A Dispatcher’s Perspective on: Trust, Relationships, and Communication

[This is the first of four Blog Posts written by Dispatchers that focus on Dispatching that we are featuring this week (beginning Aug. 27, 2018).]

By Cathy Micek-Hutton, Center Manager, Cody Interagency Dispatch Center

The philosophy I convey to my Dispatch staff is that part of our mission is to help others succeed. Now, how do we do that?

While many people in the wildland fire service hold the same qualifications, some are still more confident, knowledgeable, competent, etc. than others simply due to their education, experience and character. As a result, even though they may have the same qualifications, there are a whole range of skill levels that Dispatchers must communicate and interact with.

Cathy for Blog Post

Cathy in her Dispatch Center.

We recognize this reality in Dispatch. And we therefore have a lot of opportunities to help people succeed by making suggestions, providing options, “leading” them down a path of things to consider and steering them in the right direction. This process can involve other Dispatchers from another office, Duty Officers, Incident Commanders, etc. We don’t make the decisions for them, but we help them recognize that a decision needs to be made. We can also provide them with the possible results of certain decisions.

75 Years of Combined Operational Experience

Before you balk at the idea of Dispatch providing suggestions/advice to Operations, consider this. My staff of seven (including me) has 75 years of combined operational experience in Engines, Hotshots, and Helitack.

All of my staff (not me, I’m too old!) have maintained operational qualifications to remain better connected with the field. With that being said, experience levels may differ in Dispatch as well. Sometimes opportunities are lost to help people succeed, due to the inexperience of some Dispatchers simply not knowing. Then again, another opportunity arises to educate, mentor, and lead that Dispatcher so next time they at least recognize someone could use a little “extra” help. In turn, in the future, they ask some questions that get us all down the right path.

This is probably the most exciting and fun part of this job, especially when you see the light bulb come on and watch people grow and learn. These opportunities are at all levels, sometimes even the most experienced folks need a little help. The things we learn from new, young, fresh eyes looking at things from a different perspective can be invaluable. We need to seriously consider their input and give credit where credit is due, fostering the “out of the box” thinking that will help us all grow and be successful in what we do.

Take a Turn in Dispatch

I encourage everyone in fire to take a turn in Dispatch. Operational personnel who spend time in Dispatch when it is busy have a new appreciation for what it takes to be a Dispatcher. This experience makes them better firefighters and better Incident Commanders. It also gives them the perspective and experience they might need if they move on to a Fire Management Officer position responsible for overseeing a Dispatch Center.

Currently, Dispatch positions are difficult to fill. Transitioning from Operations to Dispatch can benefit the greater good as well as the employee. The ladder in Dispatch is a short climb to GS-11. People who have come into Dispatch have expressed their satisfaction with the flexibility in schedules, sleeping in their own bed at night, overtime opportunities, and knowing that they make a difference.

Communication—Including Feedback from Dispatchers

I also want to touch on communication, a critical aspect of all our jobs in the fire service. While technology has certainly influenced how we communicate, it should not be a substitute for face-to-face interaction.

Meeting “the voice” on the other side of the radio/phone is valuable and I feel builds trust, strengthens relationships, and puts people at ease when they are confronted with a stressful situation in the field.

Regardless of what the situation is, Dispatchers are trained to remain the calm voice on the radio and set the tone for the situation even though in the background it is organized chaos in the Dispatch Office—phones ringing, radios chattering with multiple fire activity occurring, and Dispatchers communicating with each other. Through all this, the Dispatcher is in their “zone” responding to the needs of the field, coordinating responses, keeping supervisors and peers briefed.

As we discuss communication we can’t forget an integral piece of it: Feedback. All too often Dispatch is left out of After Action Reviews on individual fires, end of fire season closeouts, lessons learned, and IMT closeouts. They usually have a piece of the puzzle that is missing. Furthermore, often times input from Dispatch can clear-up how and why things happened.

Dispatch is Often Overlooked

Dispatch is also often overlooked at preseason/postseason meetings. Training scenarios done in the field are valuable to Dispatch too. Therefore, Dispatch should be included in the mock fire or mock emergency as you are training your crews.

Please, don’t ever forget your Dispatchers when something bad happens on an incident. They are also in the middle of the event. Dispatchers may need support just like any other firefighter.

We are part of the “fire family.” And like a family, we all need to stick together.

4 thoughts on “A Dispatcher’s Perspective on: Trust, Relationships, and Communication

  1. Thank you, Cathy. My first time as a dispatcher was in 1988 on the Cherokee NF. I had done a few rolls with them as an AD from DIVS, ICT3, TFLD or CRWB etc. One day, the dispatcher called me and asked if I could help him in dispatch. I replied that I had never worked in dispatch, which he replied “You’ve been on the other end of this long enough, so you can figure this out.” He was right. That experience made me a better IC. When I became an FFMO, my dispatcher often brought in some of the firefighters to spend a few days in dispatch. They all gained from that experience, such as “Now I know whey that (helicopter, engine, crew, etc.) doesn’t’ get there as fast as I want it.”

    It can also provide career opportunities. After years as a 1039 and two state agencies, my first Perm USFS job was a Center Manager. For folks in primary fire positions, go get a dispatch qual. An EDRC qual is pretty easy. And you will probably enjoy a gig in dispatch.

    As for AARs, the dispatchers were included.


    Greg Sanders

  2. Thank You Cathy. Outstanding article from an outstanding dispatcher. Might I add? In Command and General Staff students are taught to always close the communication loop. This is a key attribute to both generalship and dispatching and positive human relations in general. The novice believes that because he or she knows something that everyone else must know it to. The wise learn that if he or she knows something then the best course is to make sure everyone else knows it to. Todays Forest Service should read Cathy’s article and take it to heart at their district, forest and regional offices. Most often there is “never” a response or reply back to the public – answering machines “never” respond and often the only way to get a response is to go outside the system. In the old Forest Service, when everyone fought fire the principles that Cathy speaks to were practiced by all. Not so today. Karl Brauneis, Forester, Smokejumper, IC – US Forest Service retired.

  3. One of the suggestions that Cathy makes is that everyone should have a stint in dispatch. I couldn’t agree more, except that it would take a major agency cultural change for time in dispatch to be considered an asset by selection committees.
    I have had the privilege of working with Cathy over the years from Alaska to Colorado, and always enjoyed seeing a Dispatch that put the mission above the organizational politics.

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