Search Terms: Medical training, aid over the phone, frustration, emergency medical dispatchers, Medical priority dispatch system, Dr. Jeff J. Clawson, dispatch training, medical advice, flip-card format, collect information, head start, medical cards, concentration, Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale Florida, job of a dispatcher

Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Chele Caughron, Sun-Sentinel staff writer

Lives on the Line

Lauri Moehlman never will forget the time a woman dialed 911 to report that her mother was having a heart attack and then dropped the phone.

Moehlman answered that emergency call. She wanted to help, but the caller would not return to the phone.

"She called, gave us the address and just dropped the phone. That was the worst," said Moehlman, a Boca Raton emergency dispatcher. "I could hear her giving her mother CPR wrong. She was counting wrong, and I could just see her pounding on her chest.

When paramedics got there the patient had expired," Moehlman said. "We might have saved her if the daughter had just picked up the phone."

The job of a dispatcher is full of frustration. Dispatchers try to assess a situation that they cannot even see. When an emergency pumps up their adrenaline, they want to be at the scene, to help in some way, but instead they are tied to a telephone, trying to keep the caller calm.

"You used to just say, "Well, we'll be there shortly." You couldn't help," Moehlman said. "You're on the phone and you're waiting. You're like: Are they [the paramedics] there yet? Are they there yet? Where are they coming from?"

In the past, many police and fire departments prohibited dispatchers from saying any more than the standard, "Help is on the way."

Frustration, however, forced a change. Increasingly, more and more dispatchers are being trained as emergency medical dispatchers. All police and fire departments in south Palm Beach County have implemented use of the Medical Priority Dispatch System¸some within the past few months. The system, created by Dr. Jeff J. Clawson of Salt Lake City, allows dispatchers to give medical advice to callers as it is written in a flip-card format.

╬This system just makes us feel like our hands aren't tied anymore," Moehlman said. "The first three or four minutes are very critical. Patients can live or die in those three minutes."

In addition to helping people at the scene give aid, the dispatchers also collect information to give to responding paramedics so they have a head start before they arrive at the scene.

"We try to tell these guys in the field what's going on," Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue dispatcher Susan Harrington said. "You have a mental picture to give them."

Dispatchers often hear a lot of emotion at the end of the line that sometimes can be upsetting. Reading cards that list specific questions to ask allows dispatchers to keep doing their job even when emotions take over.

"God forbid that you get excited, because if you do you're adding to it," Boca Raton dispatcher Joanne Figdore said.

Figdore said the call she fears most is a baby having trouble breathing or a baby that has been under water.

"It can be anybody but a baby. Don't give me a baby," Figdore said. "But you don't know that when you answer the phone. I'll get through it, but they will scrape me up off the floor, probably in a suction cup."

It is anticipating such calls that makes a dispatcher's job so stressful. Even when all is quiet they feel the pressure.

"Your body doesn't relax," Boca Raton dispatcher Nancy Shipley said. "You're on a constant keel."

"If nothing's happening that means it's going to happen, so let's get it over with," Figdore said.

When the emergency call does come in, everyone in the communications center puts their focus on the person in need.

"Everything disappears at that time," Moehlman said. "That takes you over."

The medical cards help the dispatchers to keep the concentration needed to ask the right questions in the right order.

"They won't tell you the right story unless you ask the right questions," said Clawson, president of Medical Priority Consultants Inc.

While the card system may be simple, getting the caller to answer the questions often is not.

"A lot of people are not too cooperative," Boca Raton dispatch supervisor Kathie Williams said. "I suppose when you're in an emergency situation you really don't want to be sitting on the phone. You want to be with the person who is in trouble."

Much of the hysteria a caller experiences is from lack of understanding the public has about what dispatchers do. Most calls are dispatched out to paramedics within 45 seconds while the caller is still on the telephone answering the dispatcher's questions, said Raul Travieso, Boca Raton's fire communications officer.

"Many times I think they feel like the units are not responding," Travieso said. "They say, "Why are you asking me so many questions? Get somebody over here now.'"