9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Child's Play: The Handling and Mis-handling of Juvenile Calls

Article taken from 911 Magazine Sept/Oct 2006
Written by Barry Furey who has been involved in public safety for more than 35 years, having managed 911 centers in four states. He is a life member of APCO International and current Director of the Raleigh-Wake County, NC Emergency Communications Center

The morning of February 20th began fairly uneventfully in Detroit, Michigan, but before it was over, a 46-year-old mother was dead, two telecommunicators had taken a path toward criminal indictment, and the national media would soon carry significan coverage of the darker side of 911. Adding to the irony was the fact that, while the incident occurred in February, the press did not pick up the story until April on the verge of National Telecommunicator's Week.

Both employees involved were arraigned on June 9th and charged with willful neglect of duty; a misdemeanor offense that carries with it a potential jail term of up to one year. As with any defendants, they must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, and their actions or inactions considered to be alleged, but the following summation describes what purportedly happened. Five-year-old Robert Turner dialed the emergency number, as he had been taught to do, when his mother became unresponsive. Instead of receiving help, he was rebuked for "playing on the phone." There was no public safety response to his first call at 5:59 PM, but a unit was dispatched to his second call, which occurred at 9:02 PM. This assignment was not an ambulance for a medical emergency, but rather a police officer to investigate what was assumed to be a prank. Instead, the arriving unit found Sherrill Turner dead.

So, what went wrong, and how can all of us keep from being the next news flash on CNN? According to an Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International press release, issued in relationship to this incident, "when facing a crisis, children tend to appear calm because they do not always understand the severity of the situation. It is recommended that call takers not judge the severity of the situation on the level of emotion expressed by the caller. In addition, it is important to note that children have been warned about playing on the phone or only calling 911 when there is an emergency and may be apprehensive about calling. It is recommended that call takers reassure children that they did the right thing by calling 911."

As a former telecommunicator, I can vouch for the validity of this admonishment. Although the incident occurred thirty years ago, it remains vivid in my memory. I was working the night shift and took a call from what sounded like a ten- or twelve-year-old boy. It was well after midnight, and his age, the time, plus the lurid description of the house fire down the street that he calmly provided made me wonder where his parents were. I hung up shaking my head, but prepared to dispatch when the fire phone rang again. This time the call had been placed by an adult who was screaming her head off. Luckily, the kid had given me a pretty good location, because I sure wasn't going to get it out of her. As it turns out, the description of flames coming out of all the windows provided by the juvenile was accurate, but I often consider how easy it would have been to consider the call a prank based simply upon the youngster's demeanor.

Taking Calls From Children

That was in the 1970s. If anything, kids are smarter today. According to TG Mieure, a communications director and founder of Public Safety Consultants, "Children today are not stupid. They are taught that calling 911 for emergencies is doing the right thing. My five-year-old grandson knows his telephone number and address just for that purpose. Telecommunicators need to use compassion when dealing with juvenile callers." Keep in mind, too, that the idea behind the "911 For Kids" program was spawned in San Jose, California fifteen years ago, ant that Red E. Fox has outlived his cousins in the wild five fold. What's the bottom line? Today's kids may not know what an 8-track is, but the three digit emergency number has always been a part of their lives. This generation has grown up well acquainted with 911 and 911 educational programs.

The proof of this fact can be seen in headlines around the nation. In Lawrence, Kansas, ten-year-old Kennedy Fasching called when her grandmother passed out on the floor. Although she was visiting and was unsure of the address, telecommunicatiors dispatched units to the vicinity while they located the wireless call through Phase 2.

In Minneapolis, four-year-old Devon Williams was honored for calling to report his mother Laura, having an epileptic seizure. In Raleigh, North Carolina, 12-year-old Ne'Asia McCargo received an award at a school assembly for her interaction with Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications during her mother's diabetic crises. A similar honor for another child is pending.

And in March, 2005, five-year-old Tia Hernlen bravely dialed 911 when she discovered her mother and father had been shot to death. Coincidentally, she and Robert Turner were the same age when they made their emergency calls. New Smyrna Beach, Florida telecommunicators, however, took Tia's remarks seriously, even though the scene of the brutal murders she was trying to describe would be incredible to most.

These experiences, added to the fact that the original target audience for 911 For Kids were four- to seven-year-olds, make a strong case for taking juvenile callers seriously. Is every report from a child caller valid? Of course not; but neither are all calls from adults. Rather than challenge and talk down to juvenile callers, call takers should take a firm but empathetic approach. Children may get frustrated when they don't know the answer to a particular question, and may even interject superfluous information that seems logical to them. Perhaps in those regards, they are not too different from adults. However, additional patience may be needed, especially with younger children.

The child caller may require increased coaching and reinforcement in order to assure tham that calling 911 is the correct thing to do. This is especially important in cases of domestic violence, or where something "bad" has happened that the child somehow feels responsible for. Critical questions should not be bypassed simply because the reporting party "is just a kid." Children can make surprisingly accurate and unbiased witnesses.

Although talking down to juveniles is discouraged, care also has to be taken not to talk over their heads. Consider the age of the caller, and use terms appropriate for that group. Avoid technical language or other phases or cliches that a child would not be expected to know. Be prepared to stay on the line to offer reassurance until help arrives, and be ready to assert yourself, if needed. One example of where a firm hand might be required is in convincing a child to open the door to admit first responders. Opening the door for "strangers" may go completely against what he or she has been taught to do, and some explanation and logic may be required to achieve this goal.

Emergencies Involving Kids

While getting calls from children may be nerve wracking, getting calls about children can be especially traumatic. Take severe medical emergencies, for example. The words, "Oh my God, he's not breathing" are not the first things the call taker wants to hear on picking up the phone. "I just set him down in his crib a minute ago. He's only nine months old," qualifies as the second. It is almost humanly impossible not to feel strong emotions when dealing with a pediatric incident; however it is imperative that neither the telecommunicator's emotions--nor the emotions of the caller--impact the outcome of the call.

Consider the fact that the reporting party may be the parent, guardian, or somehow otherwise responsible for the safety of the child. Depending upon the circumstances they may be feeling significant guilt concerning their inability to protect the victim from harm. It is important to quickly get past this guilt to obtain the appropriate facts.

If EMD is used, then protocols for children of the appropriate age must be applied. Specific instructions must be provided and reinforced; especially those that deal with unneccessary movement. A mother's first reaction may well be to pick up and cradle her injured child. In many cases, this could aggravate existing injuries.

Just as reassurance is necessary to the juvenile caller, so too is it required for many adults. As traumatic as the situation may be from our end of the conversation, just imagine what it is like at the scene. Keep the caller engaged and in the loop, and let them know that help is on the way. Call takers should make periodic checks as to the status of the patient, and listen closely to background sounds to obtain additional information. In some cases a child's cry can be beautiful; it means they are conscious and exchanging air.

However, there are other times when the cry is that of pain. And, unfortunately, there are times when that pain is the result of neglect and abuse. Agencies are well advised to have a policy on calls from "latch-key" kids that mirror applicable statutes. Officers should be dispatched to check on their safety, with appropriate follow up from social service agencies, if warranted.

Sometimes the child abuser will initiate the 911 call. This will often come in the report of a fall, burn, or similar accident. Upon further questioning, the symptoms may not coincide with the story presented. The caller may seem overly calm given the situation, or may appear overly agitated. He or she may seem to avoid questions, be evasive, or provide inconsistent answers. Background noises may suggest an ongoing domestic disturbance.

Increased awareness of child abuse has caused some departments to automatically dispatch law enforcement along with EMS to all reports of injuries to young children. In the absence of such policies, call takers are well advised to go with their "gut instinct" in handling calls that generate concern, and to, at minimum, share these concerns in a timely manner with the appropriate law enforcement agency.

Whether as the maker or the subject of a 911 call, dealing with children can be difficult. However, with the appropriate training and attitude, it can truly become as easy a child's play.

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