manifested itself with the act of “pretending,” which I was quite good at. In doing so, I learned dedication, reliability, integrity, and objectivity as well as empathy, kindness, and discipline. For me, I learned how to see the world as it should be and to treat people within the world as they would want to be treated. I saw, I felt, I dreamt, and I appreciated and valued my version of the “land of make believe” where I could create the experiences. It was then that I committed to the profession with a vision to become the best communication center manager I could be. Part of my professional development plan included goals in higher education where I earned several degrees as well as aspirations of presenting at conferences.

The one thing I did not consider in this venture when I stepped up to be a supervisor is that I had to be people-oriented. Though I may have become a charismatic person, I realized that I couldn’t make anyone do anything no matter how much I tried to persuade them for the sake of progress. I may have been the “best dispatcher,” but that was not the job description of “supervisor.” Many times I had to step back and learn how to follow regardless of who was leading. THAT was tough.

I learned that you can only control what you can control. In leadership, you must engage, cultivate, and inspire people to get results. You develop a culture that does what needs to be done because there’s a shared sense of purpose and duty to do the right thing right, and not just waiting for someone to give orders. It’s called empowerment: making something organized seem improvised.

So I dreamed. Not whimsical and magical dreams, but optimistic dreams. Then I designed and developed the framework to make these dreams—the visions—become reality. After all, I will still be a doctor, just a Ph.D. instead of an M.D. It is about to be a new year. What do you dream of? Can it be reality?

Route 91 Harvest Music Festival

Route 91 Harvest Music Festival

Charlotte Gentry

I am going to tell my story about that day, the Oct. 1 Shooting, even though in my eyes, that’s not the official name. I can’t bring myself to call it that. I am going to be raw, honest, and open because I think that is what people should hear. It may not be what you want to hear, but it’s what I need for you to know.

I went back to work on Oct. 3 because there were people at my job that would need my help. I was on the peer support team. I was OK. I never cried in those first few months. I didn’t have survivor’s guilt. I joined survivors’ pages and watched people talk about how they couldn’t leave their house. They couldn’t function and were sad all the time.

That wasn’t me (or so I thought). I shared my story more times than I can recall and every time it got easier. I didn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It felt like it didn’t hit me as hard as I saw it affecting other people. I immediately started going back to concerts and back to my life. I kept busy for months trying to do things for my agency, so they got the recognition that they deserved. I was OK … but I wasn’t. I was just ignoring it. I was ignoring the anxiety, the emptiness I felt inside, and the depression. I would sleep as much as I could. I lost focus at work. I made HUGE mistakes, and hurt people trying to fill that void inside me.

When the shooting started, I was alone. And that is how I felt for almost the whole last year. People at work would tell me they were worried about me because I was different. I didn’t feel any different, but I heard this from multiple people. I lost my smile. I lost my happiness and never noticed. I was always anxious at work. There were so many days that I cried at work and times I just sat and looked at my computer screen. It is hard for people that weren’t there to know how I was feeling and it’s not something you can explain, so I tried to deal with it myself. I went to a trauma counselor and that didn’t really help. I found another counselor that was OK, but I didn’t feel like she was helping so I quit going.

My therapy became getting tattoos. I got six since the shooting and I’m going today to get another one. The pain of the tattoos helped me feel… something, even though it was pain. It took the pain that I didn’t know I had and made it go away for those few hours. Every time I felt anxious, I called my tattoo artist. I now have almost a full sleeve.

I took a lot of Valium during this time. Enough that it would knock most people out. But it didn’t stop the anxiousness and I didn’t tell anyone.

In this business you don’t let things get to you, right? Wrong; they get to us slowly over time and we never admit it. This is what I am doing. I am admitting that I was not OK, and it took me a long time to get there (11 and a half months to be exact). I never thought about hurting myself, but there were so many days that I wished I just didn’t exist. There are some amazing people that I work with, but just like any other center there are those ones that make work hell. They made my last year harder than it had to be.

Being shot at and involved in the worst mass shooting in America’s history wasn’t enough. I had issues at work and outside of work, but I always blamed it on something else. I was diagnosed with PTSD, surprise! I wasn’t OK. Like I mentioned earlier I made some huge mistakes; I hurt people and all I can do is say I am sorry. I can’t go back and change anything. My career isn’t the same. I made mistakes and I felt like the first job I ever loved, some of the coworkers that liked me (not all), abandoned me when I needed them the most. But you live and you learn, and these lessons that all this horrible stuff has taught me will always stay with me.

In the last few months I have started to come out of my depression for the most part. I rarely take Valium. I have started the journey to happiness. There were a couple of times during the last few months when what I had gone through and how much it changed me slapped me in the face. I was standing in the kitchen talking to my 81-year-old mom and she got teary eyed. I asked her what was wrong and she said to me, “I finally have my daughter back. I lost her for the last year.”

I didn’t see it, but now I know and I’ve started changing. I started working out, eating better, and I met my husband. We got married after knowing each other for six weeks. It wasn’t because I needed to have someone around; it’s because we just clicked. We knew from the first few dates that it was right.

They say the one-year anniversary of a traumatic event can be the hardest, and the week leading up to it was hard, but it was healing. I tried to do too many events to help heal. The night of Oct. 1, 2018, survivors made a human chain around the Route 91 venue. It felt like we had to be there at that exact time that the shooting started for the 58 people that lost their lives. We all lost a piece of us that we will never get back. Trauma changes people and you can never go back to who you were before that day. We have a new normal and the new normal isn’t so bad. That night at the human chain, I didn’t feel the closure I thought I would feel, although the hugs from other survivors were amazing. We knew how each other felt.

I visited the Healing Garden on Sept. 30, and looking at the wall with the 58 names on it brought tears to my eyes. My son and mom could have been there looking at my name. I am so glad they didn’t have to go through that. I felt the closure on Sept. 20, 2018, when I got to finish what we started at Route 91 and I got to see Jason Aldean perform. There were about 200 survivors at that concert and it felt right being around people that had been through the same thing I had. When he sang the two songs that he was singing when the shooting happened, I finally let myself cry. That is when I felt the closure. I was a member of a club I never signed up for, but I love my CountryStrong and LoveWins club. I am not OK. And it’s OK to not be OK … but I will be.

Charlotte Gentry Munro is the Quality Improvement Coordinator for Las Vegas Fire and Rescue communications. She is also a Priority Dispatch Software Instructor and a National Q. She was attending the Route 91 Harvest Music festival on Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire on the crowd, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more.

Attitude Reflects Leadership

Attitude Reflects Leadership

Andre V. Jones

My manager told me once that by listening to radio traffic he knew who the supervisor on duty was in the dispatch center. He said there was something about their aura that had the ability to control the temperament in the room. When I actually considered it, he was correct; the attitude of employees is a direct reflection of their leadership.

Having worked with many different types of supervisors in the dispatch center over the years, it takes a unique individual to manage internal and external crises, simultaneously. It’s important to acknowledge the latter because senior managers and even executives often forget that the role of the supervisor is not exclusive to managing incidents but also managing people—people who have emotions and needs beyond their duty. The people are what make the organization what it is.

I was listening to Las Vegas Fire Combined Communications (Nevada, USA) Supervisor Letha Lofton describe her actions on the day of the Route 91 Massacre (Oct. 1, 2017, when a single gunman opened fire on a crowded music festival). In that brief presentation at NAVIGATOR 2018, she displayed exemplary spirit, tenacity, and grace.

Lofton said her team was initially confused, overwhelmed, and helpless. “Baby, I got you,’’ she told them, and in that moment, it was all the support needed to bring out the best in her team. They were no longer hopeless because they all had an incredible guardian that moved out of the way to allow them to stay strong for each other.

Lofton’s composure kept her team together that night. Yes, the team members do have individual operational and coping skills, but I believe they were activated and guided under the support of her leadership. I believe in that situation, the supervisor switched from task-oriented to relationship-oriented, allowing fortitude, solicitude, endurance, and perseverance to thrive that night. Under similar circumstances I have seen supervisors escalate the crisis by trying to be too participative and directive. Lofton showed us that empathy and compassion inspire.

Sarah McCrae, Las Vegas Fire & Rescue (LVFR) Assistant Fire Chief, who arrived at the center within the first hour of the incident, commended the strength of Lofton’s team that night during her remarks at the NAVIGATOR Opening Session. “That night, our team undeniably had vision, they knew what they were after and what they were about. And so despite the fear, the concern, and the confusion, they pressed ahead and provided calm reassurance to our community and our first responders.”

So what type of leader is best for the emergency dispatch center? Any leadership style that can create an effective team. Fellow leaders, ask yourself:

  • Do you have a purpose, and are we accomplishing it?
  • Are you providing satisfactory leadership to your employees, customers, clients, and society; are we motivated and coordinated?
  • Can you adapt to new opportunities and minimize obstacles (do you embrace change)?
  • Are you capable of developing your own tasks and abilities?
  • Would you survive in a world of uncertainties (resiliency, continuity)?

A good leader can assess and diagnose talent to see that the right people are doing the right jobs. A good leader can empower the team by enabling the team members to navigate and respond to change. Good leadership encourages interaction and communication among members, a shared understanding, goals, interest, and mutual positive attitudes. Heart, intellect, and improvisation are resources to make the right decision and get the job done. Ultimately, leaders take responsibility for the results.

Operational effectiveness hinges on team confidence. In a technical and tactical job like emergency dispatch, the team must be empowered to use what they know and practice. That is where the leader comes in.

Are you the leader of an effective team?

Filling The Gaps

Filling The Gaps

Heidi DiGennaro

There are times when the protocol does not fill the gaps on a call. Every call is different; that is the nature of our business and no protocol can cover every situation. One of the best pieces of advice I received when I started was, “If you think you know everything, quit. You don’t.” So what do you do when the protocol isn’t enough? Below are scenarios the protocols do not cover and you, the emergency dispatcher, must think fast to handle them.

Caller pretending not to have you on the phone

People will call and pretend like they aren’t talking to an emergency dispatcher. You need to be at your best because most likely they are in danger, someone else is in danger, or something wicked your way comes. Many have heard about the woman who called to order a pizza while in a domestic violence situation, and the dispatcher caught on and helped her. What if that dispatcher had missed the cues?

What to do?

Listen. Callers need you to listen to what they are not saying. What’s the caller’s tone of voice? What’s happening in the background? Are they aware they have misdialed? Did they whisper in the phone that they couldn’t let the other person with them know that they are calling for help?

Stay quiet and use a soft tone of voice. Many emergency dispatchers crank up the volume on their phones loud enough where people around the caller can hear conversations. If you are loud, you might put the caller in danger. A soft tone shows your caller that you understand there is a problem. Callers will try to give you what they can. Have you heard calls where the telecommunicator is saying in a strident or bored tone, “This is 911. Do you have an emergency?” Do you want this to be you in the media playback?

Caller drops off and leaves an open line

Occasionally, the caller says one thing and the line stays open; she does not answer you thereafter. Increasing your volume means the louder you are, the more you are not listening to what’s happening in the background. You could miss shots fired or cover over them with your fourth, fifth, or sixth “answer me” request.

I handled a call from a female who told me the address and about the domestic situation before she stopped answering, and I had an open line. Months later I was told my silence allowed the recording to capture the rape in progress. By my not talking and only listening, the recording captured the entire crime, and it was used against the suspect in court to secure a conviction.

You, the emergency dispatcher, can help yourself when the protocol does not fill the gap. Identify the gaps. If you have a suggestion, forward it. The Academy has a process in place to request changes; make suggestions and benefit all of us. Review the protocols frequently and find the gaps; discovering there is a gap during a call isn’t the right time. Play the “what-if” or “what would I do” game by yourself or with others in your center to go over the protocols and where they stop.

If the situation has never happened before, protocol cannot cover it. Think of major events in your jurisdiction that happened once and never again. Now you probably have a plan for this odd event that occurred once. How many oddball, screwy, kick-you-in-the-teeth situations do you think are out there that you haven’t seen yet? The only thing you can do is to accept there is a gap and suggest change. No protocol can cover every eventuality, and understanding that not all calls will fit on the protocol reduces stress and anxiety.

You’re the one that people call in a crisis and part of you managing the chaos of a 911 call is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the tools in your toolbox.