“Ambulance, what’s the town or suburb of your emergency?”
Here’s something you might not know about me – I used to be an emergency medical dispatcher. Before I became a paramedic, and before I became a nurse, I wore a headset for 12 hours a day, taking calls from the distressed public and watching ambulances move around on a map. And somebody made a game out of it.
Most people like to dismiss dispatch, but it’s actually a pretty stressful job when it gets busy. To the uninformed, it’s about sitting on your arse while looking at computer scenes and following a script. But if you’ve ever done it, or actually watched people do it for more than few minutes you’d know that it’s actually a fairly involved process – ensuring adequate coverage across your sector, deciding who can wait and who needs help now, pulling cars from across town and figuring out whether it’s worth leaving an area uncovered… there’s a lot to it. The same goes for call-taking: it isn’t just “Yes sir here’s your ambulance!” but conducting some triage to assign a priority to the call, and decide who gets lights and sirens and who doesn’t, and whether additional resources are needed.
Dispatch is hell. I’d rather work a hundred shifts on-road than one in communications. Becoming an on-road paramedic was the best career move ever.
What is it?
911 Operator is a game that gives you a bit of a taste about what dispatch is like – in your own city. Yes, that’s right – the game will fetch a map of the central part of your city, and start generating maps. I’m guessing it pulls the data from Google Maps. My home city, Brisbane, is well represented, with little POIs indicating hospitals (and clinics, apparently), an odd assortment of fire stations, and a few police stations. It seems to only pick the centre of the city, so my dreams of dispatching in my local area are apparently not going to come true – but it does use the actual street names and addresses to generate jobs, which is a nice touch.
The bulk of the game centres around dispatching police, fire, and ambulance resources to different jobs. Each ‘duty’ (read: shift) starts out with you getting an overview of your current vehicles, staff and equipment, and allows you to purchase new equipment (to make your crews more efficient) and vehicles (with different capabilities). From there, you can assign them to different places around the city – police vehicles will patrol but ambulances and fire appliances will just wait at a station or staging point.
Your shift then commences, and you have to dispatch units and occasionally take emergency calls. Dispatching is as simple as moving units around on a map. Calls can include multi-agency responses or may require specialist equipment or units, and sometimes units will need backup once on scene. This requires you to consider each job and figure out the closest, most appropriate unit. Initially the jobs are fairly easy but they do start to pile up, and you’ll frequently be forced to make that decision of whether to divert a unit, whether to let that call wait, or whether to ignore a call completely.
At the same time, you’ll be taking calls from the public – which may range from ‘My pizza is too spicy’ to ‘My leg was ripped off in an industrial accident’. You can select a few different responses (including being a total arsehole to the caller) which can affect how the call proceeds. For example, if you fail to ask whether there’s any weapons involved in that fight you’re sending a patrol car to, you might miss the fact that they’re carrying knives and your crew will need backup. Some calls are just there to waste your time, others are legitimate emergencies – all of them have an element of truth to them.
You will continue to dispatch units until your shift ends and the last job on your board is completed. Then you do it all over again – just like real life. Screw up too many jobs and you’ll lose reputation and thus funding – so you’re trying to keep everyone happy despite having to make some concessions to actually help those in need.
To be honest, this actually does feel like what being at work was like – it isn’t glamorous, it’s literally boxes moving around a map to different incidents, which occasionally result in a total shitfight going down. Honestly, the game does exactly what it says on the tin – lets you dispatch emergency services in a city. Can’t really argue with that.
But what I love about it is that a lot of the considerations that you’d make on an actual dispatch board still apply here – although you probably don’t realise it. In the first phase of the game, you can assign your units to different places across the city. This gives you an area of coverage that you try to maintain, even as the calls pile up. It forces you into making some important decisions that the general public probably don’t understand.
For example, you might have a few major jobs going down that have occupied most of your ambulances. In the north west of the city, somebody calls with a potentially broken ankle, but your only ambulance is in the south east. Somebody who isn’t thinking might go “Okay cool, we’ll just send them!” but what if the next call that comes through is a cardiac arrest, and that unit is now in the centre of the city? What if that unit is your aeromedical unit who might be needed for a major emergency? Do you drag your technical rescue unit out for a car on fire as opposed to sending that generic appliance that’s further away, just in an attempt to stop the clock? Or do you just let things wait until there’s a free unit available in that area? Many of the fundamentals of dispatch – the sickest unit gets the closest car, get as much info as possible before dispatch, keep your areas covered, know your crews – apply in this game. It’s deceptively simple – just send units to jobs – but it gets complicated the more you think about it.
The call-taking aspect also has some elements of truth to it. One of the first thing call-takers are taught is to get the location of the emergency. Loads of people call up and go “Yeah I need an ambulance, just get me a fucking ambulance, bye” and hang up without even telling us where they are or what’s wrong. Obtaining good information makes a difference to how you dispatch your crews, and giving appropriate pre-arrival instructions (like how to control bleeding, or to get out of a burning car) can affect the course of the call. It all sounds like simple things, but when you’ve got 2 more calls that just dropped while you’re on the phone, with limited capacity to investigate them, it becomes less obvious. Add on top of that the time-waster calls (which are legitimate things that people actually fucking call for) and you’ll get an idea of what being a dispatcher is actually like.
All in all, it did remind me of working as a dispatcher. There were plenty of times where I’d go “Haha, this is what it’s actually like!” which is probably high praise.
Firstly, I don’t think the game is bad – I just think it’s overpriced. If you can get it on a Steam sale, it’s well worth picking up. It’s on Steam for about $15 USD, with some DLC also available (which I’d recommend) – but this is probably asking a bit too much.
The game does get repetitive after a while – and funnily enough that’s the nature of dispatch too. This isn’t something you’d play in a long sitting, more like in short bursts. It’d probably be great as a mobile game, although playing it on a desktop with headphones will give you the authentic dispatcher experience. The same goes for the calls – while they’re voice acted and sound fairly good, they do start to repeat after a while. You can disable taking calls but it also removes a good chunk of the gameplay with it, so I don’t recommend it.
There are some UI improvements that need to be made too. I can bring up a list of units but I can’t rename them, and I can only see their specialist equipment if I hover my mouse over them. For example, I might have a police van loaded with riot gear – but I don’t know which one it is until I go searching for it. Which fire crew has the full turn out gear? I can’t tell unless I go looking for it. Even being able to assign a simple name or callsign would make it much easier. The UI also just seems a bit messy and obtuse – it’s very large and bulky, like it’s designed for a touch screen – I’d prefer to have it scaled down a bit for a mouse driven UI.
Otherwise I have no real complaints. It does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s just a little bit overpriced.
911 Operator is more or less a taste of the realities of dispatch. If you’ve ever been curious about what goes on behind the radio, this is a bit of a glimpse into that world. I’d probably recommend you get it on sale though.