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Upon completion of this section, you will be able to write specific and actionable research objectives for your project.


A problem is the issue that motivates your study. It is what drives you to start your investigation into an emergency dispatch topic, even if you don’t know at this point how you are going to undertake this investigation.

More specifically, a problem can be thought of as a gap between The Ideal (How Things Ought to Be) and The Reality (How Things Are).

If you are a practitioner—say you work at a dispatch center—then you probably have already observed many of these gaps in your day-to-day work experience. What you might not be aware of is that your observations can be the start of interesting and valuable research projects.

Take the example of Jeff Hutchens, a shift commander at Guilford EMS. He noticed such a gap related to “fast-forwarding,” the practice of sending a pre-alert at ECHO level at the beginning of an emergency call, then updating the priority level later when more information comes to light. There is some evidence that “fast-forwarding” has some benefits, such as reducing dispatch time in some high-acuity cases, which explains the adoption of the practice in many centers. However, while on the job Jeff noted many problems associated with this well-intentioned strategy. Fast-forwarding, he observed, was leading to scene safety issues—emergency medical personnel were being sent first to scenes that were later discovered to be too dangerous. Jeff also noted that many of these fast-forwarded calls were being downgraded or cancelled, suggesting that resources could be allocated more effectively. These less-than-ideal outcomes were the genesis of his study, “Implications for Pre-Alerts for Medical Emergency Calls,” which examined over 100,000 pre-alert calls from two dispatch centers. The aim was to give a fuller picture of the implications with respect to dispatch priorities, response units, call cancellation, and call downgrading.


Turnover is the rate at which employees leave a workforce and are replaced. After calculating the turnover rate for a specific period, you learn that the turnover rate for your dispatch center is too high—this is especially concerning since it can be quite costly to replace and retrain dispatchers.

A common worry concerns the relevance of your chosen problem. Just because my problem is interesting or important to me, you might think,it doesn’t mean that my problem is going to be perceived that way by other people.

If you have this worry, the good news is that there an easy way to evaluate your problem’s relevance. One way to know if your issue is significant is to determine whether others have experienced the same problem. Talk to people outside your local frame of reference, which could be those who work at other dispatch centers, for instance. Have they experienced this problem as well? Do they also feel this is a pressing issue? If so, that’s a good indicator that other people will find your problem interesting or important.


Originally referring to a state of temporary insanity, the word ‘brainstorm’ has come to mean something much more constructive—an individual or group activity that intends to find useful or creative associations between ideas.

Brainstorming as we know it was created by an advertising executive named Alex Osborn. Osborn wanted to come up with a procedure that would most effectively allow his employees to propose creative solutions to problems. The best way to do this, he found out, is to have people generate as many ideas as possible in a criticism-free environment.

The main virtue of brainstorming is that it can help you dig deeper into your problem. The world, after all, is a complicated web, full of interesting relationships demanding further investigation. Perhaps, through brainstorming, you will be led to an even more important problem to research, or you will discover variables related to your problem that you want to learn more about. Brainstorming, too, is a great way to discover possible causes of an issue, which in turn can lead to the formulation of a working hypothesis .


To brainstorm, simply set aside some time (we suggest five minutes or longer) and write down as many things as you can associated with the problem thought up in the previous action step. Don’t worry about being wrong or right, just write things down: ideas, judgments, questions, or whatever comes to mind.

When you are writing things down, it can be helpful to consider some basic information-gathering questions about your problem—these are sometimes referred to as the Six Ws in journalism.

  1. Who is involved?
  2. What is happening?
  3. Where does it take place?
  4. When does it take place?
  5. Why does it happen?
  6. How does it happen?


A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. A researcher’s main objective can be to test whether such an explanation of a phenomenon is in fact true. Consider the research objectives about field feedback introduced earlier. The researchers might have had a prior explanation about why emergency dispatch professionals have a negative perception of field feedback, like that it is perceived as a major stressor. In that case, the researchers could have used a verb like test to write an objective; for example, to test whether emergency dispatch professionals perceive field feedback as a significant stressor. When you want to test an explanation, you have a hypothesis-testing aim. Keep in mind, however, you don’t need a hypothesis-testing objective to do research.

Once you have done this, look at what you wrote. Underline or highlight interesting ideas that you don’t want to forget. What you think about here might prove to be invaluable later as you flesh out your research design.


Once you are satisfied with your problem, you are ready to set a broad goal for your research. This goal, like a research objective, is a statement about what you expect to achieve through carrying out your study. The difference is that the goal set here—unlike your final research objectives—is meant to be a starting off point. Right now, you don’t have to worry about formulating a goal that is terribly specific. The language you use can be general since you will refine your words in the next action step.

This broad goal, however, should be related to knowledge-gathering about your problem. To help with setting a broad goal for your research, you should answer the following questions:

  • What can I discover about my problem that isn’t already known?
  • What are the possible benefits of finding these things out?


Here is one possible approach for setting a research goal for the problem of high turnover:

What can I discover about high turnover that isn’t already known?

After brainstorming the issue of high turnover, you notice that you described many possible causes of this problem, including topics like lack of training, stress, fatigue, and absence of recognition. But, at this point, these are merely possibilities. You would like to know for sure what is behind the problem. Additionally, there could be reasons for high turnover that you have not even considered yet.

This thought process leads to the formulation of a general goal—to figure out why your employees are leaving at such a high rate. Even though your language is not focused enough yet, this is a good start.

Well, you think, if I know why dispatchers are leaving, then I can use that information to devise strategies to keep them working longer at the center. For instance, if dispatcher stress seems to be the major reason behind high turnover, then I know that a solution to the problem must involve reducing the stress of dispatchers in some meaningful way. All in all, you find this goal more attractive than other potential ones because it can directly lead to strategies that combat high dispatcher turnover.

Note: A different—but possibly equally valid approach—would be to set a broad goal to better understand the effects or implications of high turnover at certain dispatch centers.


So, you prepared a broad research goal. That is wonderful! However, your goals are probably not going to be specific or detailed enough on the first try. You will need to focus them.

What does focus mean exactly? And why do your aims or objectives need to be focused? To answer the first question, focusing means you are taking the broad goal that you decided upon in the last step (such asto figure out why employees are leaving) and applying one or both of the following activities:

  1. Pinpointing the actions
  2. Specifying the terms

Pinpointing the actions simply means precisely describing the actions the research will accomplish. The action expressed should be precise enough that you can see how it might be enacted by a data collection procedure. For instance, to figure out why probably fails this test. What is the data collection procedure that will help you to figure out why your employees are leaving? It is hard to say. But look at what happens when you replace to figure out why with to describe the reasons. If the main action is description of reasons, then that suggests the data collection procedure will involve gaining information based on what people say, possibly through surveys or interviews.

After clarifying the action or actions, you might need to further specify the other terms in your goal. What is the appropriate level of specification? A general answer is that specificity matters only to the degree that it impacts your methodology. Going back to the high turnover example, the level of specificity about “employee” will most certainly shape the study’s methods. After all, since employees appear to be the study subjects, you are going to be collecting data about them. Precision about the term, “employee,” in other words, clarifies your inclusion or exclusion criteria, which are the characteristics subjects must have to participate in your study or the characteristics that exclude them from participation.

The basic point is that through precisely describing the actions intended to be accomplished, and through eliminating other relevant imprecision in your language, you are moving toward a clearer methodological understanding. Without focused goals, the path forward becomes much more difficult. If a research goal lacks enough specificity, for instance, it won’t be clear at all how you should carry out your research, or whether one type of design is preferable to another.


Original action: To figure out why

Pinpointed action: To describe the reasons

Original term: employees

Specified term: emergency dispatchers at Center X who quit their positions within the timeframe of January 1 to August 31, 2018


Now you should be able to write your objectives. To review, objectives are specific and actionable descriptions of what you expect to achieve in your research. In this case, actionable means that you can accomplish the objective through following the appropriate data collection procedure. Once you write the objectives for your study, you can insert them into the draft of your IRB proposal.


The objective of this study is to describe the reasons Center X emergency dispatchers quit their positions within an eight-month period.