9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Flip Side of Liability

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine February 2006
Written by Jennifer Hastrom, APCO Contributing Editor

Recently, I was in an in-service training where we did calltaking scenarios. This was a little nerve-wracking for me. As a part-time law-enforcement radio operator, it had been more than six years since I actually took a call.

After my trial by fire, though (they took pity on me and gave me a law-enforcement scenario), it was actually fun and I think we all learned something. The instructors clarified EMD-classification points and gave out a few law-enforcement calls that fell into gray classification areas, so the discussion was lively throughout.

One scenario in particular brought out an interesting point. It involved the instructor playing a young child (old enough to read, but not much older) calling in to report her father was going into anaphylactic shock as a result of an allergic reaction to a bee sting. When the scenario started, the father was in fairly severe respiratory distress and getting worse.

During the scenario, the calltaker elicited that the patient had been given a prescription to use if stung, but his condition had deteriorated so quickly he had not been able to use it. The caller (the child) had access to the medicine.

Following the protocols, the scenario calltaker read the instruction telling the child to administer the medication as per the instructions printed on it. The instructor playing the child protested that she was too afraid to do it. Ultimately, the scenario ended with the medication untaken.

The instructor asked us for input on how the medication issue might have been better handled. Someone suggested, and the instructor agreed, that the calltaker could have helped the child handle it better. The calltaker protested that doing so wasn't listed on the protocols and that he'd been warned time and again not to stray from them.

The instructor told him that having the child read the instructions off the bottle and then talking the child through administering the medications would, ultimately, be following the protocols, as the intent of the protocols was to get the medication inside the patient.

The calltaker protested, saying he couldn't be sure the kid was reading the bottle right. And then he brought out the dreaded "L" word: liability.

The instructor, who is also our certified EMD instructor and QA manager, told him that he wouldn't be held liable if the child read the medication wrong. (After all, isn't calltaking an exercise in making the best possible decisions based on the information given - right or wrong, true or false?) In fact, if he could save the man's life by doing so, he'd be more likely to be held liable for failing to do so than for making the attempt.

He reiterated his point about liability and said he wasn't willing to risk it.

What I blurted in and said was, "If you want a job without liability, go pick up garbage for a living."

What I thought was, "And if I ever call 911, I hope I get someone else on the other end."

In his defense, he's new to the job, and, as at many agencies, new employees here are given a hefty dose of warnings about liability. And our EMD training preaches staying with the cards, verbatim. It takes quite a while to develop a true sense of when, if ever, to ignore those two messages.

Being successful at this job entails managing liability. That can't be denied. And I am not saying that liability doesn't matter or that policies should be ignored (without extremely compelling reasons) or that this sort of judgment comes without considerable experience. Given the short time this calltaker has been with us, his answer, while wrong in real-world terms, is the answer he should have given.

But this job entails realizing and accepting that you can't avoid all liability. This job is about risk, every time we pick up the phone or key up the radio. Truly accepting the liability, while delivering superlative public service, requires a constant weighing of risk against gain, and, when necessary, falling squarely in the corner of the caller. It means serving the callers' interest ahead of our own. As with romance, parenting or a number of other situations that require selflessness, it is risky. But taking the risk - or, rather, acting despite it - can be the right choice and can carry rich rewards: people saved, disasters averted, lives touched.

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