Gridlock Guy: Helping ease the load for our heroic dispatchers

Some easy ways that commuters can both bolster response time and make 911 dispatchers’ stressful jobs a bit easier.

Last week was National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, a time to annually reflect on and appreciate the people that are just as vital to the first responders community as the men and women who drive up to relieve our problems. Dispatchers are the calm voices on the other end of the phone from usually some of the worst moments in the callers’ lives. And those phone calls roll in sometimes constantly in a 12-hour shift. Dispatchers are key in making sure those calls turn into timely action by police, fire, EMS, and other frontliners.

My WSB Triple Team Traffic cohorts and I rely heavily on the prowess of dispatchers, both in our listening to their messaging back and forth with responders on scanner radios and in our hourly calls to Metro Atlanta 911 centers to check their wrecks. Being so honed in on their transmissions and their language, we get a real sense of how difficult that job can be. We also see a few ways that the general public could make dispatchers’ jobs less stressful and also garner a better emergency response to problems.

The biggest real estate cliche is, “location, location, location.” 911 dispatchers would certainly agree it also applies in their own field. A big problem that both delays response time, elongates a phone call, and simply causes frustration is a caller’s ignorance of where they are. This bubbles up the most in traffic-related calls (which is why we center on it in this column). A driver not knowing the direction on a freeway they are traveling can dramatically delay a response, since interstates are limited-access and a wrong maneuver takes longer to undo.

A caller’s inaccuracy about the exit or mile marker they are near has a similar effect. Sometimes we hear a crash dispatched as, for example, “I-85/southbound at Pleasantdale Road,” based on the location that someone saw a problem. But, in fact, the trouble is actually back closer to Jimmy Carter Boulevard. The caller might have said they were at Pleasantdale, when they really had just seen a sign that said that the exit was a mile or so ahead. The confusion between responding units, dispatchers, and callers bogs down mental bandwidth and, again, delays the response.

First responders try to remedy a citizen’s poor location-reporting skills by entering a freeway an exit or two before a problem and going an exit or two past it, so they decrease the chances of missing it. They also check the opposite direction if they don’t see it on the first check.

We experience these wild goose chases ourselves in the WSB Traffic Center and in the WSB Skycopter when we receive calls or tips on traffic problems. We have found them miles from the reported spot, in the opposite direction, or even not at all. All of that misinformation bogs down the process and wastes energy.

There are also far too many calls, including some traffic issues, that really do not require a 911 response. If you have AAA or another roadside service, try deploying them for routine car breakdowns if you have steered safely out of the road. And if you are stranded in traffic, but are otherwise unhurt, rely on another group of dispatchers: GDOT’s 511 Traffic Management center. Dialing 511, instead of 911, is how a driver requests the help of a bright yellow H.E.R.O. unit to help tend to a traffic issue on an interstate or state-maintained highway. This lightens the call volume in already-understaffed 911 centers.

911 operators also take strange, strange calls to ask for the time, the temperature, or for other non-urgent answers that people can find far easier elsewhere. A percentage of these kinds of calls come from people with mental health issues, but some also come from truly selfish and uninformed people who lack the awareness of the bandwidth they are wasting by asking emergency dispatchers to serve their mundane wants.

Many answers to public services questions - or at least the proper person to call or email - are available on the proper county or city website. Calling 911 to complain about potholes or traffic lights is ridiculous, unless those problems are so bad that they need police to block a lane or direct traffic right then. Backing up the lines of the emergency dispatch system with complaints about utility bills wastes the time of everyone involved.

There is almost universal agreement that emergency services are vital and that the people involved are underpaid for stressful and dangerous jobs. A great way to show more gratitude to a 911, 511, or any public safety telecommunications worker is to know where you are when you see or have a problem. We can also give telecom safety workers respect by not adding to their workload with improper calls. And when we do need to lean on them, my experience has been that they almost always appreciate a “thank you.”

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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