9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Call Prioritizing vs. Screening

Another article from beginning months as dispatcher, did not keep track of where I got it from...

This article will discuss the importance of prioritizing calls for service instead of screening them. If you learn nothing else from this article, remember this: Screening calls equals liability...Will you and your agency be ready to accept that when a lawsuit hits you?

A little over a year ago, I was meeting with several peers and discussing common problems that we as dispatchers encounter. I asked one dispatcher from a nearby town, "What do you do when you have multiple calls holding and not enough responders to handle them?" This dispatcher told me that it is common practice in that agency to screen calls and weed out as many potential "Non calls" as she could. I asked her if that was the feeling of all the dispatchers and the administration at that agency, to which she replied that is an expectation there. I then asked this dispatcher if any of the dispatchers at that agency had made serious errors in not sending responders to a call for service, and she said she thought there were no such problems and that many people just want somebody to vent their frustrations to, and a responder is not necessary to be sent.

Before I could ask any other questions, another dispatcher from another agency, said that their agency used a similar practice until that agency was involved in a lawsuit for failing to respond to a hang up 911 call which was received at the state, and the 911 telecommunicator passed along the information to the dispatcher who just assumed that it was another bogus 911 call and took no further action.

Later that day, a woman was hospitalized at an area hospital who notified the police department of a serious domestic assault victim they were treating who was now seriously injured. This woman stated she had tried to call 911 and her estranged husband had grabbed the phone and ripped it out of the wall at the house. This victim, though still alive, has permanent injuries affecting her psycho-motor skills and ability to carry out some basic activities of daily living.

In the interview with the domestic violence liaison for that department, the victim insisted she had dialed 911 but was unable to speak with the call taker since the phone had been taken from her. The investigation continued, and the dispatcher was asked why she took no action, and she admitted that she had made a mistake and taken no action. After the fact, you cannot take back what you have or have not done. In this one case, a woman's quality of life was severely diminished, and she will not be able to work at her regular job again. This is a high price to pay for the dispatcher being inconvenienced, by not sending a responder or making an attempt to follow up on the hang up call.

What could have been done differently? Well, when the call came in from 911, the dispatcher could have tried calling the house back, if there was no answer, then a police officer should have been dispatched to check the address for a possible answer as to why 911 was called. While eight or nine out of ten hang up calls to 911 are kids playing with the phone, or a misdial, there's always the one or two times where there will be an actual emergency and the caller was not able to complete the call to 911 and speak to a dispatcher or 911 operator. Even in my own agency, there have been times when I have seen the dispatchers go out of their way to avoid sending an officer to an alleged call. While the circumstances are different than the above case, usually these types of calls involve civil matters, often by sending no officer, these "Non police matters" end up escalating into fight calls resulting in assaults.

That is why I tell my dispatchers that if the person who calls says they want to see an officer, no matter how little police intervention is necessary, the dispatchers are to send an officer. This is the position my administrators have taken and expect, and therefore will hold the dispatchers accountable for. Often, the dispatchers will say, "We don't have enough officers to entertain these 'Non complaints'", and that it will upset the officers. That is when I remind them of basic concepts:

  • The public is calling us for help and their expectation is that we will help them;
  • You (the dispatcher) will be held accountable for failing to act or send a responder to a call; and
  • The word dispatch means "To send."

I also tell them that these "Non police calls" should be assigned a lower priority than emergency calls, but they should all receive a response from an officer. Always prioritize calls, do not screen them. And in order to prioritize the calls properly, remember PowerPhone's Journalistic/Investigative questioning: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How? + Weapons? In addition, you may need to ask more specialized questions such as numbers of suspects, direction of travel, numbers of victims, what type, etc. As emergency dispatchers, we constantly get in to the mind set of categorizing calls and making assumptions based on previous calls. This is dangerous, and potentially lethal to the public and your responders. Don't assume, gather good information, pass the information on clearly and in a timely manner to your responders, prioritize versus screen your calls, and continue to save seconds and lives.

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