In my last article, I addressed how a public safety telecommunications operator’s misunderstanding can be detrimental. In most jobs, if you make a mistake—misprint an address or mistake one word for another—the worst that will happen is a proposal will come back, “Return to Sender” or you’ll have to smooth things over with a customer or your boss. A 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher’s mistake on the other hand can be fatal. In this article, we’ll look at another area of potential liability—amount of information.
When a call comes in to 9-1-1, the operator is tasked with finding out the basics—where, what, when. Then he or she moves on to ask questions, such as, “Are there any weapons involved? Who is involved? What are their relationships to each other?” As the conversation continues, the operator types in key information and if it’s a priority call, enters the call for dispatch while continuing to update the facts as they come in. Each caller is different. Some don’t want to tell you a thing while others make it almost impossible to sort through all their words to find out what it is they truly need. This is aside from those callers who are unintelligible, don’t really have an emergency and just want to talk and people who are in such an environment of crisis all they can do is scream. As public safety telecommunicators we have to sort through all these and write a narrative that dispatch can give to officers so they know the facts as we currently know them before they walk into a scene. Officers rely on us to tell them our understanding of what is going on.
Keeping a Caller on the Line
Here’s one of those choices a 9-1-1 operator makes on a regular basis—“Do I keep the caller on the line until police arrive or is the situation safe enough, I can hang up and take other calls?” If time were on our side, this decision would be much easier. But many communications centers are understaffed and overworked. The 9-1-1 calls come in faster than they can be answered and many centers also answer non-emergency calls as well. Then there are the numerous centers whose operators answer 9-1-1, non-emergency police, fire and medical calls and dispatch at the same time. When an incident arises, like the one in Bucks County (PA) where a man called to report he had murdered his wife and 7 year old son and the 9-1-1 operator was only on the line with him for one minute seven seconds, it makes you wonder why the operator chose to hang up. The man then left his home and committed suicide several miles away leaving the public feeling the operator was neglectful in not pursuing a line of questioning that explored more details including motive. Based in reality, I wonder if maybe that 9-1-1 board wasn’t flashing 10 calls holding or an officer was in a high-risk situation on the operator’s air.
Relaying Information in Real Time
Recently in Dallas (TX) a lack in communication created confusion over whether suspects or the police were knocking on the door of an apartment. Inside were an armed man and his cousin who he had drug in after being shot by another person. The man was on-line with 9-1-1 relaying information about the situation. Somehow in the confusion, the officers, allegedly unannounced kicked open the door; the man inside not being told it was the officers and believing it was the people who had shot his cousin opened fire. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. Afterwards, the public, as well as, the department, reviewed the situation asking where the breakdown in communication occurred. Often it’s not easy to find the answer to this question.
Reading War and Peace over the Air