9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Get It in Writing: The Importance of Documentation

Article from Public Safety Communications Magazine July 2008
Written by Bob Smith, Director of Comm Center & 911 Services at APCO International

It's one of the first unwritten rules of public safety: "If it's not in writing, it never happened!" If information isn't documented somewhere in some format and there's no evidentiary support, then there's no proof anything ever took place and no way to prove it did beyond simple hearsay. Nowhere in public safety is documentation more important than in communications.

Whether your agency uses a CAD system or still relies on handwritten radio logs and incident records, documentation plays a vital role in incident and resource management, and in liability reduction for both the telecommunicator and the agency. The simple act of documenting as much information as possible about an incident can make the difference between a successfully handled incident and a lawsuit in the making.

Documentation encompasses more than recording the where, what, who, when and how of an incident. It includes recording all relevant facts and information associated with the incident, regardless of how essential or nonessential they seem at the time of the call.

Documentation can accomplish many things. Example: Documenting in the CAD system or on a handwritten log that upon arrival on scene responders determined a call for assistance received from 1732 Oak Lane was actually reporting an incident at 1733 Oak Lane can provide the rationale for a delayed response to the patient's side. This fact helps alleviate any questions that could result from inconsistent information in the incident record, the responders' documentation and any follow-up or investigative documentation.

Also, documentation can help elaborate on an incident's nature. Example: If and EMS call with an initial chief complaint of difficulty breathing actually resulted from a domestic disturbance, documenting the background would help to explain why law enforcement was dispatched to an EMS call.

Documentation can also help to explain incidents that fall outside the normal parameters of daily operations. Documenting that numerous nonemergency calls weren't logged into the CAD system due to the sudden influx of calls related to an MCI records the fact that calls were being processed as appropriate and not disregarded or skipped.

Documentation can also serve as a reminder. Telecommunicators called to testify during court cases can review CAD records, radio logs and/or incident cards to refresh their memories and prepare themselves to answer questions in the courtroom. Comm center managers and quality control personnel can also review records to gather information on calls that are being reviewed for QA or investigated because of a complaint.

Today, most CAD systems have some form of notes section or an area designated for a written narrative explaining the incident and/or other pertinent facts. These areas are typically used to record mutual aid calls, secondary alarms, related notifications, or actions or descriptive information of people or vehicles involved. Telecommunicators should take advantage of notes areas to record as much information as possible related to a call. Likewise, agencies that still use handwritten radio logs and incident cards should ensure adequate space is available to record additional narratives.

There's no such thing as too much information about an incident. The more data that can be gathered from callers, relayed to responders and recorded in an incident record, the better. It will assist with call handling, the response, the on-scene investigation, follow up and, potentially, any incident-related prosecution.

Telecommunicators should make a habit of recording as much information as possible as each call unfolds. Information gathered during the caller interrogation can be logged into a CAD system or written on an incident card as it's gathered. Information relayed by responders on scene or after clearing an incident can also be logged. Any information may become important during the incident response or investigation--even long after the incident has been closed. Reviewing old incident records can help investigators solve cold cases or link two seemingly unrelated incidents together through the smallest detail recorded by the telecommunicator.


Many states have requirements that dictate how long and in what form communications center records and documentation must be maintained. Requirements can range from months to years to indefinitely. Comm centers that use handwritten radio logs and/or incident cards should be prepared to store these documents in an environmentally controlled area. If your comm center scans documents to CDs or other digital format, also provide adequate storage for these digital records. Agencies that use CAD systems should have a tested method for storing and securing digital records and have established continuity or backup plans for ensuring records are protected from power surges or other events that could potentially jeopardize them.

The bottom line: Documentation plays a vital role in each and every component of public safety response--from the initial caller interrogation phase of an incident to the actual response, investigation, prosecution or follow up. Telecommunicators should strive to record as much information as possible at each and every stage of an incident, and agencies should have mechanisms in place to ensure this practice is followed and vital records are preserved.

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