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9-1-1 Operator/Clarifying Genius Extraordinaire

You might think that it is easy to define what a 9-1-1 operator does for a living. After all, he or she answers a phone, talks to people and processes the necessary public safety response. It really doesn’t matter how many lines come into a PSAP or what kind of system the agency has, an operator can only answer one call at a time. Pretty simple. I’m not saying that the job is easy or that it doesn’t take a special person to do the work of a 9-1-1 operator because it’s not and it does. What I’m saying is that the definition of the work itself is pretty simple. After all, the main thing that we do is clarify. We listen to a person’s story, we ask questions and we turn the whole conversation into a coherent incident that officers can respond to. We are clarifiers. As a clarifier, I learned that not every word or phrase means the same thing to everyone. Actually, a word or phrase could mean one thing to the majority of people but something very, very different to someone else, for example 9-1-1 callers. Here are a few of those phrases:

Just Right Now

When you ask a caller the question, “How long ago did this happen?” and they answer with “just right now”, the operator (especially new ones) throw on that high priority code, send it off to the tactical, hot-call frequency and get prepared to work an emergency-in-progress. After all most people would believe that “just right now” means it occurred just minutes if not seconds before the person picked up the phone. Experienced operators have learned to hold the hot tone when faced with this time frame clarifying the situation by asking, “How many minutes ago did this happen?” Often this question is followed with a statement such as, “Well last week…” I’m not sure many people outside this business would understand that “just right now” can mean anytime between a month ago and a few seconds ago, yet the later is highly infrequent. A sister phrase of “just right now” is “just barely right now.” Again, one might think that this especially means the event occurred within the last few moments. Wrong again. After clarification, this can also have happened a week ago. Clarifying down to the minute when a situation occurred as quickly as possible is essential to us providing the correct response while at the same time not sending officers racing lights and sirens to an assault that happened last Thursday.

North East South West

It is very sad to me that so many people do not know basic directions. Actually, it is even more problematic that many times people do not even know where they are. But I digress. In reference to direction, for example, a citizen calls to report a vehicle break-in in progress. “Where is the vehicle located,” you ask. “51st Ave and McDowell,” he responds. Knowing there are four corners and parking lots on each one, you clarify, “Which corner?” “I told you, 51st Ave and McDowell,” the caller says now sounding testy. “I understand that,” you reply hoping to keep the impatience out of your voice. “Which corner, north, south, east, west?” A silence ensues. Then, “the right hand side of the intersection,” comes over the phone line. Wanting to slam the receiver down, you take a deep breath as message after message comes over your CAD from the dispatcher asking, “Which corner is the vehicle on?” and “The officers are asking which corner.” Steadying your voice, you ask, “Is it towards the setting sun or away?” “Towards,” he replies. Good, now you’re getting somewhere. Knowing the officers are getting close, you ask, “Can you flag the officers down and point in the direction of the vehicle?” You hardly get the words out of your mouth when they are met with the reply, “No way, I don’t want to get involved.” Click. Good luck finding that one guys.

Baby Daddy

One of my personal favorites and one that never seemed to cease amazing me when it happened involves the clarification of relationship. This is an area where the common definition of what occurs between two people is not so common. The conversation usually went something like this:

            “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

            “I just got robbed.”

After clarifying the address, you proceed:

            “How long ago did this happen?”

            “Just right now.”

            “How many minutes ago?”

            “Like twenty. Can’t you just get somebody out here?”

            “I’m getting officers started, Ma’am, what exactly happened?”

            “Mike took my stereo.”

            “Do you know Mike? What’s your relationship to him?”

            “Nah, I don’t know Mike. We ain’t got no relationship. He just my baby daddy.”

Once again, I have to redefine my definitions as the phrase "baby daddy" indicates to me that even for just one moment there had been some sort of relationship and this would imply you do actually know this person…intimately. I could be wrong.

As you can see, what 9-1-1 operators do most and are very good at is clarifying situations. We take very few things at face value especially after years of answering calls. We ask a lot of questions which might seem odd and frustrating to those callers who call in and happen to have the same kinds of definitions for phrases that we do. We have to get a larger picture and clear up any of those gray areas. Doing this kind of work sharpens people. It increases your ability to think outside the box and consider varying realities at the same time as trying to explain it to the dispatcher who then explains it to the officers in a way that makes sense. It would be an interesting shift if for just one day the 9-1-1 operator typed into the call exactly what the caller said. It would give the officers a great appreciation for what we do especially since it’s nice for them to have a common-sense translation before they get to the scene and begin clarifying all over again for themselves.