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911 Callers: Give Us More Info Or...

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

Then again, how much information is too much? We can’t monopolize the radio reading a Tolstoyesque narrative. Often time doesn’t permit us to read through an entire call and tell the officers only the important stuff. AND who determines what is important? New operators want to put everything into the call including minute details about the caller’s mother’s brother’s uncle’s dogs. In time, an operator is able to streamline. So, as a dispatcher, you’re now tasked with determining what in the call needs to go out over the air. You can always use the old stand-by, “Additional information in the call,” but is it realistic to believe the officer will have time to pull over, read the entire call text and continue on his or her way? Probably not.

He has a Gun… But it’s Legal

This is a tricky one, I believe, because you don’t want to make a situation seem more dangerous than it is. At the same time, you want officers to be well-informed and safe. So what do you do when you ask a caller if the suspect has a weapon or if there are any weapons in the home and they reply, “I don’t think so. I don’t know. Maybe. He could.” As we know, anybody could. Or what about places like the region where I dispatched where open carry was legal and it seemed everybody owned a gun? It didn’t mean it played a part in the current situation. But it might. We need to make sure we ask clarifying questions and input accurate information. A tragic situation in Alleghany County (PA) shows how important this is. The operator was trained to put “no weapons” when none were involved and no one was being threatened, so this was what she entered in response to a mother calling about wanting her drunk son removed. The son owned guns but mom stated, “They’re all legal.” Unfortunately, “no weapons” lead to the death of three officers

As professionals and first line responders, public safety telecommunications operators need to make sure the information they collect and transmit is thorough and includes all the important safety facts. We need to keep certain callers on the phone to maintain live, open communication in volatile situations. We need to clarify situations and articulate accurate information. We need to practice good radio techniques to ensure officers get the information they need in a timely manner. As indicated in our titles, what we do for a living is communicate. We give and receive information. It’s our duty to make sure we do that to the best of our ability not giving in to fatigue, irritation, lack of patience, hurriedness or pride. A life may depend on it. 


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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.