Have you ever noticed how many issues and misunderstandings result from incomplete or poor communication? When we fail at communication, we fail at conveying information to others, information that is sometimes vital and time-sensitive related to decisions and actions. I recently heard an example of mismanaged communication that could have caused serious harm to someone.

In some areas, when 911 receives a report of a fire, they dispatch multiple fire departments to assist the fire department covering the area, and then contact EMS (Emergency Medical Services) dispatch to send an ambulance as “standby.”  If the ambulance is busy with higher priority calls, the first available ambulance will then respond.

In this particular example, the ambulance was delayed due to higher priority calls, but when they began driving toward the location of the fire, they overheard the lead fire department communicate with 911 dispatch to cancel all other responding fire departments, because the fire was contained. Because the ambulance paramedic was monitoring the radio, they asked EMS dispatch if they were still needed to respond, since the fire was out.

This is where the communication breaks down even further. The EMS dispatch contacted 911 dispatch who then radioed the lead fire department. They were told the ambulance was still needed to treat an injury. The ambulance continued to the scene and treated the injured. However, the inconsistent communication brought about additional risk to the patient and frustration on the part of all involved.

There are a few points we can learn from this scenario that can be applied to various situations. The first point is when receiving a communication, have a process in place to acknowledge receipt and understanding of the communication. You should also notify others of any deviation from the plan or the norm. In this case, everyone involved should be aware that the ambulance will be delayed due to higher priority calls. This provides the opportunity to plan around the risks a deviation from the plan could cause.

The second point is communication updates should be made to all parties involved at the same time, using the same method, if possible. By clarifying the situation and update all involved parties, including EMS, of the changing situation, confusion may have been avoided by those responding and listening to the radio “chatter” or hearsay.

The third point is to communicate. Don’t fail to communicate information or make assumptions about the knowledge of others or the actions that are taking place. In this scenario, there was a lack of communication. The lead fire department failed to communicate there was an injury until asked. They assumed the ambulance was coming. If 911 dispatch was informed of the injury immediately, 911 dispatch could notify EMS, the priority of the response would be upgraded, and the paramedics responding could prepare for the treatment of the injured. Depending on the type of injury, clear and timely communication could make all the difference for a patient’s outcome. The ultimate risk–life.    

Communication can affect decisions being made and actions taken. Unclear or a breakdown in communication creates risks because decisions are made and actions taken based on incorrect or limited information.

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