Preventing the haunting silence

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


  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.

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