9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Avoiding Calltaking Pitfalls

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine December 2005
Written by Jennifer Hagstrom, APCO Contributing Editor

Calltaking is in many ways the hardest job in any comm center -- particularly if that center dispatches for more than one discipline or agency. When you work a radio channel, you're generally dispatching only one agency on that channel and the transmissions usually fit set expectations, policies and patterns. But when you take calls at a multi-discipline or multi-agency center, the caller may well be calling for service from any discipline or any agency your center handles. You can't afford to have any expectations about what the next call will bring or how the next caller will behave.

It's not enough for you to determine the caller needs police service, as opposed to EMS or fire. You also have to determine which police agency and be sure you are guiding that call (and that caller) in accordance with that agency's policies, which may differ from those of the other police agencies you handle.

That can mean you have a lot to remember. And that's not counting EMD or any other services calltakers may be expected to provide.

Compounding this is the typical path of a career in many dispatch agencies, which starts at calltaking and then moves to the radio positions. For some agencies, this means new hires end up learning arguably the toughest job in the room -- call taking -- first.

That's rough.

It gets rougher. You're junior to everyone else there. Those radio operators may not have much confidence in you to start with, and most of them probably did your job before moving on. You're new, you're going to make mistakes, and you're sending tangible evidence of them to the radio operators as CAD incidents or complaint cards. Unfortunately, because the mistakes will have to be corrected, you're going to hear about them, on the spot and probably in front of anybody else around. And the nature of emergency-service work requires a speed that doesn't always lend itself to gentle handling or tact. You may well hear, "Play back that incident. The phone number's wrong and the address doesn't make sense," rather than, "Can you please play that incident back and double-check the phone number and address the caller gave you? I'm sure you put in exactly what he said, but the phone number isn't working when I try to call it back and we don't have a Fern Street in that city."

Four Things to Remember

The time after you've been cut loose from your trainer (who has been your shield against harsh questions and criticisms) and before you've become a "natural" at calltaking can last quite awhile, but it does pass. In the meantime, here are four things to remember to help you keep your perspective.

First, your radio operators -- those people who make you so miserable now -- weren't perfect calltakers themselves. They, too, went through a long period where it seemed like they were asked to correct or add some detail to every call they took. You would think this would make them more sensitive to your situation, but much of the time, it won't seem that way. The other three things to remember can help explain why.

Second, they really might have had it easier when they were calltakers. A number of your senior people may have started their careers before your center combined or consolidated and therefore had only one agency or one discipline to learn when they started. My agency dispatches for three law-enforcement agencies, two fire agencies and all the EMS in the county, but when I started, it was sheriff's office dispatch only. By the time of our first combination (with one of the fire agencies and EMS), I already knew the SO side and enough about basic calltaking to make adding the specifics of EMS/fire calltaking easier. I can't begin to know how difficult it is to learn calltaking at my agency now. Neither, probably, can some of your senior people whose memories don't fit the current facts. They remember what it was like when they learned calltaking and can't understand why you seem to be taking so long to learn "the same job." Seeing the disparity between two people's experiences with "the same job" may help increase the patience on both sides.

Third, it might be the first time you've made a particular mistake, but it's probably the thousandth time the radio operators have seen it. As unfair is it is, when you can hear impatience in the voice of the radio operator as a mistake is pointed out to you, you are being punished for everyone who has made the same mistake before you. Everyone makes the same mistakes in the learning process (except for those spectacular errors that become legendary in the center long after the culprit has stopped by Internal Affairs on his or her way out the door). Most mistakes fall into predictable categories: typos, missing details, confusing narrative, transposed numbers, etc. Your radio operators have seen them before, probably often enough to be frustrated by them. No, it's not fair that it's taken out on the new calltakers. Yes, some radio operators probably need to be reminded by their supervisors from time to time what it is they're really reacting to. Recognizing the real problem may help both sides handle it better.

Fourth, those same imperfect former calltakers who now are working radio positions aren't perfect there, either. The difference is this: radio operators see all the mistakes calltakers make in any calls they receive, but calltakers usually don't see the mistakes radio operators make. It's very one-sided. So the criticism goes all in one direction: from the radio operators to the calltakers. Before you know it, the calltakers believe the radio operators think they're perfect and, unfortunately, the calltakers dont have a list of radio-operators mistakes to dispel that notion. Calltakers, just because you can't see the mistakes radio operators make, it doesn't mean they aren't there. Trust me, they are.

These conflicts harm a center's atmosphere of teamwork, one botched interpersonal transaction, frustrated remark or hurt feeling at a time. Knowing what's really going on can help prevent that. It also helps if everyone in the room can check his or her ego at the door and remember that none of these situations is supposed to be personal!

The Icing on the Calltaking Cake

Each agency's calltaking training is designed to impart the basics to new hires. And calltaking is so involved, sometimes it's all you can do to get the basics down before you're cut loose. After you're cut loose, your job becomes to build on what you've learned, hone the fine points and keep bad habits from creeping in. Here are some ideas to help you do that.

The Pitfalls of Checklists

Many agencies provide guides or checklists consisting of questions to ask for each call type. These checklists are basic to EMD systems, but often are developed for law enforcement and fire calls as well. Sometimes they are embedded in the CAD systerm for quick reference. They are handy and useful.

However, they have a serious pitfall. It's easy to treat calls that have those questions answered as though they are complete. But those checklists establish only minimums for calltaking, and each call has unique details and circumstances that may not be covered by the checklist.

After months of looking at a checklist and filling it out question by question, problems can arise. First, calltakers can be so primed to move on to the next question that they record the answer to the current one without really thinking about it. They go into a kind of "checklist autopilot." When they do that, they are stenographers, not calltakers. In short, they're not doing their jobs.

Concentrating on the current answer, which is another way of saying "engaging in active listening," has several effects.

First, it will make narratives clearer: it's hard to write a cohesive call narrative when you were not really listening.

Second, the answer to the current question often leads to other questions that are critical but not on the call list. For example, let's assume you're taking a vehicle accident call, and one of the questions on your checklist is "Is there any roadblock?" You ask it. Your complainant tells you both vehicles have pulled off into the parking lot of the shopping center at that intersection. If you're paying attention, that answer may lead you to another question that's not in your checklist: Which shopping center? Many business district intersections have shopping plazas on more than one corner. Failing to get that information causes delays in response, callbacks for more information and an inability to tell whether a new caller reporting an accident at the same intersection is reporting a new incident or the one you already have.

Third, if calltakers merely fill in question fields and disconnect, they may not take a second after the last question to evaluate the overall call information to make sure it's complete, makes sense and appears to tell the whole story. For example, suppose you're taking a prowler call. Your caller tells you she's in apartment 217 at a certain complex and she looked out the window and saw a man in the trees near the window on the north side of the apartment. He was wearing a ski mask and carrying something shiny like a metal flashlight or a gun. You duly record all this information and whatever else your checklist calls for, and you keep the complainant on the phone until help arrives to monitor the changing situation.

But you were on checklist autopilot, so after the last question, you didn't take a moment to evaluate everything you heard to be sure nothing's missing and everything added up. In our example, here's what you missed: apartment 217 is a second-floor apartment. Obviously, the prowler isn't looking in a second-floor window, so your caller isn't the victim. In fact, you don't know anything about the occupants of the first-floor apartment where the prowler actually is, including whether they are home. If the occupants are home, they don't know of the potential danger lurking outside. And you don't know if the occupants might have a weapon handy, making them potential hazards to your responders as they sneak around the house trying to catch the bad guy.

You might argue you had no way of knowing that, in that complex, apartment numbers that started with a "two" were second-floor apartments. But that's a fairly common numbering convention and, if you don't know, you have to ask. But you have to be paying attention enough to realize you should ask or the question's never going to come out of your mouth.

You really can't afford the complacency of checklist autopilot.

Another common example: you take an alarm call at a school and one of the questions on your checklist asks where on the premises the point of activation is. The alarm company tells you "zone 32." Now, do you have any idea where that alarm is going off from that? Do you really think your responder will know? Unless it's a fire alarm and there's smoke pouring from one corner of the building, the answer to that last question will probably be no.

Don't settle for unclear answers -- ask, ask, ask!

What You Know and What You Don't

You have a wealth of knowledge and information to apply to your calltaking. That said, you will encounter times when everyone around you knows more than you do, especially your callers. So the rule here is this: Recognize what you don't know and test everything you hear agains what you do know.

Here are some examples from the first part of the rule.

Let's say you've taken a nighttime vehicle accident where the car has slid off the roadway into the trees, making it hard to find. Your caller is injured and doesn't know exactly where he is. You're not familiar with the area he's calling about, a rural roadway without much on it. But you've done the best you could. Now it's time to recognize you don't know enough to be effective at taking this call and send for the Marines: your co-workers.

"Is anyone familiar with the area of Highway 37 east of Crawfordville Road?" you ask.

And sure enough, someone you work with passes right by there and knows to ask the caller if he'd gotten as far as the construction work on Highway 37 yet. No, your caller says, but now that you mention it, he remembers seeing a "road-work ahead" sign before the accident, so he must have been getting close. Now that you have a target area, you can stay on the line with your caller and, when the responders think they're close, you can find out if he hears the sirens or have them cut the sirens and tell the caller to blow the horn, if he can, and guide the responders in.

Suppose you take a call from someone concerned because he can't see a clerk in a store that's usually open 24 hours. You can be sure the clerk is safe because one of your patrol units escorted him to the bank at closing time and then sent him on his way.

While you should never overlook the wealth of information your co-workers may be able to provide, you yourself have considerable resources on which to draw as well, and everything you hear should be measured against that knowledge.

Suppose you take a theft call at the Wash-n-Fold Laundromat. Your caller doesn't know the exact address but says it's on North Financial Street in the A&P Plaza. You check your geofile, and you have two Wash-n-Folds on Financial Street: one on North Financial Street and one on South Financial Street. But you only have one A&P Plaza on Financial Street and it's on South, not North, and the hundred block of the Wash-n-Fold on South Financial Street would put it in that plaza. You have measured what you already knew -- where the A&P plazas are -- against what the caller told you and discovered a conflict you must resolve before you can process this call.

Watch Those Unknowns

If you say some detail about a call is unknown, those reading the call assume you asked the question and the caller didn't know. Don't ever put in "unknown" for something simply because you failed to ask it before you got off the phone with the caller. That will come back to haunt you in several ways. First of all, it's a responder-safety issue. Second, if it's a major incident or something subject to QA protocols, your admin will catch you. Third, if the radio operator tells the responders something is unknown and the responding unit finds out the caller knew all along but you just didn't ask, again, you will get caught -- and your credibility with the responders and your co-workers will suffer.

Also, consider this scenario: you've put in a call involving a disabled semi causing roadblock and you've forgotten to ask what it was carrying. You've put "unknown what it's carrying" in your call. Your radio operator needs more information, so she calls the complainant back. Because the complainant allegedly didn't know what the truck was carrying, the radio operator assumes the caller was a passerby or otherwise not materially involved with the truck. This conversation ensues:
Radio Operator: "Hi, Mr. Smith, this is the emergency communications center calling back about the disabled truck you called in. I have another question. Are you by any chance still where you can see that truck?"
Complainant, puzzled: "Of course. It's my truck."
Once again, you are -- what was that word? Oh, yeah! -- caught.


If you ever want to make a radio operator come across a console and land on you with the disproportionate force of an oak tree falling on a grape, do this: take a call where the victim is either one of your responders or the property of one of your responders, then don't tell the radio operators who that victim is.

This happened to me recently. I received a burglary-in-progress and in the narrative it said, "This is a deputy's house." Yes, you will encounter incidents where the complainant doesn't know the name. But in this case, the complainant was the officer's daughter.

You can argue that responders shouldn't get a response different from what citizens get, so it shouldn't matter who it is, and you're right. In fact, the response we sent didn't differ from the usual response to such an incident. But if a responder is affected by a call and is working, he needs to be notified. If he's neither working not at home, he needs to be found. None of those things can take place until we know who we're looking for.

Here's another example of hint-dropping in narratives: "Something about this call doesn't sound right." If something doesn't sound right and your efforts to find out why through questioning have failed, it's fine to make that statement, as long as you explain it. For example, "Something about this call doesn't sound right. The complainant sounds far more upset than a noise complain merits. I didn't hear any other voices, but I heard what sounded like muffled noises. I don't think she's alone."

Your responders could find she's being held against her will by an armed intruder and she made up the noise complaint when he caught her on the phone with you. Or they could find that, although she called about her neighbor's loud stereo, she's crying because she got fired that day and the muffled noises came from her dog wandering around the kitchen.

In this instance you can't prove that what she's calling about is what's upsetting her or that she is in any danger or that someone else is there. Those are just impressions that may or may not prove significant. They are, however, important enough to mention. And if they're worth mentioning, they're worth describing completely.

Your Impressions Really Do Count

While we're on this last example, remember that your impressions do count. You were probably taught this, and now you pay attention to background noises and over-emotionality and other signals and compare those to what is said. The result can be conclusions like the one drawn in the example above: more could be going on here than meets the ear.

It's important to remember the opposite can be true as well. If a complainant says an armed intruder just shoved his way into her house and robbed her, but she doesn't sound the least bit upset, what's going on could be less than meets the ear, not more. Your impression in cases like these are important. (Note: this does not necessarily apply in the case of child callers, who are often poor judges of the seriousness of a situation and will under-or-over-react accordingly.)

Also, train your ear to hear everything in the background, not just ominous sounds. In the example just given, suppose you heard giggling in the background. Ominous? No. Significant? Quite possibly.

If you get a report of a serious incident and something in the call leaves you suspecting it didn't actually happen, always point it out. People do occasionally call in "decoy" calls to occupy responders, so they can commit other crimes elsewhere. Don't assume this applies only to law-enforcement calls. Other first responders can be drawn to one location to make them unavailable to respond to actual incidents at other locations. And in a worst-case scenario, all responders can be lured to false calls because they are the intended targets of harm once they get there.

Machines Don't Think

One thing you must especially guard against, particularly if you grew up in the computer age, is expecting your CAD to do your thinking for you. There are some things you're just going to have to know and apply, all by yourself. Every possible permutation of every location isn't going to be in CAD. If you take a call at Arbor Condominiums and CAD defaults to Arbor Apartments because it comes first alphabetically and you don't catch it, that's on you. It can't tell you when you should prioritize a call differenlty from its defaults. Its checklists can't contain every possible question you should ask. It cannot, and it should not, make it possible for you to disengage from the process. It's merely a tool, utterly worthless without the participation of a competent, educated, engaged user. That's true of any tool. Any thumb that's been smacked by a hammer can attest to that.

Your One-Shot Deal

Another thing you must guard against is the idea that, because this is the age of cellphones, we can contact complainants back if we need anything. As a society, we're becoming used to the idea that people are reachable anywhere, anytime.

People who are involved in public-safety emergency, however, often are not reachable. They have other priorities at the moment. You must treat every contact with a complainant as though you were never going to be able to speak to that person again. Unless your complainant hangs up before you're through, you should get every piece of information on the first call, including directions, house descriptions, suspect descriptions, vehicle description, caller ETA's (if you're meeting them somewhere), time lapses, incident details -- you name it.

A related problem arises in areas that have completely switched to 911 addressing, because of the assumption that 911 addresses for individual houses are easy to find -- even if they're rural, even if it's dark, even if the house isn't visible from the roadway. Those addresses may be easier to find than the old post-office route-box addresses, but that's no excuse for failing to get enough house/vehicle/property description information to make the house easily found by responders on the first try.

Don't assume all mailboxes are marked. Don't assume all mailboxes are anywhere near the driveway of the house to which they belong. And don't assume that, just because you can find a street and a hundred block on a map, the house is easy to find. Some just aren't. Unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of which houses aren't easy to find, get that information every time. (Obviously, this doesn't apply to well-know landmarks and places that have frequent calls, like apartment complexes. If your town has one Wal-Mart and everyone knows where it is, don't make yourself and your center look halfwitted by asking for directions to it. Do, however, find out where in the store or parking lot the incident is occurring).

You Are the Linchpin

The bottom line is calltaking requires a great deal of knowledge, attention to detail, thoroughness and, above all, attentiveness. It's a hard job and sometimes an under-appreciated one. But it's worth engaging and doing well: if calls are taken poorly, no other part of the public safety communications function can make up for that. As a calltaker, your role is crucial and you are important. Take it seriously and take pride in what you do!

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