Preventing the haunting silence

Emergency communications operator training keeps dispatchers from freezing up when they're needed the most

     On July 27, 2007, Phoenix (Arizona) Police Officer George Cortez Jr. responded to a forgery call at Southwest Check Cashing. While Cortez Jr. placed handcuffs on the 20-year-old male suspect, Edward James Rose pulled out a gun and shot him. The suspect escaped out the door. Officer Andrew Tomlinson arrived and the employees locked the door per policy. Getting to Cortez Jr.'s side, all he could do was begin CPR — and ask the dispatcher for help. He asked. He got silence. Officers Steve Kubasek and Nick Nolan arrived, but were locked outside helplessly watching through the glass. At one point, they considered shooting out the door to gain access. Continuing attempts to save Cortez Jr.'s life, Tomlinson requested help again. He put out the suspect description again. Again, he got silence — three minutes of silence.

     At St. Joseph's Hospital, Cortez Jr. was pronounced dead. He had died at the scene. In the waiting room, Kubasek stood covered in blood. He made a declaration as haunting as the three minutes of silence. The dispatcher, who heard the cry for help, should not have been on her own. In fact, her trainer had recommended against it.

     Cortez Jr.'s dispatcher is not the first to freeze during an emergency. Situations like this show how emergency communications operator training is essential to officer safety. However, with centers around the country facing budget and staffing shortages, training often gets neglected. Inadequate and outdated training programs exist throughout public safety. In 1995, recognizing the need for a set of standards, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) proposed Project 33. In 2005, Project 33 was revised. However, many agencies still struggle with developing a professional training program.

Obstacles to good training

     The most common hurdles to good training are funding and staffing. Although funding is tight for many agencies, once the importance of good training is understood fiscal managers support it. Agencies can pay for training now or pay for legal settlements later. Another funding solution is free training. "We hold memberships with APCO and we do training with them, especially when they offer free training," explains Angelia Jennings, communications manager of the Georgia State University (GSU) Police Department. "Not every agency can afford to offer training. We also attend NENA [National Emergency Number Association] conference training."

     Staffing is a common obstacle. "It's tough to get good training done when you are short staffed," says John Dejung, assistant city coordinator for 911 and 311 at the Minneapolis (Minnesota) Emergency Communication Center. Charles Carter, executive director of the National Emergency Communications Institute (NECI), states short staffing often puts dispatchers on their own before they are ready. Shortages keep trainers and trainees from getting off the console so they can practice, write evaluations or just take a break from the work and each other.

     "If you were to go to any police department in the United States today, you would probably not find any with the proper staffing to get the job done," explains Lt. Robert Graham, owner/lead instructor of Professional Dispatch Management (PDM). "Simply, 911 is often not a priority until you make a mistake. Therefore, if you can get by, you will."

     He suggests a paradigm shift must occur in this way of thinking; dispatch is an important job that must be done and done well. "It is not something that needs to be done just because someone wants it done," he says.

Training resources
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