Report: Quantifying Cognitive Load of Emergency Dispatchers

Marian Nevin, 788th Civil Engineer Fire Department dispatcher, works at her station inside the control and dispatch room of Station 1, June 23, 2021, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The fire department is on call 24/7 all year and capable of responding anywhere on base within 5 minutes when a call for help comes in. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth)
Marian Nevin, 788th Civil Engineer Fire Department dispatcher, works at her station inside the control and dispatch room of Station 1, June 23, 2021, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The fire department is on call 24/7 all year and capable of responding anywhere on base within 5 minutes when a call for help comes in. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth)

Dispatchers are critical to successful emergency response. They’re conduits for responders, resources, and private intervention teams. With such a crucial position, it’s essential to learn what allows them to be agile in their responses.

Emergency dispatchers work under high-stakes conditions, where outcomes are life and death, and even a few-second delay can be the difference between the two. Moreover, they’re not only responsible for accurately capturing incident information, but also for filtering through volumes of data in real-time and then relaying the most critical data to multiple emergency response parties.

Taking in the quantity of data can quickly lead to cognitive overload. This overburden of dispatchers working memory can lead to delays in mission-critical situations. In some emergencies, dispatchers will experience cognitive overload within the first five minutes, or worse, in the first 90 seconds.

It’s essential to determine how to ensure these critical workers have the tools they need to do their life-saving jobs effectively and efficiently. Working with Simplesense as part of an AFWERX Phase II SBIR at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory completed a study to demonstrate how emergency and security professionals can use a predictive workload equation to evaluate a dispatcher’s cognitive workload during a call. Doing so will provide insights into where, when, and why high workload and overload periods may occur.

In this post, Simplesense, a company specializing in developing emergency response technology solutions, takes a closer look at cognitive overload and how it pertains to dispatchers’ ability to act effectively and efficiently.

Cognitive Load and Working Memory

Cognitive load refers to the mental capacity needed to complete a specific task. The mind has a limited ability to split attention, process information, and translate it into working memory. Therefore, when presented with multiple attention-demanding stimuli, it can be challenging to categorize details into a storable memory for later use.

Working memory is the small amount of information the mind can draw from when executing cognitive tasks. It is a critical function of situational awareness and decision making, making it essential for emergency dispatchers and their timely, careful approach to crisis management.

Cognitive overload happens when the amount of information a person takes in exceeds the realistic capacity for thoughtful processing. It hinders both memory processing and decision-making. Moreover, cognitive overload can trigger the body’s stress responses and have a negative impact on overall productivity and health.

The Impact on Emergency Dispatchers

The constant, high-stress scenarios dispatchers endure can lead to cognitive overload. In fact, many report feeling overwhelmed, having frequent headaches, and experiencing weakness and fatigue.

When addressing emergencies, dispatchers make decisions based on their ability to assess the severity of a given situation and provide a successful intervention. They must evaluate cases in seconds and pursue them to completion in the smallest amount of time possible so they may continue aiding others. In these instances, dispatchers must be equipped with the best available resources to help them effectively communicate with those seeking help, first responders, and other key actors.

A paramedic with the rescue task force checks on a shooting “victim” as an 88th Security Forces Squadron Defender provides cover and exercise observers look on during an active-shooter exercise Feb. 23, 2022, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The exercise gave first responders, including police, fire and medical personnel, the opportunity to practice coordinating emergency actions and procedures.
A paramedic with the rescue task force checks on a shooting “victim” as an 88th Security Forces Squadron Defender provides cover and exercise observers look on during an active-shooter exercise Feb. 23, 2022, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The exercise gave first responders, including police, fire and medical personnel, the opportunity to practice coordinating emergency actions and procedures. (U.S. Air Force photo by R.J. Oriez)

Active Shooter Case

The Draper Laboratory study looks at an active shooter and bomb-threat scenario at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB). Researchers found that by utilizing insights from predictive workload equations, there is an opportunity to enhance operator workflow through improved system design and integration. These enhancements and improvements allow the dispatcher to effectively work in tandem with the speed of the unfolding event.

Considering the Solution to Overload

Researchers captured a detailed task list during the active shooter and bomb threat scenario. The entire exercise lasted three and a half hours. Within that time, there were 14,183 time records (each second of the scenario); 8,749 of those times had tasks, and the other 5,434 did not.

Graph of Dispathers' Cognitive Overload

Researchers assigned cognitive load scores to determine workload values. Ultimately, there were multiple periods where workload values exceeded the overload threshold, especially during the first hour of an incident. Furthermore, every response channel showed overload within the first five minutes of the response.

Researchers also found that dispatchers need less cognitive load when information is processed and disseminated similarly. For instance, it’s easier to respond to auditory information with speech or give direction with a map rather than verbally. Therefore, emergency teams must leverage technology solutions that present streamlined information while also allowing dispatchers to respond similarly.

With multiple tasks happening and datasets to remember, overload was evident in the study, resulting in a high-stress environment. To minimize this issue and boost response coordination, emergency teams should improve system integration, ideally streamlining where and how dispatchers enter information.

Reducing cognitive load goes beyond helping the people in the emergency. Studies show that emergency service dispatchers experience mental and physical health challenges resulting from their work. Exposure to duty-related trauma increases their risk of developing anxiety, depression, stress, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their work environment also puts them at risk for physical health issues such as obesity, headache, backache, and insomnia.

Simplifying Response

Simplesense specializes in security system modernization (SSM). We can reduce workload and speed up response time with upgraded, integrated, and improved dispatcher technology. Our solutions deliver improved situational awareness, better collaboration between emergency personnel, and minimized overload.

If you’d like to learn more about how Simplesense streamlines modernization security systems and help dispatchers do their job with less cognitive load, reach out to us today. To read the full Draper Laboratory report follow the link: Quantifying Cognitive Load of Emergency Dispatchers.

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