9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Communications Center Response to Officer Down Calls

Taken from Police Communications Ezine, July 14, 2009
Written by Bob Smith, Director of Strategic Development for APCO International. His almost two decades in public safety includes rising through the ranks from firefighter/emt to captain of the department's hazardous materials response and through the ranks of public safety communications from telecommunicator to county 911 director. Along the way, he's been actively involved in emergency management on the state and local levels, served as a nationally registered EMT, a College Campus Safety Officer, and EPA-certified hazardous materials technician and a liaison to the US Secret Service and US Capital Police.

Today's public safety personnel are being thrust into realtime life and death situations more and more often. Despite advancements in technology, innovations in training and tremendous enhancements in situational awareness and responder safety, the number of police officer and fire fighter deaths is still, in a word, staggering.

One step toward addressing and potentially lowering these numbers is the training and education of the public safety telecommunicators that dispatch and maintain on-going communications with field responders. This training would definitely be something Chief's would be involved in, especially in centers that are part of a police or fire department.

As public safety communications professionals, it is the telecommunicator's job to be prepared for these types of events and know how to respond in advance. When a law enforcement officer calls for assistance of a firefighter or EMT activates a Mayday alarm, this is not the time to pull the operations manual off the shelf and flip to the relevant section to learn how to proceed. Telecommunicators should be trained for these types of events and drilled on their response regularly. Policies and procedures should be drafted, incorporated into training programs and updated regularly.

How these requests for assistance are received can vary from agency to agency and from situation to situation. Units may transmit calls over the radio or be in a situation where they can call the Communications Center by telephone or they may come in as automated alarms through the unit's radio.

Most APCO Project 25 (P25) radios incorporate some type of Mayday alarm system. These radios are equipped with a button that can be easily and inconspicuously tripped by a responder depending on the situation. A single button that, once activated, initiates a Mayday alarm back to the Communications Center alerting them that this particular unit is in need of assistance. This is especially effective if radios are assigned a specific identifier and these identifiers are updated as units and personnel change.

Options vary

These options vary from radio to radio and from manufacturer to manufacturer. But the most common are those that key the radio and transmit an alarm back to the Communications Center with no alarm activated on the field user end and those that transmit the alarm and sound an aubdible alarm on both the field user end and in the Communications Center.

The first type is used most often by law enforcement personnel. Once the Mayday button is activated on the radio, the unit will key up; effectively seizing control of the assigned radio frequency and transmitting a message back to the Communications Center. The radio will remain "keyed" for a designated period of time.

This allows the transmission of any on scene sounds that may clue in the Communications Center and other responders to exactly what is happening on scene. For officer safety issues, this set up usually does not sound any type of alert on the field user end. This prevents notifying suspects that the officer has requested assistance and possibly provoking further confrontation.

The second most common type of Mayday alarm in most often used by fire service personnel. With this type of alarm, the unit will transmit an alarm to the Communications Center and will sound an external alarm on the field user end. The audible alarm on the field user end serves to assist units on scene in locating the unit in trouble. This is especially vital for fire personnel that may experience trouble inside structures or other enclosed areas and may be unable to call for help.

Prepared to Respond

Regardless of how a Mayday call is received, telecommunicators need to be prepared to respond. This preparation comes from training. Telecommunicators should be trained on the proper method to respond to these calls for assistance whether they are law enforcement calls, EMS calls, or fire service calls. That training should be followed up with routine drill and practice sessions.

Public safety telecommunicators can also prepare themselves for these types of situations with simple practice drills during a routine shift. One good method is to constantly ask "What if?" during the shift. What if the police officer that just made that traffic stop suddenly calls for help? Where is the next closest officer? Do I have a good enough location to get someone else there in time? Do I have a good enough vehicle description in case the suspect flees?

All of these questions can be answered in seconds during routine operations with no disruption of service. It's a quick and easy way to expect the unexpected. Supervisors and trainers can drill others by asking these same questions during routine operations to ensure they are familiar with the procedures and prepared to respond.

These are just a few ways that public safety communications professionals can fulfill a vital role in emergency calls for assistance. As each and every public safety discipline works together toward reducing the number of line of duty deaths, the entire industry will benefit and so will the communities we serve.

Why Did The Turtle Cross The Road? A 9-1-1 Fable

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, July 2009
Written by Dawnda Pentlin, assistant chief telecommunications engineer/training engineer for Missouri Highway Patrol Troop A, Lee's Summit. She has been a trainer for the Missouri Highway Patrol since 1991 and is an APCO-certified instructor.

Communications has been my life since 1954. But I've only made a living at it since 1981. I am an assistant chief telecommunications engineer for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. This is a big title that means I will work the radio, be a calltaker, supervise and take responsibility for other people's decisions pertaining to dispatch -- whether good or bad. It's little wonder that one of my passions is liability. Police communications is a high-stress, high-liability profession, and prospective telecommunicators need to be made aware of that fact.

As calltakers and dispatchers, we receive emergency and nonemergency calls that require us to make decisions on what action is needed. My motto for day-to-day communications is, "If you don't give it away, you haven't done your job."

Most of the calls we deal with have a set of standards we use to handle them, enabling us to send the appropriate help, such as an ambulance, firefighters, a police officer, etc. Standards are a set of guidelines to follow under certain circumstances. These guidelines are called standard operating procedures (SOPs) or general orders (GOs). But whatever they're called makes no difference until you forget or fail to follow them while performing your duties. This is where liability comes in to play.

Most SOPs are written in a common sense approach that allows the telecommunicator to use discretion in the course of their actions on certain calls, also called discretionary acts. If you have no discretion and there are set rules to follow for making decisions, it's called ministerial duty. The problem with ministerial duty is that if you mess up on one aspect, you could be held liable for the outcome, which brings us to negligence. Negligence of duty requires three things to be proven before you can be held liable:
  1. You had a duty to perform.
  2. You failed to perform that duty by error or by not taking action.
  3. Damages occurred as a result.

Now, I don't want to scare you, but we all make mistakes from time to time. Hopefully, these mistakes don't cause damage.

To be on the safe side remember this: Do what a reasonable and prudent person would do in a similar set of circumstances, and always ensure the call is passed along to the appropriate response personnel to finish the job.

So where is the fable in all of this? In Aesop's Fables, a fable is defined as "a short tale to teach a moral lesson, often with animals or inanimate objects as characters." Well, I'm no Aesop, but I do have a story to tell.

A Communications Fable

Once upon a time there was a man named Joe Doe who was driving to work on a major highway. All of a sudden, cars started swerving and a turtle that was trying to get away from a road alligator appeared in the road. Joe quickly grabbed his cell phone and dialed 911.

"911. Where's your emergency," answered Dottie the Dispatcher.

"I'm on this major roadway, and there's a turtle in the lane of traffic," Joe replied.

Dottie snickered under her breath and asked, "Where on the highway?"

Joe gratefully gave her directions and thanked her for her help.

Dottie turned to her co-worker and said, "What an idiot. It's just a turtle." She promptly threw the call in the trash.

All was well until later, when another 911 call came in.

"911. Where's your emergency?" answered Dottie.

"Oh my, we're here on this major roadway, and there has been a terrible crash. I don't know what happened, but cars were swerving, and someone ran off the road and overturned."

Dottie promptly dispatched assistance to the scene and was quite happy with her response. In the meantime, Joe was listening to the news and heard about the horrible crash. He called and asked why nothing was done to prevent this tragedy. Dottie remembered Joe and tried to assure him that everything was done according to the agency's standards. But Joe wasn't satisfied, and, being a lawyer, he contacted the crash victims and helped them file a lawsuit against the agency and the dispatcher who failed to take action on his original call.

The moral: If you fail to pass the call along, you haven't done your job.

An alternate ending would have been for Dottie to give that call to an officer so he could make the decision to go or not to go to the location.

By the way, Dottie's co-worker--her supervisor--could also be held liable for not following through on the original call. This is called vicarious liability.

No matter how trivial a call may seem, don't minimize its importance. The calls we receive are important to the callers and should be important to telecommunicators. Making decisions is a big part of our job, and we should take every call seriously.

We make decisions daily that affect the lives of the public and our officers. Use the rules and regulations your agency has provided. Clear and common sense thinking will help, but if you make a decision based on only that, beware. Your job depends on knowing your duties and following through.