Public Safety Telecommunications and Misunderstandings

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.

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

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