Preventing the haunting silence

     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 Inadequate and outdated training programs exist throughout public safety.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

     Many large agencies, such as Phoenix, train in-house, teaching new employees completely on-site. Other agencies, including ones in Oregon and Utah, utilize a certification academy. Employees learn according to standards often set by the state. A third way to train is by using outside organizations. "The majority of agencies lack the ability to provide in-house training," states Richard Mirgon, APCO first vice president. Therefore, agencies have to look outside their walls to find quality instruction. "It would be rare to find a public safety employee with all the skills and the time required to research and develop training courses," says Carter. "That is why training institutions are in the training business, and public safety is in the business of providing public safety." NECI's primary objective is to certify in-house trainers so they can go back to their agencies and train others.

Training components

     Emergency communications operator training should consist of three stages: classroom, on-the-job (OJT) and continuing education. New employees need to learn many things before they can be successful out on the floor.

     To effectively master the communications skill set, trainees require an agreeable classroom atmosphere. "A good learning environment (is essential)," states Mirgon, adding the environment should be functional, comfortable and without disruption.

     The instruction also must be interactive, provide lots of problem solving opportunities and use adult learning principles. "Adults learn better by hearing, seeing and doing," Carter explains. Sue Pivetta, president of Professional Pride and author of The Exceptional Trainer, adds, "A child goes to a class, sits down and assumes the teacher is the expert. An adult goes and assesses whether or not the teacher is an expert. An adult learner can buy-out. A child won't buy-out. A child can be poorly taught but they still believe the teacher is the expert. A trainer can be very good at the work but not be good at the training."

     After an employee leaves the classroom, they require a period of OJT. During this phase, trainees practice what they learned. Here, the trainer should be experienced, empathetic and qualified to train. Alissa Gunning, operations training coordinator for the City of Lincoln (Nebraska) Communications Center, states "supportive, qualified trainers" are essential in the OJT setting. Pivetta agrees and points out many trainers try to phase out trainees to see if they're tough enough. "This is an immature way to look at the work," she states. "Honor the people who get through the hiring process. Give them a safe and effective place to learn with trainers who know adult learning and want to train."

     Everything trainees do in the OJT environment must be structured, adds Graham, noting written standards are important. "It should not be a person ad-libbing," he says. "The person actually needs to know why they are doing what they are doing."

     During OJT, the trainee should become comfortable with the equipment, techniques and atmosphere in the emergency communications center, and once a person passes initial training, an agency should not consider their education complete. Mirgon suggests consistency in continuing education. "You need to have the ability to provide it on a regular basis and have it be meaningful on current topics," he states. Training should address changes in policies and procedures, legal rulings and ongoing issues, such as fitness and nutrition.

     According to Graham, another topic agencies need to keep on top of is technology. "It is essential because communications is a very large part of technology and technology is changing every day. If you don't follow technology, it will leave you behind," he explains.

Building a good trainer

     "Everyone cannot train," Graham states. Often, the quality of the trainer determines the success of the trainee. Essential characteristics include: patience, desire and the ability to communicate. "The ability to give good usable feedback (is important)," says Dejung. "A part of that is to be bluntly honest in a diplomatic way, and have the bravery to give negative feedback along with the positive."

     According to Pivetta, attitude becomes extremely important. "The trainer and the trainee are equals," she says. "The trainer is not the boss. He or she is a mentor, their hero. They are not trying to rule them out, but in."

     A good trainer also has practical hands-on experience. "They need to be trained in adult learning and possess the ability to train a large cross-section of people," says Mirgon. When an employee incorporates the characteristics of a good trainer, this should be accentuated with a quality Train-the-Trainer program.

Facilitating training

     Agencies can do many things to improve training.

  1. Encourage cooperation. "Sit down at the table with the leaders, trainers and a few trainees and past trainees and talk about it," Pivetta suggests. "Facilitate a conversation." Graham adds, "Realize that the heartbeat of your department is the police dispatch center and that everything good or bad is going to flow through there. We are the first, first responders."
  2. Seek best practices from professional associations, such as APCO.
  3. Incorporate a quality assurance program. "Have a quality assurance program that affects the quality of the work everyone does, especially new trainees," says Dejung. "Use that as performance feedback."
  4. Every agency should have a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). "You have to start with this so the dispatcher knows what is expected of them," states Jennings. "You're set to fail without one." Dejung adds the SOP should be accurate and consistent with the training material.
  5. Require consistent and accurate documentation. "Documentation is the absolute key," Graham says. "Without proper documentation from training all the way to dispatching a call, your liability increases because of the fact that if it's not written, most courts have established, it didn't happen. You need it to protect your agency."
  6. Recognize and compensate trainers. "Honor and value the people who want to train and realize it is a special vocation within the vocation," Pivetta explains. "They really should be the elite and treated as such. The way we value people is with money, recognition or something that says we honor your contribution."
The well-trained dispatcher

     A well-trained operator makes a positive impact on the officers relying on them. "Good training is a pre-requisite. It's essential to successful performance and to developing the confidence in the field personnel," says Dejung. When operators incorrectly perceive their role to officers, or do not understand the officer's work or what is going on in the field, they may make decisions that put an officer in harm's way, according to Pivetta.

     Along with confidence, a good dispatcher improves service delivery. "Officers in the field appreciate someone who knows what they need on a call," says Jennings. "We have tactical dispatchers trained to handle critical incidents. She is trained to give those officers everything they need. Officers and command staff greatly appreciate what this dispatcher brings to the table."

     Although having confidence and respect from officers is important, the essential aspect is officer safety. "I don't think enough attention is paid to officer safety and survival," Graham explains. "We spend too much time on the computer work and what questions to ask instead of what to do when an officer is in trouble. There is often no training about what to do in the event something happens. I've seen dispatchers get up and run away crying. I've seen them fall apart at the console. No one knows what to do when an officer is shot. It's a mess."

     While Officer Cortez Jr. still would have been murdered whether or not his dispatcher had been better trained, the emotional scars inflicted on the other officers who had to listen to the phone line's haunting silence would be less.

     Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (Arizona) Police Department for eight years. Currently, she is working on her M.A. in Criminology from Indiana State University and writes full-time, balancing between a small community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and an Arizona suburb. To contact Perin, visit www.thewritinghand.net.

How communications should work: Case examples from Minnesota and Georgia

     The Minneapolis (Minnesota) Emergency Communication Center (MECC) trains in-house using a training coordinator and more than a dozen Certified Training Operators (CTO). During the 4 1/2- week classroom stage, operators learn technology, policy/procedures and field operations. "They need to understand the field operations to be most effective," explains John Dejung, MECC director. He adds trainees need to learn how to find the information they require.

     After the trainee completes classroom training, they move to OJT. "(OJT) is the honing of the skills regarding the use of the technological tools, and the honing of what you learned in the classroom regarding telephone techniques," he says. MECC facilitates continuing education, including instruction on new technology, high-risk/low-frequency situations, changes in procedures and problem nature codes.

     MECC's training quality was tested on August 1, 2007, when the I35W Bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed. Dejung explains how MECC operators handled the tragedy:

     "We had 100 different agencies respond to downtown Minneapolis just after rush-hour. The coordination that had to happen in the center and the command center was daunting. Because we had good training on the radio system, it allowed that coordination to occur with minimal frustration and problems. The coordination worked out pretty good. We think it lended itself to the relatively modest loss of life during that collapse. We think the deaths could have been greater, if we hadn't gotten to those injured persons as quickly as we did."

     Georgia State University's (GSU's) Police Communications Unit in Atlanta utilizes two avenues for training. "They get in-house training and on-the-job training; then they go through the police academy for Communication Officer Certification," says Angelia Jennings, GSU communications manager. During classroom training, the operator learns basic dispatch techniques.

     Documentation is imperative in GSU's program. "They are required to take notes and submit a weekly summary of their notes," Jennings states.

     Realizing the unique challenges of their jurisdiction, an employee suggested a scavenger hunt be incorporated into training. "Because it is a campus environment, we want to make sure they understand what the buildings are and what is in them. They go on a foot beat and they have to bring us something back from that office," says Jennings. For example, the trainee might be sent to admissions and told to bring back a current schedule.

     During OJT, trainees continue to work on their skills. At the academy, the operator receives additional standardized instruction and becomes certified. GSU prioritizes continued education as well. "Each dispatcher goes through 24 hours of training in the academy or in-house per year at minimum," says Jennings. "It's not a state requirement, but it is here at Georgia State. It's crucial you continue training."

     GSU's dispatchers have shown the quality of their training. Jennings explains:

     "I have several tactical dispatchers who have benefitted from a great training program. We did have an officer involved in a shooting off-duty. It evolved into a situation where he was shot. He knew he could get help through the radio. She remained calm. She dispatched officers from our department and the appropriate jurisdictions. She stayed in contact with the officer. When he thought he was dying, he started telling her information. He was probably thinking, 'This may be the last person I ever hear.' Her ability to handle the situation and dispatch appropriate resources to the scene made the difference.

     "He survived."

Project 33 revised-minimum training standards for public safety telecommunicators
  • Agency personnel policy/practices, including agency resources and capabilities, and the understanding of the opportunity to participate in programs like Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)/Critical Incident Debriefing (CISD), as well as safety requirements.
  • Agency mission and the employee's role within the organization, including expectations of professional conduct.
  • General and agency-specific liability concepts and terms.
  • Understand their roles in and responsibility for responder safety.
  • Understand all aspects of interpersonal communication, including teamwork concepts.
  • Understand and demonstrate effective use of existing technology within the public safety communications center.
  • Understand and demonstrate the efficient and effective use of the agency's radio system(s).
  • Demonstrate the ability to efficiently and effectively process calls for service from all classes of agency customers.
  • Demonstrate the ability to categorize, prioritize as well as determine the appropriate response levels for all types of law enforcement, fire/rescue and emergency medical calls.
  • Demonstrate the efficient and effective use of agency approved and required radio codes and signals.
  • Understand his/her role in maintaining responder safety by the use of appropriate skills and resources.
  • Demonstrate the ability to respond appropriately to distress calls from field units as authorized by policy/procedure.

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