9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Keep 'em Talking: Training Telecommunicators for Hostage Situations

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine October 2007
Written by Danah Devries, Communications Training Coordinator for Oxnard (CA) Police/Fire Communications Division

The phone rings inside the communications center. That call can be anything or anyone, and the dispatcher will know in a matter of seconds who the person is and what can be done to help the caller. Those callers may be suicidal and/or homicidal, have hostages or be barricaded. Those callers may be making a final call for help or just notifying the authorities of their actions. Those calls all have one thing in common: They are being handled by public safety telecommunicators.

In September 2007, Kala Bouscaren, Oxnard (CA) Police/Fire Communications, took a call from a mentally ill man who was threatening to kill his mother. She was asleep in the next room, and he had knives and was planning to stab her. He was off his medication and was upset. Bouscaren kept the man on the phone, talking to him about his problems, keeping him geographically away from his mother and finding out about his mental health history. She explained to him that help was on the way and the was going to get assistance so that he wouldn't harm his family member. She was able to talk to him as if they were old friends, and she was able to get him to trust her and the officers responding to the call.

In June 2007, Sharon Beaty, Oxnard Police/Fire Communications, handled a call involving a suicidal woman who was threatening to take a large number of pills. Beaty kept the caller on the line, established a rapport with her and made her promise not to take the pills or harm herself while on the line. Beaty had the caller on the phone until officers arrived at the residence.

In July 2004, Dee Dee Wilson, Eureka (CA) Police Department, took a call from an elderly man who was retired from LAPD. He had a gun and was threatening to kill himself and his wife, who had Alzheimer's disease. Because of his own experience, he knew about police tactics, and he had family members in law enforcement. He told Wilson he wasn't getting any help with his wife and that he was out of options. Wilson spoke to him, trying to help him problem solve, trying to allow him to feel in control and trying desperately to get him away from his wife and the gun. After approximately 30 minutes of talking to the man, Wilson was able to negotiate a surrender and talk him through that process. Later, he told the officers that he surrendered because Wilson wore him out, and he got sick of talking to her.

Public safety telecommunicators handle calls of this nature every single day across our nation. We often hear about the situations in which hostage negotiation teams (HNTs) are called to the scene to aid in the peaceful outcome and surrender of barricaded subjects, hostages and hostage takers, suicidal subject or high-risk subjects. However, we rarely hear about those heroes in our comm centers whose voices are on the other end of the phone lines.

Telecommunicators as a group do amazing things and handle stressful and difficult situations on a regular basis. Many are doing so on pure instinct and common sense, without having received any substantive training to guide them. It would be to everyone's benefit if telecommunicators received training specific to negotiations and tactics of barricaded, suicidal or hostage-taking incidents.

Why Telecommunicators are Being Trained in Negotiation Techniques

Approximately 500,000 calls are made to 911 daily in the United States, and many involve negotiation. Those calls involving negotiators have peaceful resolutions 56.7% of the time. Violence occurs 46.4% of the time prior to the arrival of the negotiators. I believe that many situations could be avoided or mitigated if more dispatchers were trained in negotiation skills.

More and more law enforcement agencies are recognizing the benefits of training public safety dispatchers in negotiation skills. In Marin County, Calif., the Marin County Sheriff's Office has three dispatchers on its 14-person HNT. San Rafael Police Department has a dispatcher on its team, and the Novato Police Department has a clerk dispatcher on its team. The La Habra Police Department, Eureka Police Department and Simi Valley Police Department send their dispatchers to the Basic Hostage Negotiation School at San Jose State University to enhance their call-taking skills and introduce them to tactical dispatching.

Telecommunicators are the initial point of contact on the majority of calls that come into comm centers. They are finding themselves in negotiation situations whether they want to be or not and regardless of whether they are trained or not. In addition, many law enforcement agencies are experiencing longer and longer response times for specialized units, such as HNTs. One contributing factor: Many employees can't afford or don't want to live in the areas where they work. All these factors are being taken into consideration by agencies that are training their dispatchers in hostage negotiation techniques.

In addition, it's always beneficial to utilize the skills that our employees possess in abundance. Talking and listening are what dispatchers do best. They are trained in and very competent at telephone communications. The are naturally curious and adept at researching background information. They are experts in establishing rapport and gaining callers' trust. Dispatchers are also well-trained and well-versed in handling callers in crisis and in being non-reactive to the varied personalities and moods they encounter daily.

Training Specifics

"Training dispatchers in negotiations is essential. It's mandatory!" says Wilson, Eureka Police Department Communications manager. "They (practice negotiation skills) every day when handling callers on the phone and when getting officers to their calls. When it comes to the critical calls, dispatchers do amazingly well, utilizing their dispatch and negotiation skills. Many times, they are thrown into situations just because they answer the calls."

However skilled they already are, telecommunicators will feel more comfortable handling calls that require negotiation if they receive training that goes beyone on-the-job console instruction. Specialized training will give telecommunicators enhanced skills and techniques for dealing with the different personalities and situations that come with a negotiations incident.

They will learn how to correctly hand off a call to an HNT and be coached in how to aid in achieving a positive outcome. They will learn the rules that are followed by HNTs throughout the country and how to break the rules if need be. They will learn to recognize that some people will not negotiate and learn not to blame themselves or beat themselves up over the outcome. They will also come to understand that the tactics sometimes associated with the negotiations side of an operation may, at times, require the negotiator to put the suspect in a position where deadly force can be used when other tactics have been exhausted.

It's critical that telecommunicators understand the differences that exist between taking a call and conducting a negotiation. Calltakers are accustomed to getting the facts and getting the caller off the phone in a rapid time frame. In negotiations, the situation calls for the telecommunicator to keep talking to the caller, keeping the caller on the phone while finding out not only who, what, when, where, why and how, but also all the background information.

Due to the nature of emergency dispatch centers, telecommunicators are used to controlling the conversating and remain very aware of the amount of time spent on each call. Negotiations often focus on giving the caller control, or giving them the illusion of control, and allowing the caller to talk and be heard. Telecommunicators are accustomed to handling call after call; whereas negotiations focus on one call, and more time spent on that single call is seen as a positive factor.

Dispatchers are often focused on listening for the information they need for their call entry. Negotiators focus on active listening and really try to hear meaning and nuances, not just facts. There is a time and place for both styles of communication.

Telecommunicators need to continue to handle their routine day-to-day calls by utilizing their abilities to control the conversation and quickly obtain pertinent information. However, public safety telecommunicators also need to be trained to utilize different techniques for suicidal subjects, hostage situations or similar critical calls. They need to be trained to recognize those situations. And early on in the conversation, they need to start actively listening--asking more open-ended questions, establishing rapport and not rushing the caller off the phone.

"Public safety dispatchers have skills and knowledge to handle many emergency calls and critical incidents," says Cokie Lepinski, Marin County Sheriff dispatcher and hostage negotiator. "but they need intermediate- and advanced-level skills and knowledge in handling barricaded subjects, suicidal subjects or hostage-taking incidents. Just because an officer knows how to drive a car and shoot a gun does not mean that he or she should not go through EVOC training or regular range qualifications. Your dispatchers deserve and need the same standard applied to them."

Challenges & Opportunities

There are definitely challenges when it comes to utilizing public safety telecommunicators as negotiators in the comm center. Although dispatchers are amazing multitaskers, there are times then they cannot be committed to a single phone line. There are also times when competing duties may take precedence. In addition, the majority of comm centers are short staffed, and employees work long hours and have a heavy workload. Nonetheless, there are ways to work around these obstacles.

Policies and procedures can be established so that if a dispatcher is assigned a high-risk caller in which negotiations are necessary, mandatory re-calls can be in place. There is also the option of using other department personnel as calltakers during the period of time associated with a negotiation. For example, agencies may want to consider cross-training records personnel to handle the phones during such situations.

"Training of dispatchers often gets put on the back burner (with) today's tight budget constraints, personnel shortages and overtime-saturated dispatch centers. There will always be reasons or excuses not to send them (to training)," says Lepinski. "But can you afford the outcome should your dispatcher be faced with an incident that they are not trained to handle?"

There are several training opportunities available for public safety telecommunicators. There are basic negotiation schools offered throughout the country. Here in California, the most well known course is offered through San Jose State University (www.ajbureau.sjsu.edu). This POST-certified, 40-hour class covers negotiation techniques, telephone communications skills, mental and personality disorders, and the psychological side of negotiations. The class also includes several practical exercises and role playing.

Another course, an eight-hour Hostage Negotiation Concepts for Dispatchers class taught by Lepinski, is being offered on Oct. 4 and again on Oct. 5 in Oxnard. Further information and additional dates can be found online at www.911TLC.com or www.trainingthepros.com. This class teaches the principles of hostage negotiations, the role and responsibilities of telecommunicators during these events and fundamental techniques that can be utilized in a critical event of this nature.

Additional ongoing training opportunities are available through the California Association of Hostage Negotiators (www.cahn.us). Most states have an organization dedicated to hostage negotiators, and they often provide ongoing training opportunities. These opportunities include case studies, personal accounts from negotiators and update training.

In addition, most HNTs conduct ongoing training within their own teams. Including telecommunicators in these training sessions encourages team building and allows all involved to set expectations.

Get Agency Buy-In

In my opinion, the benefits associated with training your telecommunicators in hostage negotiation techniques far outweight the obstacles. It goes back to selling our agencies on the amazing characteristics and abilities of our communications personnel. Every agency can remember an event similar to the three described here, where dispatchers were negotiating for lives. Bring those examples to the attention of your administration. Remember to look at the response times associated with your negotiation team and the costs associated with utilizing telecommunicators in this capacity. Also remember to sell the benefits and to use other agency training programs as examples.

The benefits for the public safety telecommunicator are also paramount. Giving them advanced skills training is necessary for morale, motivation and retention. Letting telecommunicators know how much of an asset they are to their departments and training them on skills they can use on the job will be a benefit to the entire department. Telecommunicators will also benefit from understanding more about the other side of the radio, what's going on during a tactical operation and the different roles of the personnel involved. Training telecommunicators in negotiation skills will give them the courage and the knowledge to be successful with calls of this critical nature.

Public safety telecommunicators are one of law enforcement's most valuable resources. Every single day, they save someone's life. Often they don't even realize the amazing feats they have accomplished.

On Oct. 2, 2006, an armed gunman entered a school in Lancaster County, Pa. He called 911 from his cell phone and talked to a public safety telecommunicator, making demands for the police to leave the property and telling the dispatcher that he had 10 girls hostage. The suspect's wife also called 911 and spoke to a public safety telecommunicator. Five little girls were killed that day. I personally want my telecommunicators as prepared as possible, armed with training and techniques, to handle the next phone call of this nature.

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