9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

0 - 60 In 3.4 Seconds: Answering Mayday Calls From Field Units

Article from Public Safety Communications Magazine February 2009
Written by Bob Smith, Director, APCO International Strategic Development

"I said, put the gun down, now!" It's one of the most dreaded radion transmissions in our business. It's not "Mayday! Mayday!," the phrase favored by T.J. Hooker and every other cop show, but it's a call for help nonetheless.

I answered a transmission like this in the early days of my career, before CAD systems and radio identifiers. Only the officer's easily recognizable voice helped me ID him. The officer was out on foot and came upon a suspicious person he decided to investigate. The situation escalated quickly, so his only chance to call for help was to key his radio while repeating the command, "I said put the gun down, now!," to the suspect he held at gunpoint.

For me, this transmission brought with it a sense of panic and anger. The panic quickly passed as my training kicked in. The anger that someone had the audacity to put one of my officers in this situation fueled my adrenaline. Everyone on duty--telecommunicators and officers--went into action, and everyone went home safely.

Today's public safety personnel are more frequently being thrust into these real-time, life-and-death situations. As public safety communications professionals, it's our job to prepare for these types of events and know how to respond.

Mayday transmissions: How these requests for assistance are sent varies by agency and situation. Units may transmit calls over the radio, call the comm center by telephone or transmit a request using an automated alarm via their radios.

Most APCO Project 25 (P25) radios incorporate a mayday alarm system. These radios are equipped with a button that can be easily and inconspicuously tripped by a responder. Once pressed, the radio initiates a mayday alarm back to the comm center, alerting it that the unit needs assistance. This function is especially effective if the agency's radios are assigned specific identifiers that are updated as units and personnel change.

Alarm options vary by radio and manufacturer. The most common type of mayday alarm is initiated by an officer activating an alert button on the radio and transmitting an alarm back to the comm center with no alert detectable on the field user's end. Another common system sounds an audible alarm on both the field user's end and in the comm center.

The first type is most often used by law enforcement personnel. After a radio's mayday button is activated, the unit "keys up," effectively seizing control of the assigned frequency and transmitting a message back to the comm center. The radio will remain keyed for a designated period of time, which allows the transmission of any on scene sounds that may help the comm center and other responders know exactly what's happening. For officer safety issues, this setup does not sound an audible alert on the field user's end, which prevents notifying suspects that the officer has requested assistance and the potential of provoking further confrontation.

The second most common type of mayday alarm is often used by the fire service. The unit can transmit an alarm to the comm center and sound an external alarm on the unit's end. The audible alarm in the field assists other on scene units in locating the unit in trouble. This feature is vital for fire service personnel who may be unable to call for help when in danger.

Training: Regardless of how a mayday call is sent, telecommunicators need to be prepared (trained) to respond. When a mayday alarm sounds, that's not the time for the telecommunicator to pull an operation manual off the shelf and flip to the mayday section. Telecommunicators should be trained in advance on the proper method to respond to calls for assistance, whether they be law enforcement, EMS or fire service calls. This training should be followed by routine drills and practice sessions. Also, an agency's mayday policies and procedures should be drafted, incorporated into training programs and updated regularly.

One method to keep your skills sharp: Play the What-if? game during your shift. What if the officer who just made that traffic stop suddenly calls for help? Where's the next closest officer? Do I have good enough location information to get another unit there in time? If the suspect flees, do I have a good vehicle description?

What if that EMS unit on the difficulty breathing call gets into trouble? Do I know which law enforcement agency covers that area? Do I know enough about what's happening on scene to brief an officer?

What if I get a mayday alarm from the scene of this structure fire? Do I know how to initiate a response? Do I know how to activate a building evacuation? Do I know how to contact Incident Command so I can let them know the alarm was activated?

In any given situation, a telecommunicator should be able to answer all of these questions in seconds. This method is a quick and easy way to expect the unexpected. Supervisors and trainers can drill telecommunicators by asking these questions during routine operations, ensuring that their staff is familiar with the procedures and prepared to respond.

The bottom line: Emergency calls for assistance from field units can instantaneously put a comm center into overdrive. Telecommunicators must be trained and prepared to respond to these types of calls before they happen.

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