9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Back to the Basics: Ensuring Officer Safety

Some of the most basic tasks we as dispatchers perform, or should be performing, are designed to enhance the safety of the responder, and even the caller or innocent civilians.

First, we as emergency communications professionals, should be applying the journalistic-investigative approach by asking the following questions on every call: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How? Plus, are there any weapons involved? Are there any weapons in the house? Where in the house are the weapons? What kind of weapons? Knives? Guns? Clubs? Bats? Edged weapons? Broken bottles? These questions must be asked in order to provide your officers with the best available information.

Next, bearing in mind that 78% of officers are killed prior to the arrest phase of the incident, call or stop, you need to give that officer his best chance, the element of surprise. And since most officers are killed at a distance of 21 feet or less from the suspect(s) with their own weapons, it is vital to provide the officer with the best information available about where the supsect(s) are or were last seen. Another factor sometimes overlooked by dispatchers is the multiple suspect factor. How many times have the dispatcher given the officers information on what the suspect looks like, only to forget to have the caller identify other potential suspects.

Consider this; you send officers to a burglary in progress at the A-1 Pharmacy on Main Street. You then ask the caller what the suspect looks like and provide that information to the responders prior to their arriving on scene. The responders are then focused on that particular person, however, two houses down was the lookout for the burglar. The lookout ducked behind the shrubs as the officer approached, and the officer never saw him. The caller, at the time, did not think the lookout was a burglar because he wasn't breaking into the building. Then the officer approaches the building, and while confronting the burglar, the lookout sneaks up on the officer, and the officer becomes a victim.

The point of this article is not to scare anyone; it's simply to remind us that we (as well as the officers) get locked into "300 Call Syndrome." This is where, based on past incidents, we let our guard down; because so many times before the incident turned out to be nothing or was easily handled. In the above case, the caller could see the person outside, but did not have the knowledge to tell the dispatcher about the lookout, and the dispatcher did not ask the caller about that would-be suspect. Also, are there any vehicles in the area? What kind? How many? License plates? This information is critical. Where in relation to the incident is the vehicle now?
Is it up against the building in a back alley? Are there lights on inside the vehicle? Anyone in the vehicle?

While I am not suggesting that you tell the caller to put themselves in jeopardy by confronting the burglars or going into harms way to get license plate information, it is vital that we extract all the information possible to arm our officers with information prior to them arriving at the call. By being able to tell the officer that the point of entry on this burglary is say, a window in the rear of the building on the right, as you look at the building from the street, that officer will most likely be able to utilize the element of surprise and approach the suspect undetected.

The above scenario is just one example of officer safety, others include; status checks for safety on motor vehicle stops and other calls for service. The most dangerous encounters for officers are: domestic disputes, motor vehicle stops, and suspicious person calls, though every call can potentially go bad. Remember if the officer snaps at you on the radio about status checks, do not take it personally and snap back. You are concerned about their safety and just want to make sure that they are okay. Not only is snapping back unprofessional, but for those in scanner land (and there are many, many people listening), it undermines the confidence that community citizens have in your and your agency.

To this day, there are still some departments and agencies that do not make their officers call in motor vehicle stops, or, only after a certain time of the day. Let's think about this for a minute; do police officers get injured or killed only during certain times of the day or night? While I am not suggesting a rebellious attitude on the part of the dispatcher, it may be worth your time and effort to lobby through your chain of command to try to get the policy changed so that all motor vehicle stops are called in. At least if an officer needs assistance, you will have the location to send help, and not just know that the officer patrols a certain route, highway, road or sector. More than a few times in my nine years of dispatching, has our agency been requested to find and check on another officer or trooper from another agency, and not had good location information to attempt this with. Many times nothing happened other than radio problems, however, there have been a few occasions where the officer or trooper has been located with injuries and was unable to call the dispatcher.

Backup units are vital on high-risk calls, especially domestics, felony stops, suicidal subjects and crimes in progress (burglaries, robberies, etc.). Many towns may only have one officer on duty. When that happens, you need to be creative and have measures in place to get the officer adequate help on the call. Consider Fish and Game Officers, Liquor Enforcement Officers, and Federal Police Officers, whatever it takes! Know these people ahead of time and ask them, if you have an incident in your area, can you call on them to back up your officer. Always make sure there are procedures in place for getting additional help in dispatch too, when you need it, and have your administration draft policy for such occasions. Always act within the scope of your training and job description. Always put the officers safety and the callers' safety first!

Officer Safety Tips:

  • Send appropriate help of backup on high-risk calls or felony stops.
  • Status Safety Checks (Know your SOP's on this) usually after 5 minutes on motor vehicle stops and high risk calls, then after 15 minutes and so on. On less risky calls after 5 minutes then maybe every 30 minutes.
  • Think multiples (suspects, vehicles, and victims).
  • Find out where the suspects were last seen by the caller.
  • Have officers give you their pager numbers (including personal pagers if the department does not issue them) cell phone numbers are very good as well in case of radio problems.
  • Know how and where to locate extra help for the officer and yourself if the call goes bad.
  • Always ask about weapons: how many? What kind? Where are they? Who has them? Ammunition?
  • Find out from the officers ahead of time, during their down time, is there a certain area where they can be located if they encounter radio problems and you have to have someone go check on them.
  • Don't get trapped in the "300 Call Syndrome"!

This article serves as a reminder to veteran dispatchers and should help out newer dispatchers who have limited training and exposure. While this article does not and could not possibly cover every situation you or the officer could encounter, it is a good base to start from.

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