May 1, 2010

Multi-tas- Ooh, shiny!

I'm well aware that Ambulance Driver hates his dipshi... er ... dispatchers. Based on what he says, with good cause - but they are working within the guidelines of their corporate environment, and that may be causing some problems.

But that's not the point of this entry!

I am a 911 dispatcher. I like to believe I'm a pretty fair dispatcher. Not "great", just "pretty fair", which translates in my mind to "a hair above average without being exceptional". Modest, immodest, it doesn't matter. I show up for work, do my shift to the best of my ability, and leave my headset hanging on the wall when I go home at the end of the day.

Some days are better than others, and what makes a "good day" in dispatch varies tremendously. Some shifts I'll come in the door tired and out of sorts, and hope for a calm shift that will allow me to read the news, play some Spider Solitaire, maybe half-watch something on Discovery or History Channel. Other days, a "good shift" is defined by a structure fire that runs well, or giving good pre-arrival instructions and ending up with a save. Or a police call that just works out *right*.

Regardless of what makes for a good day, some parts of the job never change. Our center is small enough that it is often possible to be at least peripherally aware of what is happening with ALL the agencies in the county. Perhaps not the details of each incident, but at least a rough idea of where things stand.

The corollary to that, of course, is that I need to be one-hundred-percent aware of what's going on at MY console. I need to know what's been assigned, what's pending, prioritize the pending, reassign/redirect as necessary, and keep a loose idea of where each unit is along with their status.

I try. We all do. Some do better than others, but every one of us - every single one - has a tipping point. That one last radio call or incident that brings the whole house of cards crashing down in a jumbled mess. It's not a pretty picture, and the recovery from it is even harder - because the calls *don't stop coming in*.

Picture, if you will, a waiter carrying a tray full of glasses at a black-tie cocktail party. Mingling through the crowd, and as he walks along, people are taking full glasses away and putting empty ones back. Things are going well, the party is a pleasant affair... and then someone puts a glass on the tray when the waiter isn't looking, and the balance is gone. Maybe the waiter starts to catch it and fumbles, or maybe he doesn't realize it's off balance until the first glass hits the floor. Either way, there's a hell of a mess.

Cleaning up that mess is easy - set down the tray, get a broom and dustpan, and sweep things up and carry on. But that's where our metaphor starts to fall apart. Our waiter, instead of setting down the tray and cleaning up the mess, has to get the broken glasses back on the tray in one piece, while still mingling and passing out drinks and having empties put back. Not a pretty picture, is it? In fact, darn near impossible?

I have been faced more than once with the dispatch equivalent. Eventually the "party" winds down and it's possible to get things back to an even keel, but in the meantime, all the party-goers are standing around grumbling about the clumsy waiter.

Every dispatcher has their own "tray" and ability to balance it. My question - prompted by some recent events - is this:
Is it possible to effectively train someone to a greater level of situation awareness/multi-tasking?

I.e., can they be trained to carry a bigger tray?

Any thoughts are appreciated.

2 comments:

Christina LMT said...

Frankly, I think training can only take one so far. Either you have the knack for multitasking, or not.

Julie said...

I'm with christina here.

I think it's very much personality dependent.