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Public Safety Telecommunications and Misunderstandings

Public Safety Telecommunications is a tough job. Although dispatcher/9-1-1 operators often feel like second-class citizens (by callers, officers and management), each and every one of us is an important first responder. Essentially, we are the first first responder. During one particularly annoying, demeaning call where the caller continued to insult me and finalized my aggravation (and the chip on my shoulder) by stating, “Listen Lady, Just send me an officer, okay?”, it took all my will-power, my training and the memory that I like to eat and therefore did not want to lose my job to not state, “Listen (Add any appropriate expletive here), You do realize that I am the only thing standing between you and getting a police officer to respond. If I don’t tell him you need him, he will never know you even called. Without me, you don’t exist.” Ok, that might be a bit big-headed but that’s how I felt after a long day of being cussed at, dismissed and not being able to get up out of my chair because the 9-1-1 call board continued to show calls holding. It’s a tough job and often goes unrecognized—except when we make a mistake.

Reading through a collection of public safety communication-related news stories, I found in the last month and a half out of 28 stories: 20 were negative, five were neutral and three were positive. If I were an outsider looking in, I’d believe that telecommunications operators are ignorant, lazy and quite possibly downright hazardous. Having worked the floor, I know better. I also know we do make mistakes and sometimes these mistakes have tragic consequences. In reading the news stories, I found two categories of mistakes most often leading to a negative outcome, media coverage and often a lawsuit: misinterpretation and lack of information. This article will focus on the first.

District of Columbia’s “Unwanted Guest”

On October 21, 2009 a woman called Washington DC’s Metropolitan Police Department about her boyfriend who was in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out. Within the conversation the caller gave, in my interpretation, vague additional information reference her boyfriend’s possible intentions in the bathroom. According to the lawsuit, the dispatcher informed the officers the situation involved an “unwanted guest”. The officers responded and the incident resulted in an officer-involved shooting and the death of the boyfriend. The lawsuit maintained the dispatcher “willfully, wantonly, intentionally, and negligently failed to give the Officers” correct information and thus lead to the fatal shooting. Documents further state, “If this material information had been given to the Officers, they would have had a different mind set when they arrived on the scene.”

As a telecommunications operator, we do a lot of interpretation. If you don’t believe me, try sorting through the reason someone is calling when they are so drunk they fall out of the phone booth. In the DC case, the 9-1-1 tape is transcribed in the court documents. What I’d like to know is what was said over the radio and what was typed into the call. Although most information is relayed over the air, other information can be gleaned from CAD. I’m not saying the dispatcher did or did not add the plaintiff’s key words indicating the boyfriend was possibly suicidal and mentally ill. What is concerning about this case is the implication that the dispatcher somehow controls absolutely the response of the officers and therefore the outcome of the scene. It seems highly unlikely the dispatcher’s mis-categorization of the call as an “unwanted guest” and not the decedent’s having pointed a gun at the officers was the cause of his demise. Although the case has been dismissed, every dispatcher has to be cognizant of the information they relay to officers and making sure it’s thorough and accurately reflects current events.

Tucson’s (AZ) Wrong Address

One of the technological advances that hugely impacted me as a police communications operator was the incorporation of the ANI/ALI system. Essentially, I could now look on a screen and get details about where the caller was calling from. This was both a blessing and a curse because I had to force myself to only use it to verify what a caller had already stated. And even more so, if a caller told me something different than what was on the screen, I had to go with what the caller said not what the computer told me. Getting addresses correct is imperative to public safety and often callers aren’t real helpful. I don’t know how many times I asked the caller to verify where they were at and they would agree with me over and over and I just knew they were not listening to what I was saying and the address I had was wrong. Recently a mistaken address (dispatch put 833 instead of 8333 for the address of a medical facility and the nurse calling agreed when the dispatcher verified it was 833), contributed to a lengthy response time in Tucson (AZ) and the subsequent death of a 10 year old girl. The act of verifying an address is one of those times a telecommunications operator must slow down and let the caller repeat the address several times. If you say the address and ask, “Is that right?” many times the caller is not listening and will agree with you. Let them say the address over and over. This is so important my former department changed the greeting from, “9-1-1, What is your emergency?” to “9-1-1, Where is your emergency?”

Hamilton County’s (TN) Misunderstanding

Slurring, non-enunciation, accents and a variety of other vocal variations make being a telecommunicator an art form. We listen to and decipher thousands of calls a year turning the often incoherent mumblings into statements of fact detailing the scene an officer is walking into. I don’t know how many times a caller has said something to me and I have spent numerous seconds running the words through my head trying to make some sort of sense of them. I try to match them up with my frame of experience. Often this is successful, but sometimes not. Unfortunately, sometimes we are wrong. In Hamilton County (TN) a man called 9-1-1 to report his house was on fire. Unfortunately, the dispatcher heard “heart” not “house” and began a medical line of questioning (which I might add did not seem to faze the caller nor make him question the operator’s understanding of his needs). Due to the misunderstanding, the house burned to the ground before fire crews arrived.

Aside from the long hours, mandatory staffing, high-stress and low recognition environment of dispatching, the fact our actions could create lawsuits is one more way being a public safety telecommunications operator is hard work. Mistakes will be made and often when I hear about the ones now in the public realm I cringe and usually remember a time when I made a similar mistake. Misunderstandings? I’ve had a few. Next month, we’ll look at lack of information and how that impacts us as well.


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About The Author:

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.