9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

FYI - "A Child Is Missing" Program

"A Child is Missing" is devoted to helping save lives of children, the elderly (often with Alzheimer's) and the mentally/physically challenged. ACIM program is given to all law enforcement agencies at no cost. ACIM gives them access to immediate assistance in looking for a missing child or other vulnerable missing person.

This is the only program of its kind in the United States and it is working. It is a proven public/private partnership. They save money for agencies and become a partner in the search effort. Eighty-five percent of law enforcement agencies have 15 or less sworn officers and the cost of equipment used by ACIM would be prohibitive for smaller agencies. Additionally, many agencies do not maximize use of reverse-911 equipment after it has been purchased. It is much more cost-effective to be a part of a network that uses the ACIM program.

In most cases, ACIM obtains initial funding to bring the program to a state. Once the program has been established, ACIM seeks voluntary law enforcement donations as well as state and federal funding. Even if a department can't afford a donation, they have access to the program.

Fundraising events, corporate sponsors, private donations and individual gifts also help fund program operations. If you are interested in starting a fundraising group in your area to benefit ACIM, please contact the main office in Fort Lauderdale for more information.

A Child is Missing is available 24 hours a day/7 days a week/365 days a year

Email: info@AChildIsMissing.org
Website: www.AChildIsMissing.org
Phone: 888-US5-ACIM (888-875-2246)

Every 40 seconds another child in the United States goes missing....is your agency prepared?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

911 Fitness: How Comm Center Staff Can Take On Health & Well Being

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine April 2009
Written by Fonda Dixon, supervisor in the Employee Training Section of the Bureau of Training and Education in Hershey PA

"Fit for duty," the concept that has been the nemesis of law enforcement officers for many years, has now reared its ugly head in 911 comm centers. That's right, we 911 dispatchers and other comm center personnel are being assessed for our physical and mental well-being. So I ask, are you fit or not fit for duty? Throughout this article, I'm going to make suggestions on how to attain 911 fitness in the areas of attitude and mental health, physical health, ergonomics, diet and rest.

Attitude & Mental Health

Attitude is just one of the things that affects the fitness of comm center personnel. Have you ever heard the saying, "Your attitude determines your altitude,"? It's true. Where do you want to be in five years? Will your attitude get you to that altitude? We control our states of mind and our attitudes.

If dispatchers have a negative attitude, stress increases, innovation and motivation decrease and physical health suffers. When thinking about fitness, consider this: A positive attitude will help you feel better about yourself, your job and your life in general. It will also help you make better choices about diet and exercise, which is a good start toward achieving 911 fitness.

I recently read an interesting article titled, "Halt-Empty or Half-Full" written by Michael J. Asken, PhD, a state police psychologist. According to Asken, "The fundamental difference between the optimist and the pessimist is the way they view the world, the way they perform and the way the respond to difficulties. It has been said that the optimist proclaims we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears it is so."

Pessimists see a negative situation as permanent and never changing. They feel that things will never get better, and they see the negative situation as "ruining everything" in their lives. They fear the negative situation is their own fault.

Optimists, conversely, see the negative situation as short-lived and feel that things will improve. They believe the impact of the negative situation on their lives is limited or isolated and that many good things still exist for them. They feel that the negative situation is not their fault and that they have the ability to make changes.

When I was researching this article, I found a poem by William Arthur Ward called "Pessimist vs. Optimist" that compares the two attitudes furter. An excerpt:

...The pessimist criticizes
The optimist changes conditions.

The pessimist complains about
the apple seeds;
The optimist plants them...

The pessimist builds barriers;
The optimist removes

So what can we learn from these two attitudes? In the face of difficult challenges, it's important to keep your perspective. Don't over generalize your frustration. Recognize the positives and joys that can coexist with stress. Remember, permanence is rare, and things change. Situations can be addressed; they do get better. Be careful not to shoulder the entire burden at work or at home. Learn from mistakes and stressors.

On Worksite Insights, an online resource for mental fitness, I found some insights for improving attitude andm therefore, overall mental health:
  • Exercise mental flexibility -- remember to get a grip.
  • Make stress your friend -- be the guitar string that has the perfect amount of tension.
  • Be a healthy, optimistic thinker -- wake up and smell the coffee.
  • Change yourself, not others.
  • Stay in the now -- use the past as a guidepost, not a hitching post.
  • Forgive, forgive, and forgive -- turn your milestones into stepping stones.
  • Lighten up -- life is too serious to be taken seriously.

My own person favorites are:

  • Accept that some days you're the pigeon and some days you're the statue.
  • It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to be kind to others.
  • Develop a mental fitness routine. It will take practice, but anything that we want to do well takes time and effort. It's time to get mentally fit.

Physical Health

No, I'm not going to give you the lowdown on a physical, but your doctor can. I also won't recommend that you join a gym or buy a treadmill, but all of us could benefit from more exercise to improve our overall physical health.

Our communications jobs, either as telecommunicators or engineers, tend to be sedentary in nature. When we don't exercise our minds and bodies, stress builds up and can lead to migraine headaches, back pain, ulcers, stomach disorders and fatigue.

Studies have shown that stress is also linked to cancer and, possibly, to a weakened immune system, which is responsible for fighting diseases and germs that invade the body. With a weakened immune system, a person with chronic stress could become ill more frequently. Do any of these problems remind you of yourself or a fellow dispatcher?

Over half of the sick days used annually are due to both mental and physical stress. Stress attacks the weakest part of your body (e.g., your bad back or weak knees). Never-ending stress can lead to a variety of diseases, such as high blood pressure, which can cause heart problems and even heart attacks. When we are not mentally and physically fit, the doctor visits pile up. This, in turn, can lead to spending time and money for visits and medicines. Time you cannot recover, and the loss of money results in a shortage in your bank account, which causes additional stress. These days, approximately 75-90% of all doctor visits are stress related.

Improve our physical health: Most comm centers have policies regarding breaks and lunch times. Take these opportunities to walk outside or around the inside of your center a few times. According to an article for the wellness newsletter, Top Health, "Walking can add years to your life and life to your years. Walking conditions your heart and lungs and improves your body's ability to use oxygen. It also helps beat other health problems. Walking is easy on your mind, as it lessens stress and lightens depression. It can burn almost as many calories per miles as jogging and is easier on your joints. Best of all, walking has the lowest dropout rate of any form of exercise."

Here are a few ways to sneak in exercise at work: Instead of taking your breaks in the kitchen and employee lounge, take a brisk walk or do some gentle stretch exercises. Organize a lunchtime walking group. You may be surrounded by people who are ready to walk with you. In a group, members will be able to provide each other with support and hold each other accountable. You may want to invite your supervisor along to brainstorm with the group to see what you can do in your center to increase fitness.

Something you might not think about that's related to staying fit is keeping your work area germ free. Take a few minutes to clean your keyboard and phone before starting work every day. Keep hand sanitizer and a can of disinfectant handy to easily accomplish this.


Dispatchers sit at consoles, and 911 radio engineers and IT personnel sit at desks for long periods of time without realizing it. There are a few things that we should be aware of while sitting, after all, we're there for one-third of our day. Consider this:

  • If your center doesn't have headsets, don't cradle the phone between your head and shoulder.
  • Make sure your monitor is positioned so you don't have to lean forward to read the screen. When you look at your monitor, your head and neck should be upright and balanced over your shoulders.
  • Make sure your keyboard is tilted so that your hands are in a natural position.
  • Consider standing during some conversations to change position and increase movement. Take 30-second breaks every 20 to 30 minutes to stretch and move.
  • Get away from the stressful environment for a few minutes, and take those much needed breaks. (Call it a work time commercial.)


Along with keeping exercise and ergonomics in the forefront of our minds, 911 personnel also have to consider diet. Does your diet say fitness?

To jumpstart a healthy lifestyle, eat a healty meal before going to work. One of the things that I hear quite often from students when I teach stress awareness is, "I don't have time to eat breakfast," or "I don't like to eat breakfast."

My reply, "Would you drive your car without putting gasoline in the tank?" It doesn't matter what time you wake up, if you're on day, swing or night shift, your body needs fuel to start its day. A healthy meal does not include a quick trip to the vending machine for a sugar and caffeine fix.

Also, when you're scheduled to go to work, take a healthy meal with you. Some of my favorite excuses for skipping lunch include: "I have to eat fast food. I don't have time to pack my lunch. We don't have a kitchen in our center." And, best of all, "I don't have time to eat."

We can't perform at our best if we don't feed our bodies. Your body needs fuel for both your mental and physical fitness. Failing to fuel your body can lead to fatigue, irritability and difficulty concentrating. Eating a well-balanced meal can increase your stamina and make you a more productive, safer worker.

When you're packing your lunch, be careful not to pack things high in sugar and fat. I know you know this, but do you do it? When you need a snack, instead of eating a candy bar and drinking a soft drink, try a low-sugar, low-fat snack, and drink water. Eating a candy bar and drinking a soft drink will lead to a sugar high and ultimately a crash -- a mental and physical energy crash. One regular soft drink is equal to ingesting approximately two-and-a-half cups of sugar at one time, and we all know about the enormous amount of sugar in a candy bar.

A few eating facts:

  • Eating vegetables can increase your body's ability to produce serotonin, which is one of the happiness-inducing messengers secreted by the brain.
  • Complex carbohydrates, such as cereals, rice, pasta, bread and potatoes, break down slowly and release their sugars over longer periods of time. These sugars are more beneficial than those found in soda and candy bars.
  • Eating more frequent, small meals instead of a few large ones helps keep blood sugar stable.

Drink plenty of water. Did you know that the body can go for weeks without food, but a person of average size needs two-and-a-half quarts of water daily to keep functioning? Coffee, tea and soda just won't hydrate you as efficiently as water. Be sure to include at least eight, 8 oz. glasses of water per day in your 911 fitness plan.


Finally, 911 personnel must make sure they get enough rest. The average adult requires seven to eight hours of sleep. Although the proper amount of rest differs from person to person, it's important that you listen to your body to determine what your ideal amount of sleep is. Albert Einstein claimed to have thrived on only two hours of rest per day. That amount may have worked for him, but is it enough sleep for you?

Here are some tips to help you get the rest you need:

  • Take a warm bath or shower before you go to bed.
  • Read at bedtime.
  • Listen to classical or New Age music at bedtime. Doing this has been shown to help people suffering from insomnia fall asleep. The music matches body rhythms and slows the heart rate.
  • Avoid stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine, for several hours before bedtime.
  • Don't use alcohol to induce sleep. As its sedative effects wear off, alcohol can trigger wakefulness.
  • Don't rely on sleeping pills. They can disrupt your sleep/wake cycle if you depend on them too much.
  • Squeeze in fitness. Studies have shown that people who exercise not only sleep almost an hour longer than those who don't, but they also fall asleep in half the time.

How fortunate is the person who is too busy to worry during the day and too sleepy to worry at night? Or for those who work midnight shifts, how fortunate is the person who is too busy to worry all night and too sleepy to worry during the day?

Final Thoughts

It's time for 911 telecommunicators and radio and IT engineers to get to work. Remember, taking care of your attitude and mental health is just as important as taking regular breaks, eating well and exercising.

We've examined five areas for you to consider to improve your 911 fitness. Although old habits are hard to break, try to keep a positive attitude, stay focused and ease into change. Start by writing down what you want to accomplish, and post that goal in a place you can see every day. Set realistic goals, and set deadlines for meeting those goals. Remember, a yard is hard, but an inch is a cinch. Also share your goals with someone. It's easier to stay on track when you've verbalized your goals. Once you list what you want to accomplish, prioritize your goals and check them off as you complete them.

Who's the most important person during a 911 emergency call? It's fit-for-duty you. If you're involved in a 911 situation and are not up on your 911 fitness, what are the chances that you'll make the right decision in a critical situation? Would you want someone that was not mentally fit answering your call for help? Every good football team has a quarterback who starts the play, and in the world of emergency management services, the quarterback is you.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Coping Techniques for High-Stress Situation

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine November 2007
Written by Mark Boudreaux, Executive Director of Terrebonne Parish 911 in Houma LA

A few years ago I was diagnosed with this strange and peculiar ailment that my doctor called stress. "What is this stress he referred to?" I thought to myself as I rushed back to work.

"Obviously, stress has something to do with pains in my chest and an abnormal EKG, and it causes headaches that wrap around my head like a tie-strap..Oh, that' right. I need to remember to tie-strap those computer cables before someone trips...Trips, trip, trip...the travel agency hasn't called me back with a cost for that trip we're taking next month...Next month...there's something I'm supposed to remember to do next month that I forgot to write down on my calendar. Where's my pencil? What was I thinking? I needed a pencil for something. Why did I need a pencil?"

Defining Stress

This is when I began researching stress. I soon learned that stress is a physical, chemical and/or psychological/emotional condition that exhibits itself in humans regardless of age, sex, nationality or socioeconomic status. It exists just about anywhere and can manifest in just about anyone. (That really stinks!)

Let's back up a few steps. First, we're born. Then, stress begins.

We start of see the signs of stress as we somehow manage to make it through childhood and our awkward adolescent years (especially since no one would actually tell us what exactly a "cootie" is and what would happen if one landed on you). Next, comes the wonderment of young adulthood. Noooo. There's no stress dealing with teenage acne or the struggle of appearance -- too fat, too thin, too tall, too short. What about acceptance, peer pressure, tests, your first dance, your first kiss or your first anything? And it gets better. Life is much less stressful as we grow up and reach adulthood (insert smirk here). We begin dating and working, and then comes marriage, bills, children, more bills, divorce, child support, marriage (marriage may be repeated as often as it is followed/preceded by divorce), change of work, more children/someone else's children/grandchildren and even more bills. In the midst of this time period between teen-hood and death, we have to deal with people, co-workers, spouses/significant others, bratty kids, complacent supervisors, bad drivers, rude callers and field response personnel you wish you could tase through the radio.

Back to the present! Now, my doc, a really old guy with a dry sense of humor and amazingly large fingers (ouch!), proceeded to tell me that stress is like cholesterol: There's some that's good, and there's some that's bad. We need good stress because it keeps our hearts healthy and our minds focused. We want to try to stay away from bad stress because it can affect us in myriad ways, with detrimental physical, mental and emotional effects.

"OK," I said to my doc, "just give me two pills, and I'll call you in the morning."

That's when he told me medication is an option. Such drugs as Lexapro, Zoloft, Effexor and Paxil, labeled as antidepressants, are frequently being used to ease the effects of stress in many adults and even some teenagers. Other drugs, such as Xanax and Valium, contain benzodiazepine, which suppresses emotional anxiety. "Although medication is available," he said in that doctorly sort of way, "it is not the cure." (Figures there'd be a catch).

The cure is identifying your personal stressors and either eliminating them or mitigating them (altering the outcome) so that you live a less-stressed life. Let's say you just gobbled down a 12-pack of donuts and climbed a flight of stairs. When--if--you successfully reach the top of the stairwell and find yourself out of breath and your heart pumping harder than a ladder truck at a five-alarm fire, then you know what it's like to experience the phenomena we call physical distress. Not physical stress.

Physical stress is what we get from sitting in an uncomfortable chair for 8-10-12 hours at a time, staring at a computer screen with headsets on, shift after shift, eating too fast, drinking too much coffee or caffeinated energy drinks, working with our head and neck positioned the same way for extended time periods and, of course, using a keyboard and mouse constantly. This is physical stress that we place on our bodies every day, and it slowly causes our body parts and muscles to retaliate against us with a vengeance. Now, you know the difference between physical distress and physical stress.

The Effects of Stress

What about stress? Just stress. What does stress do to our bodies? Its effects on our bodies may be made apparent through various muscle aches, pains, cramps and stiffness (commonly in the neck, back and inner shoulder area), sudden weight loss or gain, blurred vision, irregular stomach problems (heartburn, cramps, diarrhea and nausea), headaches (the infamous halo headache), dizziness, hair loss, loss of sex drive, loss of appetite and much more.

There are numerous other physical signs of stress as unique as the sudden onset of a tic (i.e., an involuntary spasmodic motion of a particular group of muscles, especially of the face), such as an eye twitch or a shallow cough. Doctors today are convincingly linking stress to certain disease causation.

What? Death by stress? Yes. That is exactly what I'm saying. Diseases of the heart (i.e., heart attacks) are the leading cause of death in the U.S. How often do you hear a friend say, "Did you hear about (insert name here)? Yeah, he died from a heart attack." Then they'll throw in, "...Well, you know his famiy said that he'd been under a great deal of stress lately." For the record, cause of death (COD) is determined by what actually caused a person to die. It doesn't take into consideration what may have led up to that particular cause. For example, if a person drowned, the COD would be "Victim Drowned" and not "Victim drank 10 shots of tequila, smoked some crack and tried to swim across the Atlantic Ocean." (Off the record, I wish that "Stupidity" would be added as a valid COD!)

Think about what stress can do to your heart, your immune system, your mental stability. Stressful situations, stressful thoughts, stress can make you worry. It can make you anxious (sometimes good, sometimes very bad), scared and panicked, and increase your heart and respiratory rates to dangerous highs. The aftermant of a stressful event can cause insomnia (sleeplessness), which wears down the body (result: fatigue) and the immune system (result: sickness). In some people, stress with or without insomnia can promote unhealthy thoughts, such as thoughts of harming others or of harming one's self (homicide/suicide). These are some of the disturbing, harmful side effects of mental stress, or stress on the mind.

Now my doc, a reputable internal specialist and surgeon who's had papers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), continued probing (figure of speech) for a cure to my stress disorder. Knowing that I work for 911, he offered a rational deduction. He said that the human body is both remarkable and amazing and tends to work best under constant variables. What? In short, if a person lives a healthy lifestyle with only minor deviations (i.e., a little adult beverage here, a little fatty food there), that person is assumed to be able to live for a decent length of time (77.9 years according to the National Center for Health Statistics), unless of course that person contracts an illness or has a genetic disorder.

"However," he said, "let's assume that you don't live a healthy lifestyle...but a constant one. Your body tends to adapt to a certain way of living as long as change is introduced slowly." For those of us who work in emergency services, what this means is that our bodies, over time, become familiar with being treated like...well, like crap. We drink coffee throughout the day, perhaps smoke cigarettes, eat fast foods (or decide on the vending machine choice du jour) and work strange shifts (day/night, night/day) during which we sit most of the time. We work long hours and rarely ever see outside (or even daylight, real daylight). We try not to gain weight by doing the most minimal exercise that we possibly can.

The doc asked me if I had changed my lifestyle drastically in any way. N-n-nope.

Changes in a person's lifestyle for the better include reducing and/or eliminating caffeine intake, stopping smoking, eating healthier and making time for quality sleep and exercise (especially aerobic exercise). But even healthy things should be introduced gradually so you don't shock your body with unfamiliar, stressful activity.

If you decide to actually start going to they gym (since you've been paying that membership for how long?), start slowly for the first few weeks. If you choose to jump on a treadmill and jog five miles on your first visit, don't be surprised if you find yourself in the ER with an arrhythmic heartbeat. Eating healthy foods? Start by eating healthy snacks and work your way up to three healthy square meals a day with some veggie snacks in between, otherwise, you may wonder why your intestines hate you.

Most commonly, dramatic change manifests itself in the body as "flu-like" symptoms. Fatigue, muscle aches, nausea and/or diarrhea are definite signs that your body isn't happy with you. In my case, the doc's deduction was right on track. The stress was not external, not environmental, so logically it was intracranial -- in my head.

Stress is a major component of our work lifestyle. As telecommunications professionals, we thrive on the chaos of events that occur daily. Our minds flurry with the infinite possibilities for why the 911 lines are lit. We listen to, and potentially resolve, more crisis situations in one day than some people encounter in their entire lifetime. We are the ones people call to complain to, to insult, to prank (and it's getting worse), to "accidentally" call numerous times in a row, and even to ask for help. We are expected -- no, we are trusted -- to handle each and every caller with the utmost respect and impeccable customer service.

Then we dispatch our units, and we're the ones on the radio who some units complain to, insult and prank, call on the radio numerous times for no reason knowing that we're working several other emergency calls, and who also, occasionally, ask for help. Here, too, we are entrusted with the lives of each of our responders, so we operate our dispatching with professionalism and respect.

To us, this is not stressful; it's almost necessary. Our bodies and minds have adapted to working in this environment.

The downside tends to reveal itself when things are slow. When the slow periods arrive, the lack of busy-ness provides ample opportunity for some of our colleagues (or our own) minds to wander and mouths to run, creating inner workplace stress and chaos. This is the bad communications center stress, and the kind that can easily be prevented by using common sense before speaking and remembering not to speak bad about others. Having a gossip/rumor control policy (with reprimand) really helps, along with using the words "play nice" or "ouch" before conversations get out of hand.

Although we expect stress at work, we may not be prepared for it in our personal lives. Most of us consider going to work as slipping off to our own little sanctuary. The level of stress that we expect at work is usually good, and it keeps our minds busy and our shift moving. The stress we experience at home is rarely anticipated and usually not so good. Planning for a wedding, awaiting the delivery of a new baby and looking forward to your child's graduation are examples of good personal-stress events. Experiencing a divorce, marital problems or difficulties with your significant other, illness or death of a friend or family member, bills, unruly kids, unruly neighbors (and the list can go on for miles) are personal life stressors that can cause physical and mental duress/distress.

Critical Incident Stress

Then there are the "life-changing" experiences. We call stress caused by a particular crucial event critical incident stress. Critical incident stress can result when a person is either involved in, participates in or witnesses a particular event that is immediately known to be the cause of or results in mental, physica or emotional distress. Sometimes it is a particular event that is easily identified. A responder who has an infant die in their arms or a dispatcher whose caller commits suicide while on the phone are understandable examples of single-incident occurrences.

Other times, critical incident stress is the culmination of events that are relived or revealed by a later happening. A firefighter who has responded to three fatal auto accidents may emotionally break after resonding to an assist call for a natural death. It isn't the natural death that caused the stress overload for the firefighter; it's the rememberance of the other fatalaties. Critical Incident Stress Defusings and Critical Incident Stress Debriefings are programs designed to lessen the possibilities of having a stress backlash.


The purpose of a defusing is to remove the immediate risk of a person experiencing mental/emotional damage due to a particular incident. By definition, a Critical Incident Stress Defusing (CISD) session is a short intervention conducted between one and four hours after a critical incident occurs, but not after 12 hours. It may last from 30 minutes to an hour and consists of a few informal questions and a great deal of listening.

A defusing session should be conducted by someone who is trained in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM). All sessions must be completely confidential and attended only on a voluntary basis by those personnel directly involved in the incident. The main focus of a defusing and the reason why it should be done soon after the incident is to provide those affected with the opportunity to vent their emotions, share their reactions and, perhaps, even learn about stress and what to expect.

The desired result of a defusing is to help provide emotional stability so that employees can return to their normal daily routines without the burden of unusual stress. Because a defusing is quick and geared at defusing the proverbial stress bomb, it is recommended that a formal debriefing occur within one to three days after the incident.


A critical incident stress debriefing (also CISD) is a much more involved form of stress intervention than a defusing. Like a defusing a debriefing should be conducted by a person who is trained in CISD/CISM. If a defusing session involves a large group of individuals, it may require the involvement of a CISD team, usually comprising peer support personnel.

A critical incident debriefing is a formal approach to stress intervention that involves in-depth discussion regarding the before, during and after particulars of a specific distressing incident. The incident may have involved numerous facets of emergency services, including telecommunicators/dispatchers, firefighters, law enforcement personnel and/or EMS responders. The basic purpose of a debriefing is to mitigate the impact of potential stress following an incident, allowing personnel to recover through the release of harmful, stressful thoughts or feelings.

A debriefing is confidential, and what is stated in a debriefing remains in the debriefing room. A follow-up call or visit from a CISD team member to each of the participants should be made, and noted to the team leader, at least one week following the debriefing and continuing on a regular basis until the CISD team is assured that each participant has manageable mental strength and awareness.

Grief/Loss Counseling Session

At times, we find ourselves in a situation that isn't based on a typical critical incident. The loss of an employee or support staff can cause a distressed atmosphere and grieving stress to personnel. To assist staff in the coping process, it may be necessary to provide a grief/loss counseling session. This form of intervention can be presented in a structured group or individually and should occur between one and three days of the death of an agency co-worker, support staff or close friend. The primary function of the session is to assist people in understanding their own reactions to grief and help them move along in the grieving process. It is designed to promote a healthy atmosphere of openness and dialogue around the circumstances of the death.

Crisis Management Briefing

The goal of this form of briefing (not debriefing) is to help prevent stress during a stressful event. Most agencies have public information officers (PIOs) whose job is to notify and advise the public of events or incidents. But who notifies agency personnel?

A crisis management briefing is accomplished either through interagency or across agency jurisdictional boundaries and usually concerns a large-scale incident. It is, in a nutshell, passing along the embodiment of knowledge concerning an incident to public safety personnel. It is a group intervention that occurs before (if possible), during and after a crisis. During a crisis management briefing, the facilitator presents facts to personnel much like a PIO would to the media, however in a much more candid way. The presenter would then allow a brief time for controlled discussion and questions and answers, and end with information regarding stress survival skills. Natural disasters may require crisis management briefings before and after each personnel shift change until days or weeks after the disaster occurs. It makes oncoming personnel aware of what has occurred and relieves off-shifting personnel of the burden of stress before they leave.

The Best Prescription

"Well, Doc," I said, "I don't have a problem with this thing you call stress. I have nerves of steel, and I don't let anything bother me." (OK, I lied.) With a grin on his face and a pencil in his hand, he began scribbling on his pad of paper. Yea! Indeed, thoughts of a prescription for panic pills raced through my head, but instead he handed me the piece of paper. It read, "STRESS: Sit down. Talk it out. Relax. Exercise. Select better food. Slow down." Then he gave me the advice that I now live by: "It doesn't take much of a push to send a person who lives on the edge to fall off a cliff, and the more weight you carry on your shoulders, the faster you will fall and the harder you will crash. Before you go to work, do as I do: unwind. Before you go home, do as I do: unwind. Find a healthy outlet to relax, and treat your mind and body better by exercising and eating right. Live life with no regrets, and if something bothers you then talk it out." I took his advice to heart and understood that the only proactive way to mitigate stress is to admit that you have it and do so before that one event, or series of events, occurs that can potentially push you off the edge of sanity or reason. Seek help, or accept help when it's offered to you. If your agency doesn't have a CISM team or access to a CISM team, request one or establish one.

For me, everything I learned and teach about crisis management and intervention revealed itself a few months ago. After working a few weeks in the comm center, taking calls and dispatching first responders and fire departments, I received a call that my mother was admitted into the hospital. As I stood next to my mom the next morning, she passed away. Later that same evening my incredible staff began my intervention, my defusing, my debriefing and my grief counseling. This group of wonderful individuals realized that this life-changing event would open the doors to years of unforgettable calls. Thanks to my CISD team, my CISD family, I was able to cope with my stress and return to duty with a clear mind without weight on my shoulders.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Effective Conflict Resolution

APCO Institute Curriculum Handout
Written by Candice Solie, APCO Institute Director

The dictionary defines conflict as "a state of disagreement & disharmony; clash". Conflicts can arise in a Communications Center at many different levels. There can be conflicts between the call-taker & the caller or conflicts among employees on shift.

Most verbal conflicts start because one or both of the participants is listening and responding emotionally rather than intuitively and intellectually. Responding emotionally is like adding fuel to a fire -- it only serves to further inflame an already volatile situation. Here are five listening techniques you can use to apply an intuitive & intellectual response to verbal conflicts.

1. Listen to the speaker's whole message before forming an opinion or formulating a response. Do not filter the message and form opinions & references on only those elements you agree or disagree with.

2. Listen to the intent of the message objectively. Do not use preconceived opinions or biases to jump to assumptions about the intent of the speaker.

3. Do not react emotionally to the speaker's nonverbal communications. Remain professional and controlled.

4. Listen to the speaker non-judgmentally & with empathy. Respect the speaker's point of view, even if you disagree with it. Keep the communications channels open. Try to encourage the speaker to come up with an acceptable solution to the problem/conflict.

5. Present your position in a clear and concise manner. Make sure you communicate your understanding of the conflict/problem and the reasoning behind your position. The speaker may not agree or particularly like your position however s/he will know it was reached fairly based on an objective understanding of the issues presented.

The application of these five techniques can significantly assist in defusing verbal conflicts. In addition, there are other conflict resolution techniques that may be used depending on the situation.

Conflict Resolution between the Calltaker & the Caller

Conflicts between the call-taker and the caller have the potential to occur when the call-taker is faced with an argumentative or difficult caller. The best technique the call-taker can use to deflate a potential conflict situation is to remain focused, PROFESSIONAL and calm. This means:
  1. Never argue with the caller. Gather the pertinent information relative to the event being reported and do not allow yourself to be drawn into an argumentative dialogue with the caller. Always remember - it takes two to have an argument.
  2. Control your emotions. It may be difficult when trying to deal with an individual determined to create a conflict, but keep your emotions in check. Responding in anger to an already angry individual only escalates the situation. Remain professional - try not to take it personally - Remember - you are not the problem, you are part of the solution.

Conflict Resolution Among Employees on Shift

Whenever you have groups of individuals working in close contact, particularly in a stressful environment, conflicts of some sort are inevitable. Little "spats" responsibly handled by the involved parties are normal and can at times serve to "clear the air". However, when individual conflicts reach the point where they affect Center morale and productivity, supervisory intervention is required. Here are the steps a supervisor should follow to resolve a conflict among employees.

  1. Meet privately with each party involved. Listen to both sides carefully to make sure you understand each point of view & why the conflict has occurred.
  2. If necessary, do an independent review. Try to seek out the root cause of the problem.
  3. Determine a solution that serves the best interests of the parties involved and the Center.
  4. Bring the parties together and clearly present your understanding of the conflict/problem. Make every effort to get each party to understand the others point of view and mutually agree on an appropriate solution to the problem.
  5. If the parties cannot agree on an appropriate solution, clearly & concisely explain the solution you have determined. Stress that your decision is based on a fair & balanced analysis of the facts and the solution you are imposing is in the best interests of both the parties and the Center.

There may be instances when the conflict is based on some unspecified dislike. There is no easy solution to this type of conflict. When two individuals dislike each other, there is no magic formula to make them suddenly become friends. Two or more employees in "open warfare" can significantly affect the morale and productivity of the Center. Therefore, in this type of situation, it is the supervisor's responsibility to insist that the parties involved put aside their personal feelings and behave in a professional, non-confrontational manner while on duty. If the parties are not able to do this, some form of disciplinary action may be required.

The Basics of the Incident Command System

APCO Institute Curriculum Handout
Written by Kathy Schatel, APCO Institute EMD Services Coordinator

Incident Command is a term that is found in almost every public safety situation, referring to policies and procedures that establish the command structure for incidents. Communications is a part of the Incident Command System (ICS) and you must be familiar with your role in the incident and how it relates to unit response.

The ICS was developed to prescribe a common terminology and method of operating at emergency incidents. Standardization enables agencies that never or rarely work together to instantly recognize terminology and actions in an emergency with a minimum of confusion.

To understand ICS is to understand the building blocks of a command structure that can be built as big as needed to manage and mitigate the given emergency. ICS is used in fires, natural disasters, hazardous material incidents, and mass or multiple casualty incidents (MCI). The Incident Command System is a sophisticated resource management tool that can expand or control to fit the size of any emergency.

Functional Callsigns

Functional callsigns are a major ingredient of ICS. In pre-ICS days, units would arrive at an incident and use their normal callsigns, such as Engine 2, Rescue 5, or Battalion 4. This is fine for a small incident, but in large multi-jurisdictional incidents it could cause some confusion. There could be two Engine 3's or two Battalion 4's on the same scene. Confusion could also be caused by not knowing to whom you were speaking. This is particularly true druing prolonged incidents where there were changes in personnel doing specific jobs. By using a functional callsign these problems are reduced or eliminated. A functional command callsign is named after the job the person does, rather than who they are. As an example, the person in charge is the incident commander or IC, regardless of who holds that job during an incident. Other common functional callsigns used in ICS include: Staging Area, Medical, Operations, Logistics, and Tactical sub units such as strike teams, task forces, divisions, and sectors. In structural fires some of these titles can also be location related such as: roof, interior, and basement.

Command Span

ICS was build to a command span principle designed to make the most effective use of leadership and control. A tactical leader can effectively manage up to five resources. Thus in ICS the magic number is five resources. As an example, a strike team is five of the same type of apparatus under the command of one officer called a strike team leader. Five strike teams operate under one sector officer and five sectors are under the control of a division officer. Thus 125 fire apparatus would be operating under the command of the division officer, but that officer would only need to give orders to his five sector chiefs. On a major wildland fire there can be several hundred apparatus operating at any one time, along with ground crews and aircraft in a complex coordinated effort to contain the fire.

Below are important basic ICS terms that every communicator should understand. They are listed in logical order, as opposed to alphabetical.

Any equipment or personnel needed, requested or used to manage or mitigate the emergency.

Allocated Resource
A resource dispatched to an incident but not yet checked in at the incident.

Available Resource
Resources checked in at an incident and ready for an assignment.

Location where primary logistical functions are coordinated and administered, NOT the command post: supports the command post by managing many essential tasks. Bases are frequently used in major wildland fires; large incidents may have multiple bases. Bases frequently have a location name attached to them as an identifier, i.e. "Camino Base," "Main Street Base," etc.

Staging Area
The location resources report to during an incident: May be separate locations or part of a base; urban staging is frequently set up on a street within a few blocks of the fire; units wait at the staging area until assigned a task; staging areas are an active part of communications during major incidents.

Command Post
Location of the person(s) with primary command responsibility. The command post may be located at the base or elsewhere; Usually well marked.

Incident Commander
Person who is charged with the overall strategic command of an incident; Ultimate resource manager for an emergency; Person filling the Incident Commander position may change several times during an incident.

An organizational level that has responsibility for primary segments of an incident. Examples of sections include Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Administration/Finance.

Organizational element providing a specific support function working under the control of a section. Examples include: Weather Forecasting Unit, Time Unit, Medical Unit, and Communications Unit.

An organizational level having functional or geographic responsibility for major segments of the operation. Examples could include: Air Branch or Support Branch.

An organizational element that is responsible for the tactical operations within a defined location. Examples can be identified by letters, such as Division A, or by geographical location such as North Stairwell, or by Roof Division.

Two options: 1) Used as a specific location within a division, i.e. a large building has a roof division, and is then broken up into "logical" sectors; normally numbered, i.e. Roof Sector 2.
2) Describes a division or a group.

Organizational element that provides a primary job within an incident; May include Fire Attack, Primary Search, Ventilation, etc.; In large incidents such as high-rise fires groups may be further identified by location (14th Floor Fire Attack), or with an alpha-numeric identifier (Fire Attack 1,
Fire Attack B).

Lowest level of organizational element; Can be a permanent unit, such as an engine company which arrived at the fire, or one made up to do a specific task; Will ALWAYS have a designated leader, and in most cases will have the normal command span of five persons. (Exceptions may apply.)

Strike Team
Five of the same type of resource under the command to a strike team leader; Varied in their make-up; Is common to have bulldozer strike teams, ambulance strike teams or engine strike teams; Generally have numerical designator (Strike Team 4511).

Task Force
Up to five dissimilar resources grouped together for a specific task. Example: three hand crews and two engines grouped together under the command of an officer. Identifiers such as Task Force 27.

A specific entity involved in the management or mitigation of the emergency, i.e. police, fire, public works, EMS or others.

Assisting Agency
An agency with resources directly committed to the management and mitigation of the emergency. Example: an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) dispatched by FEMA, county animal control, etc.

Cooperating Agency
An agency providing support or assistance other than active management or mitigation role. Examples include the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Civil Air Patrol, Army Corps of Engineers. Law enforcement resources fall under either category depending on their actual job function for this emergency.

Agency Representative
The individual assigned from an assisting or cooperating agency that has been empowered to act as the decision-making authority for that agency during the emergency. When multiple agencies and jurisdictions are involved these representatives are generally grouped as "Unified Command" and provide staff and liaison functions for the IC and his executive staff.

Incident Action Plan
Plan developed by the incident commander; outlines strategic goals for incident management and mitigation, and related tactical objectives to meet the goals. All incidents require an action plan, written or verbal. Larger incidents, especially thost that involve major disasters or prolonged operations lasting longer than 12 hours, require more complex written plans. Generally in these large incidents, the staff group responsible for a given portion of the support plan writes that portion. The IC is then free to concentrate on the actual management of the incident. Examples include the medical plan, the food service plan, and the communications plan.

ICS appears very complicated. While there are many branches, sections, groups and other units working together on the incident, ICS actually serves as a way of getting everyone to cooperate. Remember that the ICS can be expanded or contracted as needed. Communications is greatly simplified by the use of ICS. Everyone knows whom they report to. The radio traffic to the IC is limited to necessary members of the command staff only. Larger incidents can occupy multiple frequencies to further isolate key staff groups and allow for a more focused approach to incident management.

Suicide Intervention for Calltakers

APCO Institute Handout
Written by Tony Harrison

Suicide is a taboo topic, riddled with secrecy and inaccurate notions. It is also one of the most feared calls a telecommunicator can take. Suicide is as old as recorded history and has occurred in almost every culture in the world. As we begin to look at how a telecommunicator can intervene with a suicidal caller we should look at some facts that surround suicide.

Suicide Facts
  • Suicide is consistently under reported
  • Suicide notes are left in only 15-20% of suicides
  • Suicide rates have steadily increased since 1960
  • There are more suicides than homicides in the United States
  • Family members are nine times more likely to attempt suicide in a family member has committed suicide

What is Suicide

  • A final attempt to communicate what a person cannot express in words.
  • A transient state where the suicidal person moves from being suicidal to non-suicidal.
  • The suicidal person sees more of the negative aspects of life than the positive.
  • Suicidal people many times try and cut off ties with friends.

So what should a calltaker do when they have a suicidal person on the phone? The calltaker should remember several things. The first thing is that many of us have been trained all our careers to control the call. The problem is that the suicidal caller may not be a call that you have control of. Many of us have been told that when a suicidal person calls they are looking for help. That is not always the case. There are a certain amount of suicidal persons who will call for no other reason than to make sure that their bodies are found after their suicide. During their call to 911 they will leave no chance of intervention. The important thing for the calltaker to remember is that they may not be in control. That the person calling may not be looking for help. Do not set yourself up for a fall.

Risk Assessment

The first step in the intervention process many times is going to be risk assessment. Risk assessment involves not only assessing the risk of suicide for the caller but the risk for responders.

Risk assessment for the callers begins with determining if the caller has a suicidal plan.

A suicidal plan contains the following: method, time, details and availability of means. Method is how the person will kill himself or herself. Firearms are the most lethal means of suicide followed by hanging and then overdose. Any suicide attempt involving one of these three methods should be treated as a high-risk situation. If the attempt is in progress you have a high-risk situatioin no matter what the method of suicide is. If you have an attempt that may take place in a few hours or some time in the future it is lower risk. The next step is the details of the suicide plan. One example is if the caller tells you they will commit suicide on Friday at 5:00 p.m. by use of a firearm. The suicide plan is very detailed and the risk is very high even if it is Monday. The last part of the suicide plan is availability of means. If the person says they are going to kill themselves by overdose but they are going to have to stockpile medicine for a week the risk is less than a person who has the pills available.

The second part to risk assessment is to determine the risk to responders. As communications professionals we have a responsibility not only to the caller but also to people who are responding to the scene. Are there weapons involved or present? What are the actions of the suicidal person? Has the suicidal person made any statements currently or in the past that may lead you to believe that they may be a danger to responders? You must also be aware of suicide by cop. Suicide by cop is officially defined as "an outrageous act designed to provoke a police response." It is believed that 10-15% of all subjects killed by police wanted to be killed. It has been estimated that in 56% of suicide by cop incidents, the lives of police or bystanders were directly threatened. A calltaker needs to be aware of callers who may want an officer to kill them.

Suicide Intervention

Many times when we get a suicidal person on the phone they do not just come out and tell us that they are going to kill themselves. Many times the suicidal person will be talking about how bad life is and how they do not know how to go on. If you do not know if a person is suicidal ask them. Are you thinking about killing yourself? Once you have determined that you are talking to a suicidal person assure them that you are glad they called, calm yourself and modulate your voice. Keep the caller talking, be personable and explore the caller's situation. You want to determine what is the current stressor but you do not want to focus on it. You do not want to focus on the caller's troubles. You want to focus the caller on the positive aspects of life. You want to find a way to remind the caller that there are other solutions than suicide. You want to give the caller a sense of acceptance and support. Once you have been able to establish a rapport with the caller you want to begin to move them to a successful conclusion. The conclusion can be as easy as have the person walk to the front door and meet responding officers. The conclusion may be after hours of hard negotiations by you and others.

Suicide intervention involves a few do's and don'ts that can help the calltaker.


  • Do listen
  • Regulate your voice
  • Be non-judgmental
  • Offer help


  • Don't dare them
  • Don't give advice by making decisions for someone else
  • Don't act shocked
  • Don't be sworn to secrecy

A suicidal caller is a very stressful call for any calltaker. The calltaker should remember that the decision to commit suicide is the decision of the caller. Do not set yourself up for a fall. The calltaker should do their best in the intervention process but you must remember that the final decision is that of the caller.

Cutting-Edge Toods to Help Responders & Telecommunicators

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine February 2008
Written by Alicia Ihnken, training course instructor for APCO Institute

As you sit in your communications centers around the globe, curiosity may make you wonder if there's some sort of new technology that will imrove how telecommunicators do their job or help officers gather important information, solve crimes or save lives. After all, so many advances have been made in the past few decades that it might seem like we've hit a wall. The good news is that technology continues to develop and enhance our lives.

The computer itself is the most prominent technological advancement of the past 100 years. As technology advances, computers are becoming even smaller and their uses more diverse. Consider the tiny computers inside iPods, MP3 players and cell phones. Probably the most significant technological advancement for telecommunicators is computer-aided dispatch (CAD). In the field, police officers, firefighters and EMS providers are using sophisticated laptop and notebook computers to assist in a variety of tasks. Thanks to technology, police officers now have less-lethal weapon options; stun guns and TASERs are a far cry from nightsticks tapped on the sidewalk.

On the surface, it may seem that many of the technological advancements made in public safety affect just responders, but if you dive deeper, you'll find that these advancements also affect the comm center. The following noteworthy technology advancements may soon be making their presence felt at your agency.

Unifying Technology

For important reasons, interoperability has been a buzzword in public safety for the past few years. The ability to connect people, information, operating systems and programs is critical during large-scale disasters (e.g., Hurricane Katrina or the recent wildfires in Southern California) and at planned events (e.g., NASCAR races or a Major League Baseball game). A tool specifically designed to enhance interoperability and better facilitate unified command at large-scale incidents is the Mobile Tactical Collaboration System (MTCS) from Ordia Solutions.

This browser-based tool can be used on laptops in the field and allows users to integrate different technology and software programs with GIS. It can work with existing software, including CAD, AVL and other incident management or EOC programs. It allows the user to see an aerial picture of a scene in real time. The technology supports voice communication with pictorial information that takes the guess work out of orders and direction from command staff who don't necessarily have to be on the scene. Resources can be allocated from any number of points without the need for a centralized staging area.

From fighting fires to advanced surveillance, technology is increasing the possibilities and strengths of public safety agencies.

View From Above

NASA can assist in fighting forest fires by providing satellite views that depict hotspots, showing responders using planes and helicopters where to drop fire suppression chemicals and water. A practical demonstration of this type of coordination took place during the 2007 California wildfires when tactical planes were used to direct air tankers and Super Huey helicopters to areas in desperate need of fire suppression. The planes recorded ground data with infrared sensors and then transmitted it to ground crews. The ground crews used laptops and global positioning system (GPS) technology to track and predict the movement of the wildfires. This, coupled with images provided by NASA satellites, helped the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) combat the fires. Not only did the technology help firefighters in the immediate circumstances, but all the data were recorded so analysts can use the information to design more effective strategies for stopping future fires.

The Detailed View

Another technological advancement for fire departments comes in a package about the size and shape of a laptop. Command Scope, from RealView, is a device that allows the user to access detailed information, structural floor plans, photos and aerial views of a structure via a touch screen. This comes in handy when responding to a structure fire or chemical spill. It can help fire officers determine the safest escape route for trapped victims or fire personnel and can shed light on how the fire might develop over time. Currently, the device has only commercial data on it, but some fire agencies are providing secure Web sites where residents can post information about their homes for use in an emergency.

The possibilities of this technology are exciting. In the future, it may be linked to heat sensors, which would allow responders to predict hot spots before entering a building and show them where to access a safe egress route. This could be combined with the unified command technology in the event of an incident involving a large building, such as a school or mall.

Law Enforcement Tools

Advances made in law enforcement technology include driver's license swipe machines that read the magnetic strip on the card and automatically run the name for warrants and driver status.

Another law enforcement example is a portable breath test instrument, the Intoxilyzer 8000. This compact version of the breath test devices found in jails and precincts across the U.S. is designed to be mounted in a police vehicle and used on scene. The technology involved to make this machine reliable and noteworthy includes a self-diagnostic system that performs a check before and after the breath test. There's also an option to have a laser printer hooked up so that the readout can be printed on demand.

The advantage this affords to you as a telecommunicator is time. With drunk driver stops, there's a mandatory observation period before the breath test can be administered. This allows for any incidental alcohol in the mouth, which can come from mouthwash or certain types of medicine, to dissipate and makes the test more reliable. The required observation time for the Intoxilyzer 8000 is 20 minutes. This time cannot be spent with the officer driving the prisoner to the jail. It can, however, be spent with the officer waiting for a tow truck for the driver's car, thus getting that officer back on the road a lot sooner than if you had to wait for a tow truck, transport, then abide by the observation period. One option: This portable machine could be brought to the scene by the designated breath test operator. This type of procedure saves time and money and gets your responders back in service sooner.

Another even more exciting advancement in law enforcement technology is the vehicle disabling weapon (VDW). This weapon is designed for use in traffic incidents in which the suspect is in a vehicle and fleeing from law enforcement. The device is mounted in the patrol vehicle and is capable of emitting a radio frequency that disables the suspect vehicle. Pursuits can be responsible to property damage, injuries and death, and disabling a suspect vehicle with the VDW provides a much safer option than spike sticks or barricades. In the early 1990s, approximately 331 people were killed in the U.S. each year as a result of police pursuits, and, on average, 68% of those killed were uninvolved parties. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Foundation, 81 officers died in traffic-related incidents last year alone. The VDW affords the responder with a greater margin of safety. Its range is up to two kilometers, which is much further than any other non-lethal weapon today. The range can be focused on one target without affecting surrounding vehicles, or it can be focused on a number of targets, disabling them all.

The VDW does have some limitations. It won't work in heavy rain or fog and has limited range in light rain and similar weather conditions.

Use of this technology can protect life and property. It may also reduce stress for the telecommunicator handling the pursuit. Although this technology is not widely used, additional developments are expected to provide a more compact, efficient and cost-effective product for law enforcement agencies and the military.

How Technology Affects the Comm Center

Whenever responders get new technology, it can affect telecommunicators in a variety of ways. The most obvious is procedural. If the fire agency decides to upgrade its technology to enhanced unified command software, such as the MTCS, it could affect how the telecommunicator handles the incident. There may be a link in the comm center that requires additional training so the telecommunicator can successfully navigate through an incident using the new technology in tandem with command.

A specialized piece of equipment, such as the Intoxilyzer 8000, could affect comm center policy by changing the order of who is dispatched where and when. Open lines of communication are crucial whenever new things are introduced into any part of public safety.

Training is an essential component to the introduction of anything new. The training must be properly timed to afford users the opportunity to absorb the information beforehand and scheduled close enough to implementation to reduce confusion.

Stay on top of the latest developments in the agencies you dispatch for. If possible, designate a liaison to assist with this so that when new technology is introduced into the comm center, that person can communicate its effects to the affected agencies.

Why Prioritize?

APCO Institute Training Handout
Written by Stephanie Graves

Why do we need to prioritize calls in public safety? Everyone who calls the agency thinks that he or she has an emergency that requires a response. Therefore, agencies could adopt a "first come, first served" policy, answering calls in the order they were received.

It isn't that simple, though. Calls must be answered in order of urgency, and even that can get a little difficult. In this unit, we will look at why prioritization is necessary. Then we will look at a typical police prioritization hierarchy.

In the emergency services, there are some calls that require an urgent response, and some that need little or no response at all. The urgent calls receive the most attention, while the less urgent calls are given a lower priority. These lower priority calls are handled when time and resources allow.

Agencies have found it necessary to rank cals in a hierarchy, identifying those calls that are the most urgent. As available resources are reduced due to a high activity volume, calls are "held" for an available reponder. The authority for these "holds" is normally vested in the field supervisor, although in some agencies, the telecommunications supervisor is responsible for holding calls -- and seeing that all calls are answered in a timely manner.

In many agencies, call prioritization policies include provisions that prohibit the use of field resources on certain types of calls. This is meant to keep the responders free to handle the more urgent calls for service and keep them "on the road" for other duties, like preventative patrols.

In a typical agency, the call taker or dispatcher will send units to the more urgent calls first. This may be based on a policy or procedure that assigns definite priorities to certain types of calls, or it may be based on the common sense, experience and training of the telecommunicator. In either case, the more urgent calls get the first response.

There may be a time when a low priority call is bumped up the priority list because of the frequency and variety of callers. For example, a suspicious person at four in the afternoon may not be a high priority call. When five calls are received in fifteen minutes concerning this same suspicious person, it becomes more urgent to respond and check out the situation. Priority of a call is not only dictated by the type of call, but it is also dictated by the number and frequency of calls on the same incident.

CAD Environments and Call Prioritization

Many agencies use computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems that automatically assign a priority to a call depending on the type of call that is entered by the call taker. For example, a call of vandalism is a lower priority call than a burglary in progress. Through the use of numerical systems or other rating systems, the CAD suggests or assigns a priority level to the call according to a predetermined chart. While the call taker may have the opportunity to change the priority level of the call, this is rarely done in a busy dispatch environment.

Call entry in CAD requires that the call taker choose a "title" for the call based on a forced list of choices. When a choice is made, the computer assigns the corresponding level of priority to the call. The information is then listed for dispatch, with the highest priority calls appearing first. A low priority call may be superceded by a higher priority call that comes in later, but is more urgent.

In large jurisdictions with many call takers, there is a tendency to not connect calls that may be a repeat of multiple calls on the same incident. In smaller agencies, all callers may speak to the same one or two people, while in large agencies, ten people could call and conceivably talk to ten different call takers.

To compensate for this problem, some CAD systems have a feature that is known as "near and similar." With this feature, the computer looks for calls that have the same or similar call type classification and are close to these other calls. It then alerts the dispatcher that there may be a more urgent problem due to many calls of one minor incident. The dispatcher can then "bump" the call up on the list and assign a field response to this group of calls.

It is important to note that when working with a CAD system, the telecommunicator must exercise some level of judgment in call prioritization. Experience has shown us that reliance on CAD to properly prioritize all calls can create significant problems. Agency policy should allow for changes in call priority by the telecommunicator as needed.

Common Prioritization Scheme

Call prioritization schemes create a hierarchy of calls for service, ranking them from the most urgent to the least urgent. In some agencies, the lower level calls are not answered by field responders at all -- a conscious decision driven by allocations of limited field resources.

The following is a typical call prioritization hierarchy. While your agency may differ in some areas, this represents current thinking in call priority.

  • P-1 Officer needs assistance - These calls respond to a call from an officer for assistance in a violent of potentially violent situation. This can include backups for officers responding to potentially dangerous situations, or when policy and procedure require sending one or more backup units. All other calls for service are held until the call type is resolved.
  • P-2 Violent crimes in progress - "Violent crimes" in progress involve personal injury or the threat of impending personal injury. By its classification, a violent crime that is occurring now can lead to bodily harm or death, thus requiring an immedicate response. In these cases, callers are kept on the phone to relay ongoing information about the situation.
  • P-3 Incidents involving personal injury - If the crime is already past or the incident is over, the fact that people are hurt will drive an urgent response to render aid. These include traffic accidents with injury, as well as other criminal personal injury incidents.

Priority 1-3 normally requires an immediate response, even if it means pulling responders from other calls that they are handling.

  • P-4 In-progress incidents involving property loss only - These calls involve burglaries in progress, thefts in progress, and other property crimes in progress. Some agencies will rank these types of incidents with the top three, requiring an immediate response.
  • P-5 Property loss incidents (not in progress) - These calls require a police response to an incident that has already occurred, and where those responsible for the crime are no longer at the scene. Police respond to the scene to begin an investigation or to create a report for insurance purposes.
  • P-6 Officer-initiated field activity - An officer may be called from a field stop, a traffic stop or other routine duty to answer any of the above calls for service.
  • P-7 Nuisance calls - These calls are classified on the lowest level because of many factors. In situations where the police have no jurisdiction or no responsibility, callers may be referred to the proper agency for actionl. For example, a "barking dog call" may not be answered by a field responder in many jurisdictions. However, a neighborhood of barking dogs in a high crime area may be worth investigating. This is where common sense, experience and judgment come in!

Every agency has a slightly different way to prioritize calls for service. Similarly, every agency provides a slightly different level of discretion to the call takers and dispatchers when it comes to moving outside of the call prioritization guidelines. Review your agency policy and procedure manual and be familiar with your own priority levels.

Gone Missing: The Telecommunicator's Role in Activating an AMBER Alert

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine August 2007
Written by Sheila Hanna-Wiles, training coordinator for Laurens County, SC; and adjunct instructor for APCO International

Imagine a child outside playing in the yard. The mother goes inside the house to get some lemonade. When she gets back to the yard a few short minutes later, her child is nowhere to be found. She screams her child's name over and over; but there's no response. Panic begins to set in, and she reaches for the phone to dial 911. The telecommunicator on the other end of the line is empathetic and begins the process of finding the child.

The telecommunicator is the first step in the AMBER Alert plan. To understand the process, you must understand the scope of the problem, as well as the purpose and history of the AMBER Alert program.

Scope & History

In 1997, the Washington State Attorney General's office conducted a study and later estimated that 100 abducted children are murdered each year, and that 74% of those murders are committed within the first three hours following the abduction.

In 2002, according to NiSmart-2 (the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children) and other studies of missing children, an estimated 797,500 children were classified as missing in the United States.

Several different categories are use to classify missing children. The four primary classifications are family abduction, endangered, non-family abduction and lost.

Annually, more that 114,000 children are abducted by non-family members; and more that 300 of those children who are abducted by non-family members stay missing for long periods of time, or they are murdered. More than 450,000 children run away from home annually. More than 350,000 children are abducted by family members annually. And as many as 438,000 children are lost, injured or go missing annually.

One missing child case sparked a nationwide effort to create a process that would help authorities quickly locate missing children. In 1996, Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old girl from Arlington, Texas, was outside riding her bicycle when a stranger pulled her off the bike and put her in his truck. A neighbor heard Amber scream and looked in time to see the man pull her into the front seat of the truck. The neighbor immediately called the police and gave them a description of the man and the truck he was driving. The local news and radio stations aired the kidnapping during their normal broadcasts. Tragically, four days later, Amber's body was found in a drainage ditch four miles away from home. No arrests have been made.

This case outraged the community, and area residents urged the local news and radio stations to begin issuing special alerts, similar to weather alerts, when a child is reported missing. The following year, through a partnership with local law enforcement and broadcasters, the AMBER (America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert plan was put into place. Then in 2003, President Bush signed the PROTECT Act, making the AMBER Alert program a national initiative.

Criteria For Activation

The criteria that must be met before an AMBER Alert can be activated are: 1) Law enforcement must confirm that the child has been abducted; 2) law enforcement believes the circumstances surrounding the abduction indicate that the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death; 3) there is enough descriptive information about the child, abductor and/or suspect's vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help; 4) the abducted child is 17 years old or younger (check your state policy); and 5) the child's name and other critical data elements are entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system (check your state policy).

Every state has an AMBER Alert contact who will define its AMBER Alert plan. The plan will consist at a minimum of the criteria that must be met and the identity of the state division responsible for disseminating the information to the primary radio and/or television stations.

Once the criteria are met, the state AMBER Alert coordinator will put together all the information that is available, including a description of the missing child and vehicle (if applicable), pictures (an absolute must-have for a speedy recovery) and a description of the abductor. That information is faxed to the primary radio and/or television stations. The primary station(s) sends that information to local stations through the Emergency Alert System (EAS). The local participating radio stations interrupt programming to broadcast the alert, and local participating television stations run a "crawl" at the bottom of the screen with a photograph, if available. Some states have also incorporated electronic highway billboards. Billboards typically used to disseminate traffic information to drivers can also be used to disseminate information about an abducted child. In addition, AMBER Alerts can be sent to more than 190 million individuals via cellular phones.

The AMBER Alert plan uses the EAS, formerly known as the Emergency Broadcasting System, to deliver information about child abductions to radio and television stations. The EAS was created in 1994 by the FCC to replace the Emergency Broadcasting System that was originally created to allow the president to address the American people in the event of a national emergency.

Amber Alert in Action

The following two true stories illustrate outcomes before and after the AMBER Alert plan was put in place. The first story, which occurred before AMBER Altert plans were implemented, is one you may be familiar with.

On July 27, 1981, six-year-old Adam Walsh and his mother Reve went to a department store about a mile away from their home to shop for lamps. When they entered the store, Adam saw several children playing video games on a television monitor and asked if he could stay to play. His mother let him stay and went to the lamp department, about 75 feet away. Because the lamp she wanted was not in stock, she returned quickly, less than 10 minutes later, but couldn't find Adam. After she had looked for Adam on her own for two hours, someone finally called the local police department. By the end of that week, thousands of flyers with Adam's photograph had been distributed in the local area. Sixteen days after Adam disappeared from the store, his remains were found and identified.

This next true story occurred after the AMBER Alert plan was put into place.

In March 1999, nine-year-old Fleisha Moore and a friend were walking home when a man driving a truck pulled into the parking lot just ahead of them. The driver got out and asked the girls if they had seen a bunch of kittens in a nearby field. After Fleisha stepped forward to take a closer look, the man grabbed her, put her in the truck and sped off. Luckily her friend was able to give police a description of the abductor and the truck he was driving.

An AMBER Alert was immediately activated with a description of Fleisha, the abductor and his red Chevy truck with tinted windows and a yellow compressor on the back. Radio stations across the region instantly filled the airwaves with urgent alerts about the crime.

About five hours after the abduction, several motorists called to report a child wandering along Interstate 45, about 60 miles from Dallas. It was Fleisha. Within 10 minutes, she was rescued.

Fleisha told police that she remembered the man was listening to the radio when he pulled over and ordered her to get out. At the time, and AMBER Alert was put out every 15 minutes over 32 radio stations in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Fleisha is back home with her family. Within hours after Fleisha was located, her abductor was arrested based on the description that Fleisha's friend had given them.

These are similar stories but with very different outcomes. Why? Because the AMBER Alert plan was available at the time of the second incident. This year alone more than 30 abducted children have been saved by using the AMBER Alert plan.

An AMBER Alert plan:
  • Is a powerful law enforcement tool;
  • Is in the public's interest;
  • Allows for a quick response to serious abductions;
  • Allows broadcasters to contribute to the community by issuing the alerts;
  • Helps law enforcement either solve the case or locate witnesses;
  • Involves the whole community in the recovery;
  • Involves the whole community in the capture of the perpetrator;
  • Acts as a deterrent for this type of crime;
  • Builds a relationship among law enforcement, broadcasters and the community;
  • Doesn't cost anything to implement; and
  • Saves lives.

Remember, the law has changed. We don't have to wait 24 hours before a missing person report can be made. The sooner a report is made the better the chances of finding the person. Not all missing persons reports with activate the AMBER Alert plan. Check your agency's policies and procedures for the proper way to handle a missing persons report in your jurisdiction. Educate your community on child safe-practices.

A Complementary Program

Ten years after the first AMBER Alert plan was implemented, all 50 states have implemented a statewide AMBER Alert plan and more than 241 children have been rescued as a result. But because an AMBER Alert is not appropriate for every missing child report, a broader plan was necessary.

In February 2004, 11-year-old Carlie Brucia in Sarasota, Florida, was tragically abducted. In response to this tragedy, members of the Orlando Regional Operations Center working on the case determined that they needed trained experts in the field of child abduction investigation and response. These experts needed to be able to respond to an abduction immediately, assist the lead local law enforcement agency and bring additional regional resources to the recovery effort. And because of this, Child Abduction Response Teams (CARTs) were born.

CARTs are formed locally and regionally by each state. Typically, the members are law enforcement investigators, forensic experts, AMBER Alert coordinators, state and local officials, search and rescue professionals, crime intelligence analysts, victim service providers and other inter-agency resources. The Department of Justice provides regional training to CART teams throughout the United States.

CART complements the AMBER Alert plan because it can be used for all missing children cases and can be deployed as part of an AMBER Alert or when a child is abducted or missing but the abduction/disappearance does not meet the AMBER Alert criteria. CART has been activated more than 15 times and with 12 children recovered.

Last Word

Back in the 1970s, in Detroit, there were several child abductions. The abductor(s) would entice children to get in the vehicles by offering them candy. Schoolchildren were required to walk to and from school at that time, and school officials tried very hard to educate the children on the danger of getting in a vehicle with a stranger.

One snowy afternoon in December 1977, a group of children was walking home from school when a stranger pulled to the side of the road where the children were walking. The stranger told the children he had some candy in his car and asked if they wanted any. The group of children took off running -- except for one child who could not climb up the hill of snow in front of her. The strange man realized that this child was alone and started walking toward her. The child ran in the other direction, stopped at a house and pounded on the door. The stranger continued coming toward the child until someone opened the door.

That child is alive today because of the education and information that was shared with her through her family and school. Now that child is writing this article for you. I share my story to emphasize that this does not just happen to other people; it can happen close to home. I am forever grateful to those school officials who took the time to be educated themselves and then pass that information on to us. As a telecommunicator, you are like the school officials; take the time to become educated on the AMBER Alert plan so you can use your knowledge to help a missing child.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Handling Trauma Calls

Taken from Public Communications Magazine February 2005
Written by Bob Smith

Trauma is generally defined as "physical injury caused by an accident or violence." The proper EMS response and pre-arrival instructions for traumatic-incident calls rely heavily on the Emergency Medical Dispatcher's (EMDs) ability to gather several key points of information regarding the nature of the incident, the extent and location of injuries and the identification of priority symptoms.

With trauma calls, the caller typically reports the chief complaint as a mechanism of injury. The mechanism of injury is how the patient received the injury. Examples of this can be reports of a pedestrian struck by a vehicle or a person who has fallen off the roof.

The EMD will assess traumatic-incident calls differently from calls with medical chief complaints. The factors used to determine response levels to traumatic injuries are different from those applied to medical complaints. The primary determining factors in response to traumatic incidents are the mechanism of injury, the location of the injury on the body (central or peripheral, torso or arms and legs) and the presence of any significant critical symptoms.

Significant critical symptoms can include altered levels of consciousness (which can indicate the onset of shock), a head injury, an underlying medical problem, severe hemorrhage or breathing problems associated with injuries to the central core.

Pre-arrival instructions for traumatic incidents vary widely based on the situation and injury. In many cases, they include the same instructions that apply to medical chief complaints, especially in dealing with airway control. However, traumatic incident guidecards include more specific injury-related instructions. These pre-arrival instructions are designed to protect the patient from further injuries caused by well-meaning but untrained bystanders who try to help.

In these cases, pre-arrival instructions primarily address ensuring scene safety for patients, bystanders and responders. Instructions are provided for controlling external bleeding, for ensuring the patient's airway is clear and for advising the caller to do nothing (if that's the most appropriate action). The caller is also directed to guide responding units to the patient and to call back if the patient's condition worsens.

EMDs should suspect spinal-cord injuries if they are given an indication of severe facial or head injuries, unconsciousness, numbness, tingling or loss of sensation in any extremeties, paralysis or an inability to move any extremities, pain in the back upon movement or attempted movement, or any motor dysfunctions.

Some additional considerations exist for dealing with traumatic incidents involving pediatric patients. Traumatic incidents are by far the most common chief complaints in incidents involving children. With regard to CPR and obstructed-airway intervention, children are defined as aged one to eight years. People who are older that that are considered adults for CPR purposes.

Traumatically injured children should not be moved unless in danger. A common error is to move or pick up the child, run into the house or shelter and hold the child to comfort him or her. This can lead to further injuries in patients with spinal injuries. If injured children move on their own, they should be made to lie down on a flat surface and encouraged to remain still until responders arrive. Bystanders should be instructed to keep children calm and reassured until help arrives.

Children can have critical injuries where the symptoms remain hidden until the child reaches a point of rapid deterioration. Critical symptoms such as low blood pressure do not appear as rapidly in children as in adults. Others symptoms like breathing and pulse may be difficult to interpret in a child who is hurt or frightened. If priority symptoms are present, time is critical and the child must be taken for care immediately.

Concsious injured children require extra attention. Callers should reassure and support the child emotionally. This support should be constant and, preferably, come from a single, consistent bystander. This must be communicated through the EMD to the bystanders.

Remember, the emotional condition of the patient and/or the caller should not be considered an indicator of the severity of the problem. Bystanders and children may be distraught from witnessing the incident or from the sight of blood of of limbs bent at unnatural angles. Different people react to emergency situations differently. One person may react calmly and the next hysterically to the same situation. Never allow a caller's emotional status to dictate a response mode. Do not assume the incident is more or less serious than it sounds, based on the caller's reaction.

This is especially true if the caller is a child. Children sometimes cannot grasp the severity of a situation or the grave danger involved. Their lack of experience and knowledge may cause them to be relatively calm, despite the critical nature of a situation.

Prevention is the most powerful treatment for most childhood injuries. EMDs can play a role in injury prevention by recognizing and reporting traffic, playground or other hazards as they are identified in calls relating to childhood injuries.

These are some suggested methods for handling traumatic calls. Refer to your supervisor, your agency's operating guidelines and your APCO Institute EMD Guidecards and MEDS software for assistance and further information.

Emergency Preparedness

Excerpts taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine February 2005
Written by Jerry Fackler, he is an emergency-management planner for the Capital Area Planning Council in Austin, Texas

Emergencies and disasters can occur anytime. Public safety agencies will be called upon to respond quickly to victims. For first responders to take prompt action, dispatchers must be available. PSAP personnel must not allow themselves to become victims during an emergency or disaster. It is imperative PSAP personnel have the necessary emergency supplies and procedures to sustain response activities in the PSAP for all hazards, including severe weather and technological and terrorist events, among others.

Terrorist events can include biological, chemical and radiological threats. A biological attack is the deliberate release of germs or other biological substances that can cause illness. Many agents must be inhaled, enter through a cut in the skin or be eaten to cause illness. Some biological agents do not cause infectious diseases; others can result in diseases that spread among people.

A chemical attack is the deliberate release of a toxic gas, liquid or solid that can poison people and the environment.

A radiological threat or "dirty bomb" is the use of common explosives to spread radioactive materials over a targeted area. It is not a nuclear blast. The force of the explosion and radioactive contamination will be more localized. While the explosion will be obvious immediately, the radiatioin may not be detected until trained personnel with specialized equipment are on scene.

Pack Well

You must have emergency supplies on hand if it is determined you must shelter in place during an emergency or disaster. An emergency-supplies kit contains items essential to survival during catastrophic events. A PSAP may be without one or more of the essential elements for human life for an extended period of time. It is imperative your emergency-supplies kit be complete. Your kit should be adjusted to your own needs. Do not include candles, weapons, toxic chemicals or controlled drugs, unless prescribed by a physician.


Not only must PSAP personnel have the necessary supplies, they also must know what to do during an emergency that affects the PSAP. Plan ahead to ensure the proper actions are taken during an emergency. This planning should include forming emergent teams, dividing responsibilities among team members and planning for sheltering in place.

Form emergent teams that will shelter together. Pre-designate a small, interior meeting room with no or few windows for each emergent team to use as its shelter. The team should be able to shut and lock all windows, exterior doors and any other openings from the room to the outside of the building. It is ideal to have a hard-wired telephone in the room you select.

Each team member should put his or her emergency-supplies kit in the appropriate pre-designated meeting room or make its position known to all personnel, so that it can be taken to the meeting room when needed.

Emergency Procedures

Upon being informed of an incident for which sheltering in place must occur, all personnel must be notified. Personnel must proceed to their team's pre-designated meeting rooms, shutting and locking all windows, exterior doors and other openings to the outside of the building. One team member should turn off the heating and air-conditioning systems as he or she proceeds to the team's meeting room. Assemble and take a roll of all personnel and visitors.

Depending on the type of hazard faced and if immediate action is needed, an appointed team member will close the building's vents and/or turn off natural gas utilities. Then he or she will return to the team's meeting place. If necessary for airborne agents, use duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal all cracks around the doors and any vents into the room.

Listen to the radio or television for announcements and directions from public officials.


If any personnel are exposed to biological, chemical or radiological hazards, they must do the following before arriving at the team's meeting room:
  • Remove all clothing, jewelry and any other items on their bodies
  • Place all items in plastic bags
  • Wash thoroughly
  • Don clean clothing
  • Proceed to the pre-designated team meeting room.

Preparing for emergencies will help ensure survival and continued effective response to emergencies. After all, it is the goal of everyone to be able to return to normal life with loved ones and friends.

Emergency-Supplies Kit Checklist

  • All-hazards weather-alert radio with SAME technology
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • AM/FM/NOAA battery powered radio
  • First aid supplies
  • Multi-tool
  • One complete change of clothes (long-sleeved shirt and long pants recommended)
  • One pair of shoes (sneakers recommended)
  • Disposable respirators
  • Latex gloves
  • Plastic bags or garbage bags and ties
  • Whistle
  • Duct tape and plastic sheeting (if practical)
  • Five-gallon bucket and small garden hose (to drain hot-water heaters for drinking or sanitary use, if needed)
  • Emergency "space" blanket (nylar)

Also include personal hygiene items such as:

  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Comb and/or brush
  • Soap
  • Contact-lens supplies
  • Moist towelettes
  • Feminine supplies
  • Eyeglasses (extra pair)
  • Prescription medications (at least a three day supply)
  • Non-prescription medications (pain relievers, stomach remedies, etc.)

Include enough non-perishable food to sustain you for at least one day (three meals). Select foods that require no refrigeration, preparation or cooking, and little or no water. The following items are suggested:

  • Ready-to-eat canned meals, meats, fruits, and vegetables.
  • High-energy foods (granola bars, energy bars, etc.)
  • Canned juices
  • Keep at least one gallon of water available, stored in plastic containers. Avoid using containers that will decompose or break.