9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Teach the Tiger to Jump

Excerpts taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine February 2005
Written by Tracy Christine Ertl; 12-year veteran of 911 dispatch with Brown County Public Safety Communications in Green Bay, Wis.

Eventually the tiger must jump.

"Grab it," I barked as the 911 line rang a third time. "Hit it. It's yours."

"Brown County 911, where is your emergency," asked Rhonda Harrison, a trainee I had been tethered to for four days. I heard pure quiver in her voice and could see the leap in her eyes as she rotated in her chair to face me, searching for direction.

"You know what to do," I whispered. "I won't let anything happen to you."

I've been a communications training officer (CTO) for nine of my 12 dispatch years. Training is my passion. Always has been. I see my role very clearly. I teach the tiger inside my trainees to jump into action or to hold back when necessary. What is the tiger? It's the instinct and the raw guts to open a phone line and plow through a call.

Some have a tiger; some do not. Those without it will not make it. My job is to find the tiger, if it's hiding, then teach it to jump through the day, going from boredom to terror in 2.3 seconds, the average time it takes our calltaker to pick up a 911 call.

Our agency, Brown County Public Safety Communications, serves 43 agencies. At any give time, we have two to four 911 calltakers answering 911 and non-emergency lines, then funneling calls for service to dispatcher in every corner of our combined space.

Using the tiger analogy has helped me focus my training time and achieve honesty in assessing my trainees. They either have it or they don't. Gone is the guilt of wondering if I could do something better as a trainer to draw out a trainee's abilities. If the tiger is absent, it's impossible to create. If it's there, it will show itself. My job is to grab it and keep it out so we can train it. If a trainee doesn't have an inner tiger, I document its absence and hope for the best as managers review the daily-observation reports.

My trainee was my only priority. I'd promised I wouldn't let anything happen, so her safety net was in place, as I kept a finger on the flip-switch attached to the cord that connected us.

Go. Jump.

"My grandson has a butcher knife. Oh, God," a grandmother cried in total desparation.

She did it again. Her body whipped around on the chair and her eyes were pleading. She looked scared.

Everyone is scared when they get a call like that. I'm still scared after 12 years. The day that fear completely goes is the day to get out of this job. You have become dangerous to your agency and your callers if you feel no queasiness at all. An 11-year-old slashing the air with a butcher knife? That's scary.

I had two choices. I could save my trainee by taking over the call, but that could damage her fragile confidence. Or I could let her be upset with me and shake for 30 seconds. I let her shake.

Sure enough, she was not happy with me. I saw pure fear and adrenaline in her eyes.

She stayed unhappy with me until the knive was put away, the grandmother was safe, officers were on scene and the line was closed.

We sat in silence for a minute, until the next line rang. It was notification of a controlled burn. She pulled up the controlled-burn file and whipped through the information. Sitting slightly behind her and to her right, I could see her smile.

"Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome," I said. "Do you understand what just happened, Rhonda? You just jumped. You have it." I raised my right hand for a playful high-five.

Watching her revel graciously in her new abilities, I remembered a not-so-distant learning experience of my own. I began my career with the Green Bay Police Department in 1993. Three years ago, our center joined others nearby in a joint dispatch center. Green Bay officers did their own dispatching until we were combined. We currently rotate between phones and dispatch. Training was and still is an incredible challenge, as the knowledge expected of us doubled in the joint center. I had to jump from being a comfortable 911 calltaker to a radio dispatcher.

Just like Rhonda, I had everything to learn and limited time to do it. I believe that experience strengthened and revived me as a trainer. I was at a point in my career where I could have gotten stale. Instead, because I had to learn rapidly and with the knowledge of serious consequences for failing to learn, I can relate to Rhonda and other trainees.

Training comes in many forms. It doesn't always mean the trainer-trainee relationship. Sometimes forming a "road" partnership between a dispatcher and an officer means training at any time for both.

When I started dispatching on the radio, I had one of those days. It was the kind of day that new dispatcher pray not to get and veteran dispatchers pray to get. I was 18 calls down and I barely understood my zones.

I reached out to a trusted lieutenant with a "help me" message. As in, "Please help me. I'm scared, but I'm not allowed to be scared because I'm a dispatcher and I've been here 10 years."

What I got back was a phone call with a smiling voice on the other end. "Don't worry, Trace, you'll be fine. You got it," said Green Bay Lt. David Hemes. "Just think, it's like riding an alligator. Sometimes it's sleepin', but when it wakes up, just hold on and never look or sound afraid, OK?" Then he asked, "Do you have a call for me, T?"

So, I jumped. I fell several times. The secret is to keep getting back up. Ride it again and again, until you know you can do it. That's what I teach and how I train.

"Brown County 911, where is - ?" Rhonda stopped, cut off before she could finish the line I had drilled into her. Her seat rotated toward me again.

Here we go, I thought, as intuition kicked in.

"My 15-year-old daughter has been raped and we need some help here," said a father on the other end, fighting to keep his voice steady.

I really wanted her to take it, but I could see that she did not know where to go from here. The tiger was present but didn't know where to jump. It was time to flip the switch and take over.

I took a deep breath and thought that I better be good and make this look easy or she'd never believe she could do it. I am a sexual-assault survivor, which makes these calls the hardest for me, but as a trainer I told myself, "Jump, Tracy."

I took Rhonda with me as I leaped through the call.

The caller was so angry. His daughter had been abducted and taken to a house where she was raped on the second floor. We heard nothing but crying in the background, the wails of the daughter and perhaps her mother, too. The three of them were sitting in their car outside the hospital. The father had been driving around for two hours, trying to find the house where his daughter had been raped. I'm really glad he didn't find it.

I could see the emotion in Rhonda's face. I tried to hide mine, but it came out in the tension in my voice. I let her be an extension of me while I gathered information. We worked in unison, as she updated the call for responding officers. Taking her with me this way would assure a familiarity with the path.

Afterward, I asked her if she thought she could take a call like that by herself now. "Yes," she answered, then a silence fell between us as we processed emotions the call had evoked. The phones continued to ring, but I paced her. She needed time to reflect and, luckily, we had the luxury of that time. The other calltakers had heard the call and they picked up extra calls to give us a few minutes.

Training is a team activity. My co-workers understand that. You can assist in training even if you are not conducting it, simply by taking an extra phone call when you hear a trainer explaining a critical call.

"Do you understand why we gathered at much detail on the assailant as possible? Do you understand that, two hours from now, that girl may not be able to remember?" I asked Rhonda.


"Do you understand that to survive in this job, you must occasionally shield yourself from too much information? That's why, when the mother started to describe the assault in graphic detail, I stopped her. The officer will get that. You have to be able to move on to your next call. Do you get that?" I asked her again.

"Now I do," she answered, still sad. I asked her if she needed a break, but she did not want one.

Just two hours later, the tiger was forced to leap again.

"Brown County 911, where is your emergency?" she said, some real confidence showing.

"I think my wife just killed herself," said an unusually calm voice.

This time the chair did not rotate my way. Progress. That's what we look for when we train: a sign concepts are being grasped and applied.

Her eyes locked on the screen and she struggled temporarily with classifying the call. I grabbed her house and clicked on "death." I think she expected me to flip the switch, but I did not. I gave her the mouse back.

Our caller was separated from his wife, a divorce pending. She was 37. He found her lifeless body, along with their dog, in the garage inside a still-running car.

It was time to hit the switch. She had no frame of reference on which to draw. I flipped it and took over the call.

"Get out of the garage, sir. Get out," I commanded. I could hear him coughing.

Rhonda commented he sounded too calm. I thought so, too, and we noted it in the call notes.

We would train later on the demeanor of callers in shock. Some yell and some are quiet. No way to know for sure how someone will react in an emergency.

Once the garage door was open, we sent our caller in to turn off the car and make sure his wife was indeed dead.

"She's purple," he said. "There's foam coming from her mouth. God, she took the dog. Christ."

We updated the notes and relayed the critical information to dispatch.

Then came the wait. This call was in the county, so it would take longer for police and rescue to arrive.

I flipped the switch to put Rhonda back on.

"He won't know the difference between you and me," I said. "Go ahead, you're on. Stay with him. Comfort him and gather information that police might need."

And the tiger leapt.

A few days later, Rhonda was supposed to be tethered to me again, but a schedule change left me alone on 911 for the shift. We had made so much progress that I missed having her with me. Having a trainee can be exhausting, but teaching someone brings you back to the basics. Your skills are reinforced and I find I perform better after having a trainee.

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