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Is There a Standard of Care and Practice for Emergency Dispatch?

Oct 10, 2018|Research Briefs
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Yes! Ignorance of the standard is no defense.

Establishing a Standard: Over time and through litigation, concepts have evolved into a standard that reflects society's expectations of an emergency dispatch system. Emergency services and public safety agencies without this standard in place should be prepared to defend their practices in court—and in the court of public opinion.

Liability: Ignorance of the standard is not a reasonable defense; both the courts and the public use it to judge emergency communication centers, municipalities, and individual dispatchers in legal cases. Everyone involved in emergency dispatch is liable when errors occur, people are harmed, and lawsuits result.

For example, agencies that do not provide a comprehensive system are vulnerable to lawsuits. A recent study found that there were no cases in which an agency using a comprehensive system was named as the defendant. Conversely, the study found the failure to provide such a system left many agencies liable for the errors made and the people hurt.

In addition, when trained and certified emergency dispatchers do not use a protocol to handle calls, the number of dispatch errors increase. The study found that no dispatcher named as a defendant had used a protocol on the call. In some cases a protocol was available to them, but they did not use it and were unable to deliver care and services as expected.

Dispatch Danger Zones: Danger zones are a known group of common and preventable dispatch errors. The study found the top three danger zones to be multiple calls made about the same incident, delayed dispatch or response, and poor customer service or mishandling of the call. (For more danger zones, see Figure 3 in the published study cited below.)

Public Service: Avoiding dispatch danger zones minimizes vulnerability to lawsuits. Lawsuits are costly in time, money, and personnel. Knowing and meeting the standard reserves resources while delivering the highest possible level of service to the public.




Two particularly heartbreaking cases demonstrate how concepts have evolved into a standard. These cases involved multiple dispatch danger zones: omission of pre-arrival instructions, help not sent, delayed responses, more than one call for help, no standardized system for questioning callers, inadequate emergency dispatcher training, and failure to transfer relevant information. 

On March 1, 1990, 14-month-old Brooke Hauser fell into her family's pool in Boca Raton, Florida. Her 13-year-old sister, Yvonne, found her floating in the pool, got her out, and called 911. She pleaded with the emergency dispatcher, "What should we do?" as she watched Brooke turn blue, then purple, and blood run out of her nose. No instructions on how to perform CPR were provided by the emergency dispatcher even though it was obvious he knew it was required to save her.

Paramedics arrived quickly on scene and revived Brooke; however, she lived another 15 months in a vegetative state until she succumbed to pneumonia. Following Brooke's death, her mother, Ivette, discovered that emergency dispatchers at her local emergency dispatch center were prohibited from giving pre-arrival instructions to callers.

In an effort to prevent another tragedy, Ivette sued the city but abandoned her lawsuit once Boca Raton implementedsweeping changes in their 911 system. She established Parents Against Negligent Dispatch Agencies (PANDA) and became an avid lobbyist for legislation that requires dispatch systems to providepre-arrival instructions in life-threateningsituations.

On November 11, 1994, 16-year-old Edward (Eddie) Polec was murdered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A tragic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was in a parking lot near St. Cecilia Church when five cars full of teenagers armed with baseball bats spotted him.

About 40 minutes prior, calls to the Philadelphia Police Department had begun pouring in as this gang made their way through the neighborhood vandalizing and provoking fights. The gang caught Eddie on the steps of the church and brutally beat him to death with a bat.

Having witnessed the entire event, Eddie's friend ran to a nearby pay phone and called 911. She was transferred by the emergency dispatcher to an ambulance dispatcher. Although the emergency dispatcher had the exact location of the pay phone in her computer, help was sent to the wrong location. Although the 911 center received over 30 calls that evening, only one police officer (after multiple calls) and one ambulance (after 47 minutes) were sent to respond. Emergency dispatchers did not have nor were trained to use a standardized system for questioning callers. Eventually, the police officer sent to investigate one of the initial complaints was flagged down and he radioed for an ambulance.

Even after the public's outcry of lost confidence, the Philadelphia Police Department did not make any changes to their 911 system. Eddie's father demanded systemic changes by threatening to sue. They made sweeping changes, and he withdrew the suit.