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How social media has improved EMS communication

Though the basic rules still apply, new social media tools are helping medics rely on knowledgeable bystanders to treat patients faster

Communication: An act or instance of transmitting; information transmitted or conveyed.
— Merriam-Webster's Dictionary

Battles in war are won — and lost — through timely and accurate communication.

Command staff that receive reports from drones and scouts, line officers that report from the front line, battalions and squads that coordinate their attacks and defensive strategies — all of these activities could not happen quickly or successfully without significant ways of communications among the personnel.

The ability to succeed in the business of emergency medical response, care and transport is also largely a matter of reliable and effective communication equipment and methods.

Imagine trying to respond to a call without a radio, a pager, a cell phone, a wifi computer — yikes! Yet that's what EMS providers did prior to the 1980s. I'm sure some of you old timers out there recall the mechanical ring of a rotary phone at your house or ambulance garage, with a dispatcher on the other end of the line giving you an address of a medical call, while you scribbled down the information on a piece of paper.

Better yet, how many of you remember listening to the police scanner, waiting for an officer to request an ambulance to a scene, then racing to a scene to hopefully beat out the other ambulance company so you could take the call?

Even in the "good ol' days" the same rules of communication still applied:

1) Verbal communications must be clear. Whether you use clear text or 10-code, orders and directions must be spoken using a cadence and diction that is easy to understand.

2) Communicators must close the loop on communications. In more technical terms, the encoder, or person sending the communication must make sure that the decoder, or receiving person did in fact hear and understand the message. It's not complicated; most times we do it unconsciously:

Comm Center: Dispatch to Unit A7.

Unit: A7, over.
Comm center: A7, respond code 3, 123 Main street, Apartment 12, for a 52 year old male, unconscious.

Unit: A7 copies 123 Main street, apartment 12, code 3.

The read back by the unit confirms to the dispatcher that the message was received and understood.

3) As seen in the exchange above, communications are precise. No need for chit chat, or pleasantries such as "please" and "thank you". Air time is precious, and even with hospital notifications, keeping communications to a minimum helps everyone keep the air clear.

4) At the same time, provide notifications in a timely manner. Remember that your radio is your lifeline to the rest of your "safety net". Regular updates keeps the system aware of your situation and allows it to react quickly and effectively if necessary.

Over time, we have seen the fairly dramatic evolution of communications of both hardware and software technologies to strengthen the communication links in EMS. From pagers, to trunked radios, to portable computers and now smartphones and tablets, the amount of information that we exchange, and how we move that information around, has grown tremendously. In fact, in many systems the verbal exchange of dispatch information describe above is becoming a quaint reminder of the past, as the information is digitized and pushed from one piece of hardware to the next.

Social media has also made its debut in emergency communications, and in some aspects, has rewritten the rules of information exchange. An example of this is the San Ramon Valley Fire District's (California) location-aware iPhone app.

During a medical emergency such as a cardiac arrest, a notification from the dispatch center is automatically sent to iPhones running the app and are very near the site of the incident. If the app user wishes, he or she can respond on foot to the call and provide CPR. The location of the closest AED is also provided by the app.

When professional rescuers arrive, another notification is sent to the app users, which announces that no further help is needed and the location information is removed from the screen.

There's no communication between the app users and the communication center; there doesn't need to be. This allows crowdsourcing to be utilized in a most unique and helpful way, which makes this app especially cool!

While debate may focus on whether the increasing number of ways to transmit information is making for better communications, there is no denying that how we communicate in EMS has changed dramatically.

Basic principles still apply — crucial information has to be transmitted quickly, accurately and reliably. If technology can enhance those attributes, so much the better. 

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