9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Just Another Day on the Job?

Taken from "Notes From the Trenches" February 2001
Written by Linda Olmstead

We dispatcher-types get so used to working behind the scenes that it's sometimes difficult to accept the accolades for truly remarkable efforts. We stand up at our consoles and high-five our partners, chortle with glee when the field folks catch a bad guy (with considerable assistance from someone wearing a headset instead of a gun), we enthuse to everybody that walks in the door about the cool incident somebody on our shift just handled really well. But if there's a chance someone might actuallly notify the media or write it up in an industry publication, we get all shy about it. Awww, 'twarn't nuthin' - just doin' my job.

Then the media blast us - or another dispatcher or any public safety responder in the world - with 24 point font in big, bold headlines and we're all indignant about the injustice. After all, hundreds of thousands of calls got handled just fine, but one incident (every now and then) goes sideways and we're incompetent, untrained, negligent or otherwise bad for the public???? (muttering)

We'd like to see them do our jobs. You got yourself into that mess; try getting yourself out of it without us. What if you dialed 911 and nobody answered, huh? I mean, ever. (Because sometimes it does happen, but not all that often, compared to the millions of such calls that are answered promptly and efficiently.)

No Dent

We also lament the fact that Public Education efforts don't seem to have much of a dent in the number of truly stupid 911 calls. Public Service Announcements, "music on hold" messages, billboards and pamphlets left in public places are, well, boring to the masses. It's easy for that stuff to just slide on by without making an impression. (I find that the folks who are most interested in reviewing PSA material are US - not the target audience. We are constantly looking for good material and we'll roll our eyes when we find something that we just don't think "hits the mark." But who else reads 'em, hears 'em or gives a hoot? Certainly not the myriad of commuters carrying cell phones, or the kids traveling from pay phone to pay phone, or the people who may suddenly, someday, need to call 911 for their own emergency.)

"Everybody" knows what 911 is for, right? (snorting with laughter) Just like everybody knows exactly what should happen when they dial 911: exact location is immediately pin-pointed, specific medical instruction is readily available for any circumstance, and the Answers to All Your Questions will be provided. (more muttering) Yeah, right.

School kids are getting the word, though. Ask any grade-school or kindergarten student what 911 is for, and you'll hear appropriate replies: "The police come and catch bad guys." "The firemen come and put out the fire." "The ambulance comes and takes your mom to the hospital." Would that their adult family members have that same understanding!

"I've been stuck in traffic for 20 minutes now - what's the hold up?" "My neighbor is parking his car in from of MY driveway and the mailman can't reach my mailbox - make him move." "Did we just have an earthquake?" "There's a stray dog in my yard." And hundreds of thousands of similar complaints which don't even slightly resemble emergencies. Grown-ups make those calls to 911.

Use Training

Unfortunately, the public doesn't take classes in "How to Report an Emergency." Sometimes even tenured dispatchers need to be reminded of that (as silly as it may sound.) We know what differentiates a burglary from a robbery, but the public doesn't understand those distinctions. We know what sort of information we'll need to dispatch a call; the public is clueless in this regard. We just have to utilize our training, skills and knowledge to get them through their experiences, as safely as possible for them and the responders. We're the trained professionals here. Let's prove that fact rather than badger a "poor" reporting party. That's not the time to educate someone on "how to use 911."

But it is tempting, isn't it? Awwww, come on, I know y'all want to install the Magic Button that zaps the heck out of someone when they've made a 911 call for something ridiculous. Our dispatchers want to disable cell phones that make inadvertent calls to 911, particularly when we call back the number on the Caller ID display and the person who answers argues with us.

It's just a mystery how your phone dialed 911 all by itself, sir or ma'am, but we still have to check it out. Wouldn't you prefer we cared enough to do that? Trust us, we've got lots better things to do than randomly dial numbers and accuse folks of hanging up on us.

Several months ago, the dispatchers at my Comm Center called back a cell phone multiple times after a caller deliberately hung up on us. You see, the initial call was a suicide "announcement." Not the caller's plea to save her after a realization she wanted to live, but a confession of sorts before she died. Alone. Unidentified. Secreted in a cheap hotel and with her identification hidden so when somebody did discover her body, they wouldn't know who she was. The thing that foiled her plan: Caller ID. (Now we had a phone number to start the process of finding her, as inadequate a bit of information that served to be.)

The illegal drugs she chose to "burst her heart" didn't create that effect, but the effects confused her enough to let us continue the process of interrogating her in fits and starts with each subsequent phone call back to her. (She could have simply turned her phone off.) And, finally, she didn't anticipate the amount of effort we'd expend to find her before she died. She'd also tied a noose around her neck to ensure she died by strangulation when she got too tired to hold her head up. Well, one dispatcher kept her focused on talking to us, again and again, and again.

There were five of us on duty in the Comm Center: two radio dispatcher, two call-takers, and me. We were all involved in saving that woman's life. To be extremely honest, the fact that it was indeed "our save" - just us dispatch-types - without other people suggesting courses of action or doing field work until we located her - was very cool. (Oh, sure, after we found out where she was, the police, fire and EMS responders did the "hands on" work and got her safely to a medical facility. But we found her in time.)

The hour spent between her call to 911 and the moment the cops broke into that motel room was a flurry of unparalleled teamwork. Although one dispatcher had taken the original call, another took up the task of calling her back over and over again and establishing an emotional bond to get more information in dribs and drabs of disconnected conversation.

The rest of us utilized our pooled geographic knowledge, DMV access, reverse directories and Thomas Guides, made other calls here and there, got a Language Line interpreter involved at one point (with another person who knew her), called several motels to compare what we were learning with their registration information, oh just tons of effort. And it all paid off - for her, and for us.

Brick Wall

Of course, we're not the only dispatchers performing these remarkable tasks. Y'all are out there in your own Comm Centers handling other such incidents, equally as difficult and miraculous. Under incredibly adverse conditions like no ALI, or even no ANI at all. Others have encountered the brick walls built around cellular subscriber information, and surmounted them - or even attacked the problem at hand from another angle without assistance from the carriers. (As we did)

Meanwhile, the radios still get answered, the phones still ring, other calls are dispatched and the rest of the public and our field personnel receive optimum attention. The world rolls on.

So, it's the same old thing. Nothing much new. Right? (grin)

Fun Trainees

A "typical" trainee syndrome is that they know a little bit and they don't know what they don't know yet. Ya know? (grin) We hire entry-level people with no previous experience in public safety, but none of them have ever thought to call 911 for some of the stuff the public reports on those lines. (Well, not that they'd admit, I guess, after spending only a short time in the Comm Center.) But when they get one of these bizarre calls, their expressions are just so precious. (grin)

Those of us who've been around any amount of time at all are much harder to startle. We've heard an awful lot of strange things over the years. Now and then, something will raise an eyebrow or generate one of those looks at the phone handset (or console). You called 911 for THAT?

If you ever thought that yours is the only Comm Center to receive truly stupid 911 calls, you might consider buying a little book by Leland Gregory II called "What's the Number for 911?" or even adding the "Wacky 911 Calls" CD to your collection. Neither one is expensive and they're filled with the stuff that takes our time and attention away from the people who really have a reason to dial 911.

Even when nothing very spectacular occurs for a long period of time (those "mellow" shifts to which we refer instead of using the Q word), there's still the opportunity to appreciate callers who think we provide services that are only on their list of "what 911 does." Hopefully, those requests generate a bit of a shared chuckle after the call has been terminated. Or the situation was innocuous instead of something splashed in Headline News to erode public confidence in our abilities. One can only hope. Yeah, well, one can also do the best job with what you've got - and then hope it still turns out well. Most of the time it does. Wouldn't it be nice if the public understood that too?

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