'Voice in the dark': Lead dispatcher ensures immediate response to 911 calls

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
"Attention in the station and attention on the net; stand by for structural at building 562, automatic fire alarm via Monaco!"

When an emergency happens on base and 911 or 999 is called, emergency services have just two minutes to respond and head out on scene.

The first of those two minutes involves the person taking the call getting all the relevant and vital information, which allows the first responders to deal with the emergency appropriately. Those people taking the calls are the dispatchers in the 100th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Emergency Services Flight emergency communication center.

Referring to his team of dispatchers as, "the voice in the dark," Paul Charland-Marlow, 100th CES Fire Emergency Services lead dispatcher from Beck Row, Suffolk, described how the team of two civilians and two Airmen are the vital link between the person calling, and the emergency services arriving on scene.

"We never know what's going to happen at any given time - the (emergency phone) rings and it could be anything," he said. "We literally have to think at 100 mph, trying to get all the (important information) out of the caller so we can get our guys rolling as soon as possible.

"Sometimes we have to pry the information out of folks and other times we have to stop them from bombarding us with two much," explained Charland-Marlow. "Each call is as individual as the caller; no two calls are ever the same, so no two days are either - it's our chance to make a difference to those who really need it."

As the lead dispatcher, he's headed up the ECC for two years. He's also a qualified airport firefighter, and his training experience includes hazardous materials and hazardous chemical response, CPR, medical triage, first aid, safety officer, incident commander and scene management.

Overseeing operations, Charland-Marlow acts as a guiding hand to ensure the dispatchers do what they need to do, and adhere to current guidelines, adding that the buck stops with him.

"If a 999 call is received off base, it goes to Suffolk Police or Suffolk Fire (or any other local counties' first responders); if the caller states they are on RAF Mildenhall and have a medical emergency, they (emergency services) can call straight through to our 911 system and we can respond a lot faster than county can."

The ECC is vital to RAF Mildenhall because it receives and answers all 911/999 calls on base. Fire takes precedence on all emergency calls, and all operators are fully trained with two telecommunications qualifications, which are professionally recognized throughout emergency services and national standards. They're also qualified in first aid, CPR and hazardous materials response. They take the lead response on all the calls, while medical services and security forces listen in so they know if they are required to respond.

The control center is located directly facing the taxiway and flightline, which assists greatly during in-flight emergency calls, Charland-Marlow said.

"It (allows us to) plot where the units are, because for in-flight emergencies we have staging points for our responding vehicles which we can see from our position here. It gives us an overview as we're far enough away to see things happening.

"We have direct communication with RAF Lakenheath medics, 100th Security Forces Squadron and every radio operator on base, as well as pre-set phone lines to base operations, command post and the air traffic control tower, allowing information to be up-channeled instantly," he said.

Whether a fire alarm or medical emergency call comes in, it's immediately all systems go, and emergency tones start ringing. The red "crash button" is pushed, switching on all lights in the bunk rooms, corridors and stall areas, which in turn flashes notification strobe lights around the station, so even those in the gym and wearing earphones, or those in educational classes, can see an emergency has been announced.

Use of the crash button also kills power and fuel to stove tops, grills and ovens, so if the firefighters have to leave and respond during meal preparation, items won't cook to burning point. It also opens the stall doors for those fire trucks required to respond, saving valuable time.

Next, a call is put out around the station alerting the firefighters to the type of emergency and its location.

"Basically, that's letting our guys know there's an automatic fire alarm that's been detected by the Monaco D21 fire alarm monitoring system," explained the dispatch chief. "We then sound the tones a second time, relaying all information we have because during that time the dispatcher will have acknowledged the alarm and have the full facility notes in front of them."

Monaco is a fire management system, and monitors all of RAF Mildenhall's buildings and alerts the ECC to all incidents.

"It cuts down wasted man and truck hours that has a fire alarm notification panel monitoring all buildings on base," said Charland-Marlow. "It also holds floor plans for buildings on base, which provides us the layout and highlights any hazards - known or otherwise.

"This information is vital in protecting both the facility and our firefighters," he said, adding that weather information is also shown on the computer system and is then relayed to the first responders, as it could affect entry control points and where vehicles are staged near the hazard.

All this happens in the span of 60 seconds. The fire crew then have an additional 60 seconds to don their protective bunker gear, get in-place on the trucks and leave the station.

For a medical emergency, security forces members and medics will know they are required, after hearing the conversation when the initial call comes in. Ambulances respond from RAF Lakenheath and 100th SFS sends an escort vehicle to meet them, then lead them on scene via the fastest and safest route possible.

Charland-Marlow explained the importance of training for the dispatchers. They undergo at least one to three months of continuous training which includes studying a 200-page dispatcher guide, local standard procedures, plus two computer-based telecommunications courses. That's in addition to requiring a medical and CPR certification.

"As the ECC, we're the driving force behind many changes in basing the new ambulance and dedicated medical crew who are now permanently in-place at the fire department," he said.

Charland-Marlow's work and effort of putting plans into practice have not gone unnoticed.

"Paul is one of our best, proven by the fact he was recently recognized as the 100th Mission Support Group Civilian of the Quarter," said Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Mohr, 100th CES Fire Department fire chief. "He brings a unique perspective as his background is not in fire protection, and he didn't work with or for the military prior to working at RAF Mildenhall, so he brings no preconceived ideas or how things should or shouldn't be done.

"As my lead dispatcher, Paul is able to look at people and processes with an open mind, and is able to teach Airmen and civilians alike, without them realizing he's teaching and leading them!" the fire chief said. "As far as managing processes, he's willing to ask the simple question, 'Why?' then translate how we do things to accomplish that in the easiest way possible. I'm very fortunate to have Paul on my team."