9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Customer Service is Key to Communication

Guest Commentary taken from Emergency Number Personnel Magazine March 2009
Written by Martin Nealeigh, Investigative Supervisor for a family services agency in Texas. He served seven years as an emergency communications operator before working as a probation officer and as a child abuse investigator.

As your agency addresses issues of personnel and training, it should also be addressing customer service.

As a former dispatcher I am all too aware that often the worst call you can receive in an emergency communications center is a call from either someone who works, or has worked, as a dispatcher. This knowledge has actually made me reluctant to call on a few occasions, but the dire situation witnessed required that my reluctance be overcome. The sad fact is that in the dozen or so 911 calls I have made in the 12 years since I last fielded an emergency call myself, I cannot help but analyze the quality of how the call was handled by the person in the emergency call center. A few weeks ago another occasion presented itself in which I placed an emergency call to local law enforcement due to an automobile accident that I had come across on the interstate. Yet again, I found myself critiquing the work of the call taker.

Before I go further, I must say that I have no illusions of having been the perfect dispatcher. In fact, my memories of my work are littered with recollections of things I would have done differently in the light of a new day. The challenges faced by those behind the console today are staggering and the proliferation of wireless communications, while a lifesaver, is also a challenge that would stymie the most proficient dispatcher of a decade ago. Having acknowledged my own shortcomings and the challenges of those fielding calls today, I believe that I speak from an expert's perspective about the quality of call handling. Something that often seems lost, and was certainly lost in my work, is the customer service aspect of the work of the emergency communications center call taker.

Why worry about customer service? After all, if you are calling 911 you need the help of emergency services certainly more than they need your call, right? Well, in part this is true. For that matter, what is customer service in terms of the work performed by an emergency communications center? Customer service, whether at your local outlet or a national retailer, a small town grocer or an emergency communications center, revolves around one key...communication. Effective customer service requires that the customers not only communicate their needs, but also that the parties providing the response to those needs listen closely and respond clearly in order to elicit greater clarity of understanding of the needs that must be addressed for the customer. Again you may ask why make such efforts when there is only one place to call in an emergency? The answer is simple, if the public (your customer) develops a perception that you are not focused on them, then calls that should be made will not. Those that are made will lack the information necessary to provide to you and those responding to the call for help with the necessary information to properly prepare for, and address, the emergency at hand.

So now let's go back to the emergency call that I recently placed. Traveling along a very congested stretch of interstate, traffic suddenly stopped. A ladder had fallen from the back of a passing truck. Although an alert motorist had stopped in time to not hit the ladder, the tractor-trailer behind them did not. Emergency assistance was clearly needed for those in the car and with phone in hand, I placed the call. The local agency that took the call was no doubt unundated with calls from passersby who had witnessed the accident. Such is often the case and in this instance the call taker was quick to "handle" the call immediately inquiring if I was calling about the accident on the interstate. I explained the location of the accident I had observed and was assured that help was responding. The problem is that by answering the call, "XXXX 911; are you calling about the accident on Interstate XX?" the call taker has set up a situation that would fail to clearly identify multiple accident locations if such were the case. Further, in failing to listen to the information coming in from the caller, the call taker has already decided what the content of the call would be before even allowing the caller to be heard. Beyond these obvious areas of concern is the underlying tone of the call which can lead a caller to second-guess reporting information in the future, believing that surely others will make the call.

It is easy to fall into the mindset as a call taker -- believing that you know what the caller is about to tell you based upon your own experience and the information that is coming into the emergency communications center, especially during critical incidents. Nevertheless, staffs that are trained to carefully listen to, as well as question, the callers are better prepared to react appropriately not just in those incidents that turn out just as expected, but also in those incidents that are anything but common.

Customer service is not just the responsibility of the call taker, but extends all the way through the layers of agency management. Communications center managers have a critical role in the work of putting forth a customer service approach to how the staff handles calls. In emergency services it can be easy to place a customer service approach in the back of the minds of those doing the work. It is something that many agencies do not spend much time addressing in training. Even if they do, customer service often is misinterpreted as simply being courteous. In emergency communications, customer service extends well beyond common courtesies and is a key element in the successful retrieval of information from the most important tool that emergency personnel have access to -- the citizen on the scene.

As your agency addresses issues of personnel and training, it should also be addressing customer service. Much of the work performed by emergency personnel is assessed, not just on the outcome of the situation. This critical incident analysis starts with incoming calls for service and active listening -- it will save lives just as surely as will asking the right questions.


  1. Hi,

    Interesting post!Thanks for sharing such wonderful. I feel the best customer service training program is one that has proper resources to train.

  2. Hi,

    Interesting post! I feel the best customer service training is one that has best resources to train.