Best Practices

The Role of Dispatchers in the EMS Setting

Meg Marino, MD, FAAP

November 1, 2022

Over 240 million calls are placed each year to 9-1-1, and the people answering the phone play a critical role in ensuring callers receive the appropriate care and services for their needs. So how do dispatchers intersect with EMS services, and in what ways do they interact with both patients and paramedics to help ensure closed-loop care? Let’s find out in the post below.

Gather & Assess Caller’s Needs

As a call comes into 9-1-1, the dispatchers’ first role is to identify the caller’s need so they can provide the appropriate resources. Dispatchers will typically ask standard questions to decide if the caller needs police, fire, or EMS services. If a caller is identified as needing EMS services, callers may be transferred to a special type of dispatcher called an EMD or Emergency Medical Dispatcher. These dispatchers have been trained to handle medical-related calls and use a series of protocols to identify the type of EMS service needed. For example, if a person calls 9-1-1- complaining of chest pain, an emergency medical dispatcher will use guided protocols to assess the right level of care to dispatch to that person. 

Dispatch EMS Units

Once the need for EMS has been identified, a dispatcher seeks to deploy care with the correct level of service and mode. They will evaluate whether or not a caller needs to receive BLS or ALS care and whether or not lights and sirens need to be used en route. They’ll also use computer-aided dispatch or CAD to look for available units, dispatch them to the caller’s location, and then track their status using GPS. 

Offer Prearrival Instructions

Perhaps one of the most critical services an emergency medical dispatcher can offer during a 9-1-1 call is prearrival instructions for care. The wait for EMS services to arrive can feel like an eternity to callers, and so EMDs take on the role of caregiver and support during the time it takes for paramedics to arrive on the scene. In some instances, emergency medical dispatchers simply provide a calm, clear presence to soothe tensions and anxiety. In others, they use a series of pre-written instructions to guide callers through care paths. For example, dispatchers may provide instructions on how to perform CPR, use an AED machine, or even walk a caller through childbirth preparations. 

Future Outlook for Emergency Medical Dispatchers

The need for emergency medical dispatchers has been steadily growing; the Bureau of Labor & Statistics predicts 4-8% growth over the next ten years providing new career opportunities within the space. However, there is no doubt that being a dispatcher can be stressful. Hundreds of calls may pour in daily, and there aren’t often enough resources to ensure that all calls are answered promptly or responded to with the level of care needed. This creates strain not only on the EMS system but also on the frontlines of taking these phone calls. In addition, over 40% of EMS dispatchers reported feelings of burnout, illustrating a clear need for additional resources such as increased staffing and improved protocol options. 

Additional resources for addressing burnout, intervention programs, and early intervention can help emergency medical dispatchers better identify the signs of burnout and even prevent burnout in some cases. Another way to prepare for the next generation of emergency medical dispatchers is to provide enhanced protocols for different types of medical calls, including mental health, wellness needs, and social calls for the elderly. MD Ally can help reduce some of these burdens by providing easily integrated dispatch protocols that deliver telemedicine resources to 9-1-1- callers. Using MD Ally, dispatchers can assess a caller’s need using their standard protocols and then use integrated telemedicine to provide care to those callers who are low acuity. In doing so, callers receive access to the care they need more quickly, and dispatchers benefit from less strain on the resources. To learn more about MD Ally, click here.