9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Set The Tone: Practical Strategies For Handling Challenging Calls

Article from Public Safety Communications Magazine December 2006
Written by Alicia Ihnken, Training Course Instructor, APCO Institute

"Public Safety, this is Gina.

"Yes, this is Mrs. Ruth Hepperstien Markos calling, and you need to send the SWAT team over to Ramsey Drive right away."

"Mrs. Markos, where on Ramsey Drive do we need to send the SWAT team?"

"5624, and hurry because Jerry Garcia is there and he has tied my mother up in the wine cellar, and I'm afraid for her because he's the bionic man, and he had turned bad and...."

"Mrs. Markos, what is the phone number you're calling from?"

"I'm calling from 555-123-5545 in San Diego, and I heard my mother crying in the distance telling me to call you."

"OK, Mrs. Markos, what is your mother's name?"


Like it or not, challenging calls are a fact of life in public safety communications. Ask any public safety telecommunicator about challenging calls they've handled, and they'll likely have plenty of stories to tell. Be prepared for the storyteller to exhibit signs of frustration. The same emotions they felt during the call may come back with a vengeance as they relive the event.

The key to successfully handling these calls is learning how to communicate effectively and how to handle the stress these calls may bring. This means learning how to:

  • Begin the call with the right attitude;
  • Establish and maintain control of the call;
  • Realize that you determine the outcome of the call; and
  • Deal with any stress a call may bring as soon as possible.

The Right Attitude

After getting off a call, have you ever caught yourself saying, "It didn't matter what I said; that guy was a jerk"? Have you considered that words aren't the only way to deliver a message? Your tone is just as important.

Beginning the call with the right attitude can determine how it will end. You never know who will be on the other end of the line or what their problem is, so you must be prepared for anything. What we say and how we say things matter a great deal. If you answer with a huff or speak so quickly that auctioneers try to recruit you, your interaction will not be successful, which can lead to frustration. By answering every call with a smile (yes, you can hear a smile) and a confident, polite and professional tone, you set the stage for a successful interaction.

It's important to establish and maintain control from the beginning of the call. This may be the only contact the caller has with 911 and their impression of emergency services directly correlates with how they were treated by the telecommunicator. The caller won't feel threatened by a confident telecommunicator prepared to help, not argue.

Use the person's name, especially if the caller has been or must be placed on hold. This will reassure the caller that they have not been forgotten. Never make light of a caller's situation. Maintain a business-like attitude even if a situation seems humorous. People with mental illness are not to be used as part of your revelry for the day. Do not use jokes or funny stories to illustrate a point. The caller may not share your sense of humor and might be offended. If the caller comments the situation is funny or odd, you might agree, but use caution and never make a caller feel foolish.

Refrain from using industry jargon with the caller. The caller may not give the desired response if they don't understand the question. Also, don't assume a caller's words mean the same as industry jargon (e.g., robbery vs. burglary), and don't try to educate the caller about what they should be reporting. Ask proper questions to determine what happened and process the call accordingly.

Don't let the 911 caller keep you from asking the appropriate questions (where, what, when and who). If an emergency response is unwarranted or if you determine you cannot provide service to the caller, provide a brief explanation and politely terminate the call. Explanations may include department policy or that another agency handles that type of response. Never say, "We can't do that." Tell the caller what you can do, and direct them to the proper resource.

During the conversation, pay close attention to what the caller is trying to convey. Concentrate on the call, and take nothing for granted. This may require multitasking if you are short-staffed that day or if you work for a smaller agency and have to dispatch as well as answer the phones. If at all possible, do not divide your attention, because you may miss something very important. For example, a caller may say, "No, I don't want the police to come. I'm all right." But if it's said in a quiet, demure tone and you hear someone screaming and cursing loudly in the background, then the words conflict with the true message. Because we don't have the luxury of face-to-face communication, an inattentive calltaker might take the caller at their word instead of sending the proper response.

Maintaining control of the call will help you obtain necessary information in the least amount of time. Talkative or insistent callers are difficult to question, and it may take longer to handle the call. The caller usually knows what occurred, but now how to report it. It's up to you to direct the caller's knowledge into meaningful answers. You might say, "Slow down for a moment, and let me ask you some questions," or "Take a deep breath sir (ma'am), and let me ask you some questions." Anything that will momentarily divert the caller but lets them know you are there to help assists in maintaining control.

Avoid asking several questions in a row before the caller has a chance to answer. This will confuse the caller and won't achieve the desired result. Questions should obtain relevant information and should maintain flow without interruption. If the pause is too long or you are distracted, control will be lost. If a pause is required to enter a lengthy narrative, tell the caller what's happening: "Just a moment, I'm entering this information in the computer."

Unmet expectations are frustrating, and because you, not the caller, determine the outcome on the basis of your training, experience and resources, you must tell the caller what to expect before you terminate the call. Is a fire or an EMS response on the way? Will a police officer come out or call? If you begin the call with the right attitude, and establish and maintain control of the conversation, the result should be a successful conclusion.

Specific Types of Challenging Calls

Hysterical callers: If a caller is highly upset of hysterical, speak in a calm, competent, decisive tone of voice. The calmness and decisiveness you display may be sufficient to make the caller feel someone is taking control of the situation. If necessary, use persistent repetition. Repeat your request each time in the same way. Example: "Where are you? Tell me where you are so I can help you...Where are you? Tell me where you are so I can help you." Stay firm and in charge. Focus on the big picture. Highly emotional people tend to focus on the details rather than the big picture. Stay away from insignificant details.

Abusive callers: These callers may try to put you on the defensive. If you're drawn in, the caller may take advantage of it. Immediately comply with requests in a calm, confident tone and offer to connect the caller to a supervisor, if necessary. Often, a sincere apology for a misunderstanding or other discrepancy will satisfy the caller and put the conversation back on track. Don't feel defensive about admitting a mistake. Apologize and continue helping them with their problem.

You're not expected to tolerate profanity or verbal abuse from callers and should not be profane or verbally abusive back. If the caller is abusive and there is no constructive interaction, refer the caller to a supervisor. If a citizen complains about the handling of their call, your words and tone of voice could have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the investigation.

Chronic callers: These callers typically fall into one of two categories: known and anonymous. Both can be challenging to deal with in a busy communications center.

For known chronic callers, you must handle each call on its own merit, even those from persons who call frequently with non-dispatch incidents. Never discount a call just because it's from a known chronic caller. Remember, there's always a chance that this call may involve a legitimate emergency. Always ask the appropriate questions to determine the situation. If the caller does not need a public safety response, politely terminate the call.

Dealing with chronic callers we don't know, including 911 cell phone prank calls, is a common source of frustration. Often, these calls come from children. The phones may be throwaways that are not on a contract or older cell phones that don't allow for the identification of accurate location information. These calls show up on the ANI/ALI with a 911 area code and no identifying information. Any calltaker could become frazzled after receiving several of these calls; however, never assume the next call is the same prankster who has been calling all day. If it is the prankster, getting upset won't only agitate you, but it could also be the reaction the caller wants. Frustration breeds frustration. If you show your frustration on the next call you answer, you will have broken the first rule of dealing with challenging calls: Begin the call with the right attitude. Everything is inter-related, and your bad mood can easily be carried over to a perfectly innocent caller. As always, follow your agency's policies and procedures when dealing with prank calls, and do not assume anything about the next call.

Children and elderly callers: Be particularly sensitive to calls from children and the elderly. They may initially seem confused and may not express themselves completely. It may take longer to obtain sufficient information. Never assume they are merely pranksters or senile. Ask specific questions to find out why they're calling. Always obtain all pertinent information. Take every call seriously, and leave it up to the responders to take appropriate action. Always follow your policies and procedures. The call you ignore could be more important than you think. If there is any doubt as to the welfare of a child or an elderly person, follow your agency's policy and procedure for dispatch actions.

Superfluous calls: Every 911 center receives superfluous calls about situations that are clearly not 911 emergencies. For example, someone calling to complain about the food ordered in a restaurant or someone calling to report that an animal (e.g., a car or squirrel) is in a tree. It may be obvious to you these are not emergencies, or even a matter for police or fire/rescue, but you must remain professional. Remain polite and business-like while instructing callers of their options (e.g., complain to the management after leaving the restaurant, watch the tree to see if the animal comes down, call animal control, etc.). If you must laugh or blow off steam, do so after you hang up.

Dealing With It

As a public safety telecommunicator, you are responsible for coordinating and facilitating a wide range of communications to and from a wide variety of people. It's hard enough to effectively communicate your own ideas and even more so those of others. Add the whole emergency aspect, and you definitely have your work cut out for you. Everyone, it seems, depends on you and your communications skills. Some coping techniques follow. Always remember:

  • The caller is your customer and should be treated with dignity and respect; they are the reason you're there;
  • The caller doesn't know you, your job or the agency's policies and procedures. Nothing a caller says should be taken personally. You are the trained professional; the only training a caller gets is what they see, hear or read in the media;
  • The caller thinks what they have to say is important. If the caller did not perceive the need for assistance, they would not have called. They expect to be heard and helped;
  • You're expected to remain calm and professional no matter the attitude of the caller. Your demeanor is an important factor in a successful outcome. A calm and professional demeanor leaves a good impression of emergency services.

To relieve stress, keep a positive attitude, eat a well-balanced diet and get appropriate exercise. After particularly challenging calls, and as time permits, take a short walk or a series of deep breaths. (This may help calm the urge to scream.) Talking about the call and what made it challenging for you can also assist in relieving the stress of the call. When you talk about the call, try to be objective and avoid placing blame. Once the call is over, you cannot go back, but you can add to your knowledge, skills and abilities to help future calls go more smoothly.

And always remember, you are a public safety communications professional. You are not part of the problem; you are part of the cure.

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