Emergency dispatch: Working behind the scene

RAPID CITY, S.D. – Law enforcement and first responders work tirelessly every day in so many ways, but there’s another agency the public doesn’t always notice. 911 dispatchers make sure all the moving parts surrounding an incident, stay moving.

From the instant a call comes in, the parts start to move.

Matt Thompson, Assistant Shift Supervisor for fire dispatch, says the first 20 minutes of the incident tend to be the most time critical. Fire dispatch mainly handles calls for the Rapid City Fire Department and EMS but also dozens of other emergency service agencies in Pennington, Jackson, Meade, and Custer counties. All of that, handled by typically two fire dispatchers behind the desk.

“One of us will take the radio, the other will take the phones,” said Thompson.

But if the calls come in quick, it means working both. Say a call comes in, someone reports a fire.

“We find out that okay, yes, there’s a building on fire, we’re getting that call ready for dispatch, sending units out,” said Thompson.

Not just sending out fire units, but making sure law enforcement dispatchers can get police to the scene if needed.

“We need to get the scene ready for the fire department so we need to get lanes for them to come in, get roads blocked off,” said Matthew Macrander, patrol officer with the Rapid City Police Department. “Our priorities are to protect life and prevent further injury but also scene security.”

Meanwhile, at the fire station, tones go off and crews head out to the trucks. They have less than two minutes to be out the door.

As they gear up and pile in the truck, dispatchers are still busy. “We’re making phone calls, calling utilities, making sure our first responders are safe,” said Thompson. “So in the case of a structure fire, we want to make sure the power companies shut the power off, make sure the gas company turns the gas off.”

Juggling all of that for a single call, but the other calls don’t slow down.

“All that’s going on while we’re still processing every other call that comes in,” said Thompson.

As firefighters head to the scene, law enforcement may already be there, feeding back information to dispatch which is then passed along to firefighters. Plus, they’re looking to identify other information that could come in handy.

“We’re going through and looking at mapping, looking at cross streets, giving hydrant locations… and relaying information as we go back and forth,” said Thompson.

Now, firefighters start to arrive on scene. “The first arriving units go to see what’s going on,” said Captain Brian Povandra with the Rapid City Fire Department.

Povandra explains that fire fighters work in a “due” system. First due, or first truck on scene, attacks a fire. Second due brings in water supply. Third due backs up fire attack or acts as the rapid intervention team, and so forth. As they head to the scene, they don’t know their task until they arrive forcing split second decisions.

In an exercise Thursday, fire fighters arrive on scene. The scene – a home set to be demolished next week, filled with artificial smoke to simulate a fire in the basement.

They report smoke showing as they walk around the home and as they enter the house, reporting back what they see.

The process unfolds in minutes, leaving no room for error, no matter the situation.

“You see the teamwork shine among our agencies and among the people in this room and if you get any kind of big incident, the teamwork is just amazing,” said Thompson.

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