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Op-ed: Nothing wrong with 9-1-1 protocols — if they’re used properly

By Jeff Clawson

First Published Jun 13 2014 03:38 pm • Last Updated Jun 13 2014 03:38 pm

I read with interest the story ("Scripted 9-1-1 dispatching is prompting concerns," June 1). As the creator of the Medical, Fire, and Police Priority Dispatch protocol systems, located at the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch’s (IAED) world headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City, it seems that the Tribune might have found it not only convenient, but imperative to obtain our perspective on this story. These protocols are not "Priority" (seemingly an incorrect abbreviation for Priority Dispatch Corp., the organization that distributes and supports these life-saving programs). IAED is the world-renowned standards-setting body for these protocols, their training curricula, quality assurance processes, certification, recertification and accreditation requirements.

There are 3,626 agencies using the academy’s protocol systems in 20 languages and dialects in 43 countries. The academy has 60,000 certified members that for 26 years continually evolve and improve these protocols. I was the fire surgeon/medical director for SLCFD when, in 1979, we became the first 911 dispatch center in the world to use this structured call-taking program. Salt Lake’s communication superintendent, among others, fought to prevent its use, claiming it would kill people. Political battles have continued since, with the additions of the Fire Protocol in 2003 and the Police Protocol in 2012, despite the debunking of a dozen prevalent myths about priority dispatching processes and the recognition of Academy protocols as the gold standard for public safety dispatch around the world.

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One statement by Chief Burbank warrants correction. Any protocol question that has clearly been already answered does NOT need to be asked again – and every Emergency Dispatcher trained and certified by the IAED knows that. Like every medical director, Chief Burbank should attend the EPD training course, so he cannot be misled by those making the inappropriate statements quoted regarding the protocol’s use.

Every question asked in the protocol has a clearly defined, critical dispatch objective that must be determined immediately for safety, to ensure a correct response, and provide instructions to those in need of professional, potentially life-saving direction. Dispatchers are the "first, first responders" and without these early interventions we wouldn’t hear on the nightly news how the dispatcher delivered a baby, saved a caller trapped in a fire, or helped a child hiding under a bed during a home invasion.

Salt Lake has received these three systems under an endowment from the academy – a considerable financial windfall in materials, software, and training since 1995. More importantly, they have also been given something that borders on miraculous in medicine and public safety today – complete freedom from lawsuits. In 35 years, there has never been a single lawsuit – successful, or otherwise – in any of these 3,600 centers when they use the protocols correctly! Some public safety insurance companies require that an agency has IAED’s award winning systems before it will even insure them.

It’s correctly said that "the protocol never forgets or has a bad hair day." Humans do, and without structured call taking at 911, they are guaranteed to make mistakes – ones that can’t be corrected down the line. Structured protocol is the equivalent of the pre-flight checklist for pilots and astronauts, where missing something (protocol) or misinterpreting something (training) is not an option.

SLCFD has become internationally known as "Dispatch Mecca" for their pioneering use of the medical, and later the fire, protocols. City Police, as new participants in the standards process, have been given many opportunities to effect positive change and improve the protocol. But if you don’t use it correctly, you can’t really know what’s right and wrong with it. If you play Beethoven’s 9th at the wrong speed, on a warped turntable and with a broken needle, you can’t complain if it doesn’t sound good. My office at the academy is open to all comers.

Jeff Clawson, M.D., is medical director of the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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