9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Public Safety and the Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell probably never knew the effect his invention would have on public safety personnel when he invented the telephone in 1876. Telephones are no longer a luxury but an absolute necessity for most people.

The telephone has become an instrument whereby citizens can summon emergency personnel to the scene of an incident in a manner of minutes. Now, with ever-popular cellular technology, citizens are reporting accidents, crimes, fires, and numerous other incidents while they are still in progress, enabling immediate response.

The telephone has altered the lives of many. It has many advantages with very few disadvantages.

The use of the telephone in public safety work is absolutely essential, since citizens use the telephone to notify various agencies about particular problems and emergencies. Calltakers are specifically trained in telephone use in order to obtain the necessary information regarding the reason for the call.

Unfortunately many of those who call are extremely upset and the call taker receives the brunt of their anger, grief or panic. This is where stress training for dispatchers is extremely important.

Many law enforcement agencies have their own dispatching service, or are dispatched through a county wide 911 system, which eliminates members of these agencies from normally dealing with the public over the telephone. It is important to remember, for officers as well as for dispatchers, that telephone courtesy is essential whenever contact is made with the general public.

It should be pointed out that the general public calls the police for anything imaginable at any time of the day or night, since most suburban and rural communities have no other 24 hour a day municipal service in operation.

People call for information, to obtain assistance, and to lodge a complaint. Many citizens will call the police department directly on a business telephone number, circumventing the 911 dispatcher. Regardless of which number they use, the call is of the utmost importance to them, and it is important for the call taker -- whether it is a dispatcher or an officer -- to respond with courtesy and professionalism.

All telephone contacts contain some elements of conversation, interviewing, and counseling. What was the purpose of the call? Can assistance be rendered, advise given, or referrals made which can satisfy the caller and prevent a law enforcement officer from having to respond? Many times citizens' questions or complaints can be handled over the phone. Many of these calls may seem trivial to the call taker, but are monumental to the caller. A rule of thumb is to treat everyone in the same manner in which you would want yourself or a member of your family treated.

Four basic traits for call takers to remember are courtesy, reasonableness, honesty, and diplomacy. Courtesy requires the proper identification of the agency, the call taker, and the patience to listen in order to gather the complete information that is necessary for a decision to be made regarding the type of service needed.

Reasonableness involves managing the course of the conversation, allowing the caller to state the purpose of the call, and then asking questions that are appropriate to formulate a solution to the problem. The call taker may be able to suggest ways of handling the problem or provide necessary resources or referral numbers.

Honesty refers to not creating a false, unrealistic impression regarding the expectations of the caller. For example: explaining the delay in the response time of a unit, or explaining the reasons why an arrest cannot be made on suspicion only. When a person calls for the police, they want an officer on scene immediately. Sometimes that is not possible due to an overload of calls and this must be explained to the caller.

Diplomacy involves being able to understand that an unimportant or trivial matter to the call taker may be very important to the caller. It also involves being able to correct a caller's misunderstanding without insulting or embarrassing them, and finally being able to tactfully explain why the caller's expectations are not being immediately met.

Emergency communications personnel have an important function in the process of handling citizens' calls and complaints. Those individuals who are emergency center call takers are specifically trained to deal with these types of problems, but it's important for the other members of the emergency services units to remember that courtesy and diplomacy are an absolute necessity when dealing with citizens' calls for service through the telephone.

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