Getting Critical Dispatch Information

By Steven Mormino

Critical dispatch information—some people just don’t get it … or do they? It’s a chance we can’t afford to take. Edward F. Croker, chief of the Fire Department of New York from 1889-1911, once wrote; “Firefighting is a hazardous occupation. It is dangerous on the face of it. Tackling a burning building, the risks are plain; consequently, when a person becomes a firefighter, their act of bravery has already been accomplished. Everything else is their daily duty.” Hazardous occupation? Daily duty? How many of us wish we would have listened to our parents and stayed in school so we could become a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant? The job we face as firefighters, especially in today’s post-9/11 world, requires a career-long commitment to education, training, preplanning, and survival. We must give each other and ourselves a fair chance at a long, healthy retirement after a wonderful career of service to the communities we were sworn to protect.

One of the ways to achieve this goal is to make sure we receive all critical dispatch information about a location and its hazards during our response and act accordingly. It’s all about being prepared. For many firefighters, being prepared means wearing all of our bunker gear; donning the mask; properly stretching lines; forcible entry; ventilation; and a host of other firefighting precautions, strategies, and tactics. One area of preparedness often overlooked is “information and communication,” particularly the information we have provided to the dispatcher prior to the incident.

Size-up, we are told, begins at the receipt of the alarm. Does it really? I and many others in the fire service believe size-up begins even before the receipt of the alarm. Building inspection, preplan work, and building familiarization training are the true beginnings of size-up.

Some departments have wonderful databases of critical information carried in the chief’s vehicle. Such a database is usually located in a binder complete with easy-to-find tabs, alphabetized, sorted numerically, and even color-coded. That’s great, but what happens if the chief is not assigned to the alarm, is delayed, or is operating at another alarm? Do the first-due responding units have a copy on their apparatus, and is there time to read it while bouncing around the front cab as the chauffeur or engineer serpentines through traffic, over bumps, through potholes, and around pedestrians? We must ensure that the dispatcher has all of this information and that it is properly communicated, by radio, to the responding units. Adequate communication between the dispatcher, the incident commander, and the responding units is critical. By establishing a mechanism to make sure this preplan information is properly transmitted and received, we increase our chances of the incident’s having a successful outcome.


For example, if the alarm is computer-generated and printed, a section on the bottom of the response ticket should have all of the required information—easily readable. Then the dispatcher must verbally communicate this information to all of the responding units.

Hopefully, we have recognized that there are many hazards in and around the building that can hurt us. Some of the information critical for us to receive is the following:

  • Type of construction hazards, namely lightweight, balloon frame, open web steel bar joist, truss, parallel chord, plywood I-beam, and steel plating on the walls or roof.
  • Buildings built on grade—for example, two stories in the front and four stories in the rear.
  • Disabled people located within the building and the rooms to which they may possibly be confined.
  • Hazardous materials stored in the building—for example, dry cleaners, pharmacy, and pool supply store.
  • Vacant building designations where “exterior only” operations are required.
  • Guard dogs and their location on the premises.
  • Odd-shaped buildings that are interconnected or have multiple addresses.
  • Unusual hose stretches or lengths of stretch.
  • Location of standpipe and sprinkler shutoffs as well as fire department connections.
  • Area water supply—nearest hydrant location and size of water main.
  • Any specialized equipment required or other types of apparatus needed on additional alarms.

These are just a few examples of the critical dispatch information the incoming units need to know about or be reminded of and what they might expect on arrival. Figure 1 on page 16 is a sample preplan worksheet. You should also include a sketch of the building or a map with it. Remember, mutual-aid departments and relocated units also must have access to and receive this critical information. It is something you cannot take for granted.

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