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10 things you need to know to increase interagency cooperation and collaboration

Work closely with local partners to provide better patient care, reduce response times and improve communication and quality


Sponsored by Pulsara

By Michael Fraley for EMS1 BrandFocus

It is probably safe to say that as long as humans have been sharing space with each other, there has always been some level of conflict. Struggles between coworkers can come from competition, innovation or a desire for improvement. Handled incorrectly, though, that conflict can also lead to inefficiencies, stagnation and harm to all parties involved.

Cooperation and collaboration, especially between EMS agencies and hospitals, are critical to improving response times and providing safe, efficient and effective care.
Cooperation and collaboration, especially between EMS agencies and hospitals, are critical to improving response times and providing safe, efficient and effective care. (Pulsara)

But when public safety agencies work together successfully, they reap many rewards:

  • Improved safety.
  • Greater efficiency.
  • Better public image.
  • Increased funding.
  • More successful recruitment and retention.

The best part of moving toward more cooperative relationships with public safety partners is that the initial efforts can be small, local and inexpensive. You do not need big, extensively planned, budget-busting initiatives to make a difference and start changing the culture.

It is important to highlight the difference between the words cooperation and collaboration. The terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference:

  • Lexico.com defines cooperation as “the process of working together to the same end.”
  • On the other hand, the Government Accountability Office defines interagency collaboration as “any joint activity by two or more organizations that is intended to produce more public value than could be produced when the organizations act alone.”

You might think of successful interagency cooperation as simply getting along on scene and completing the immediate task without conflict. Crews know they should get along, and they do so case by case, without making the evening news for getting in fights or being arrested on scene.

Collaboration, though, reaches further and indicates that agencies are working together to develop plans and guidelines for decision-making that will allow a swifter response that works well for everyone involved.

Whether your agency is just beginning to build better on-scene cooperation, or if you are ready to work toward a deeper level of collaboration, these 10 tips can help you along the way.

1. Develop relationships

A big but easily overlooked step is to take time to meet and get to know the people you will be working with before you need to work with them. There is a saying that goes something like, “The battlefield is no place for handshakes and business cards.”

Getting the pleasantries out of the way before you come together to respond to an incident establishes a level of comfort with each other and allows responders and leaders to begin the work of their roles without having to establish who’s who and who’s doing what. Even just knowing how to identify officers or ranking personnel in another department will help you better integrate into the incident command system as you arrive on scene.

2. Know what your partners do 

The next logical step after developing relationships with key personnel from cooperating agencies is to become familiar with their side of the response. It can be as simple as understanding the role they play, or as complex as knowing the issues they face as a department. You might find that their challenges are similar to yours, and that could be a good place to begin collaborative efforts. Knowing how a department works and the resources or capabilities they have will make it easier to develop and implement plans.

3. Get it in writing 

Any collaborative agreements or other plans to promote cooperation must be written and shared among agencies so that they can be included as attachments to policies and plans. These written documents can then be used to train members within the departments and help avoid miscommunications in the future. They are also a good way to preserve the institutional knowledge that is often lost when leaders move to other jobs or retire.

4. Build a culture of cooperation

Looking inside your own department is also an important step to improving cooperation. In order to be successful, your agency must have a culture of cooperation from top to bottom.

Unfortunately, we can all think of departments or agencies in our region that just never seem to get along with others. Expectations must be set by top administration. Those leaders must understand the benefits of cooperation and collaboration, and then set the example in both words and actions to make it clear that interagency cooperation is integral to every operation.

5. Train together

Conducting training with other agencies has far-reaching benefits and is nothing new to public safety. Departments that train together do more than just go through the motions of procedures. They test communication systems, standardize equipment and formalize relationships.

Be sure that your training includes the different types of agencies you’ll be working with in order to practice scenarios and identify issues that will occur on real scenes.

6. Practice regularly

Don’t wait for “the big one” to expect interagency cooperation to work. It must be practiced on the everyday, run-of-the-mill motor vehicle collisions and chest pain calls to become part of the culture and be second nature when it is needed most.

This applies equally to any software applications you or your partners might be using to promote regional communication or situational awareness. Programs are available to make it easier to communicate about the availability of regional resources, including:

  • Hospital beds.
  • Cardiac catheterization labs.
  • Trauma center status.
  • EMS helicopters.

These tools must be incorporated into daily practice so that your agency’s staff will be familiar with the products and how to use them.

7. Collaborate for quality improvement

Agencies that use quality improvement programs to better understand and enhance their operations will also see the benefit of collaborating on case reviews.

Hospitals moved from department-centric to patient-centric quality improvement years ago through the use of multi-disciplinary quality committees. The same can be done in public safety by bringing all agencies together to review a case or evaluate a process. After action reviews are one way to do this.

It’s a good idea to develop quality improvement steering committees and case review processes that include representation from all types and levels of providers that respond to emergencies in your municipality or region.

8. Share ideas through advisory board representation

Bringing representatives from multiple agencies together to serve on advisory councils or oversight boards is another effective way to foster collaboration. Through these committees, participants get a better understanding of how other services function and how collaborative efforts can help each organization reach similar goals.

9. Share resource procurement

Providing physical resources, such as similar or standardized supplies, equipment and communication systems, makes it easier for responders to cooperate during emergencies. Purchasing these assets together may also make financial sense for getting group discounts or customizing orders.

10. Work together, play together

Last but certainly not least, providing opportunities to celebrate, socialize and relax together builds strong relationships that carry over into the field. Use agency-sanctioned and informal social gatherings to help service members get to know each other in a more relaxed and enjoyable setting.

For example, cardiac arrest survivor ceremonies bring law enforcement, first responders, dispatch and EMS personnel together to celebrate lives saved while highlighting how multiple disciplines can work together to meet a common goal.

Promote EMS and hospital cooperation

Special mention must be given to the cooperation required between EMS agencies and the hospitals that receive their patients. To give patients the most efficient, effective and safe care possible, hospitals and EMS must cooperate in several operational areas, including:

Hospital and EMS collaboration should be taking place many times every day – not only in terms of direct patient care, but also through the intentional development of systems of care and communication.

We all have a role to play in practicing cooperation and promoting collaboration between our organizations in order to save lives, protect property and make our communities better places to live. No matter which public safety agency you respond with or what kind of healthcare provider you are, cooperation and collaboration are critical for providing safe, efficient and effective care.

Visit Pulsara for more information on how to improve interagency communication and collaboration.

Read Next: Closing the communication gap: How a hospital and EMS system is reducing time to treatment (white paper)

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