9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

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.


  1. This is why I sometimes think I would be good at that kind of job. My mind would have automatically thought of the turtle as a potential hazard. I think I would have even asked the caller if it was causing traffic to swerve. I'm all about details.

  2. I'm glad to know that I'm not the only person that would've asked more questions. I would have wanted to know how big the turtle was, and if vehicles were trying to avoid it. I also would have asked to make sure that no one was trying to go out and take it out of the road. Unfortunately, I've been guilty to doing that, but then again, it wasn't on a major roadway.