9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New Standards for Handling Reports of Missing and Sexually Exploited Children Are Needed at 9-1-1 Communications Centers Nationwide

Taken from Emergency Communications Professional Magazine May/June 2010
Written by Ernie Allen, co-founder of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (Alexandria, VA) and has served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the private non-profit organization since 1989. Under his leadership, more than 145,000 children have been recovered and the organization has increased its recovery rate from 62 percent in 1990 to 97 percent today. Ernie has brought technology and innovation to the Center, including age progression and forensic imaging of long-term missing children, a 24-hour missing children hotline and training for more than 269,000 law enforcement officers. He established the CyberTipline, the 9-1-1 for the Internet, which has resulted in thousands of successful prosecutions.

The numbers of children reported missing or sexually exploited each year are overwhelming. According to Justice Department research, nearly 800,000 children are reported missing each year. Another serious threat is child sexual exploitation. Leading researchers report that one in five girls and one in 10 boys will be sexually victimized in some way before they reach the age of 18, and just one in three reports it. Finally, the advent of the Internet has been a blessing and a curse. While it has provided unprecedented and vast educational and informational resources to children, it has also posed extreme dangers for children as a result of pedophiles and others who use the Internet to prey upon children.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has helped in the recovery of more than 145,600 missing children, raising its recovery rate from 62 percent in 1990 to 97 percent today. NCMEC has handled more than 800,000 reports of child sexual exploitations since 1998 - 120,000 in 2009 alone - and has reviewed and analyzed 31 million child pornography images and videos since 2003 in order to identify and rescue these children. Rescuing America's children required thorough, detailed information and rapid mobilization of police response.
Reports of missing or sexually exploiited children may be among the most difficult, challenging and emotionally charged cases a 9-1-1 communications center will experience. The steps that are taken and the information that is captured can impact whether a child is quickly and safely recovered, can help prevent a life spent recovering from abuse, and could mean the difference between life and death for a child. The information gathered can also impact law enforcement's ability to prosecute those who harm children. As a result, it is important that 9-1-1 communications centers nationwide respond quickly, decisively and in a consistent manner when handling reports of missing children or children who have been sexually exploited.

NCMEC, in partnership with the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and AMBER Alert developed new best practices model policy for 9-1-1 communications centers to follow when handling reports of missing children or sexually exploited children. Created in 2007, the new policy, American National Standards Institute (ANSI)standard 1.101.1-2007, is designed to better prepare 9-1-1 communications centers to handle these types of cases. Implementation of the new standard better prepares 9-1-1 communications centers to effectively assess the risk to the child, collect better information sooner about missing children and identify how that information can be used to mobilize a more effective law enforcement response. The standard also instructs on the best way to handle and the specific information that needs to be collected for different types of calls such as those involving family abduction, non-family abduction, runaways, child sexual exploitation and reports of child pornography.
NCMEC is providing technical assistance and training to states interested in inplementing the new ANSI standard in their 9-1-1 communication centers. During 2008 and 2009, more than 1,000 communications center personnel from 43 states attended NCMEC training on the ANSI standard, of which 755 were managers or supervisors and 328 were communications center trainers. Four states have taken a leadership role in adopting and implementing the new ANSI standard on a statewide basis - Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio and Utah. Three other states - Iowa, South Carolina and Texas - are in the process of implementing the standards statewide.

Implementing the ANSI Standard
What is holding up the rest of you? Children are our most precious asset. Communications centers play a critical role in bringing missing children home and protecting children from sexual exploitation. Every 9-1-1 communications center in the nation should adopt and implement the new ANSI standard to ensure reports of missing children or sexually exploited children are handled correctly.
Implementing the new standard on an individual PSAP basis is a slow process. NCMEC's goal is to persuade states to adopt the standard and implement it on a statewide basis. A state's required commitment is modest. States must officially adopt the ANSI standard, provide locations for training, identify the key individuals to be trained and provide help in implementing the standard following public safety answering point (PSAP) training.
An example of the types of partners States are calling upon to help implement the standard statewide include NENA/APCO state presidents, state chiefs and/or sheriff's associations, State 9-1-1 officials, missing children clearinghouses, State Amber Alert Coordinators and State Police. The cost to implement the new standard is minimal, and NCMEC and the other partner agencies are availabe to help PSAPs adopt the ANSI standard and implement it into practice.
A recent Hanover, MA case exemplified how the ANSI standard helped one PSAP protect a child. A mother called 9-1-1 when she could no longer hear her six-year-old daughter outside the apartment complex. The call taker had been trained in how to handle a case of a missing child and immedicately dispatched police to the site to search for the girl. As it turned out, a man assisting the police found the girl shackled in the hallway of an apartment building - she had escaped from the abductor's apartment and was able to tell the police where to find her abductor. The police arrested this man and the little girl was safely returned to her mother. The immediate recognition of a potentially serious problem by the call taker and the prompt response of the Hanover Police Department most likely saved the life of this young child. This is only one of hundreds of examples of the important role 9-1-1 communications centers play when a child is missing. The excellent response in the Hanover case should be the norm in every PSAP.
When children are abducted and murdered, almost 60 percent of those cases begin like this one - from a parent who can't find his or her child. Only 10 percent are initially identified as abductions. Calls regarding missing children need to be investigated until we know the children are safe. Those children who are abducted and murdered die very quickly. We know that 47 percent die within the first hour, 74 percent within the first three hours and 40 percent are dead before they are even reported missing. Time is the enemy in the search for a missing child, and every second is critical.
The fact that a new ANSI standard has been created for 9-1-1 communications centers is a great milestone. However, the standard can only be effective if it is used.
Because not all states have a certification process for 9-1-1 communications center training, a new award was developed to recognize 9-1-1 communications centers that have adopted the ANSI standard and implemented the procedures. A 9-1-1 communications center can become an NCMEC Partner if it demonstrates that the communications center manager has attended NCMEC training, that communications center trainers have attended the NCMEC Train the Trainer course, that all local communications center staff have been trained and that new staff will be trained to follow the ANSI standard. In addition, the communications center must establish a quality assurance process that calls for supervisory review of calls related to missing and sexually exploited children. Upon completion of these requirements, 9-1-1 communications centers are provided with a certificate of achievement that is awarded at national conferences held throughout the year by APCO, NAED, NENA and AMBER Alert. Communications centers are then provided with regular updates.
Becoming an NCMEC partner tells your community that your PSAP cares about children and wants to make sure reports of missing children or children who have been sexually exploited are handled properly and as a priority. Urge your State to act. Help NCMEC implement this vital standard across America.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Am I Ready for the Big One? Personal Preparedness Tips for Telecommunicators

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, May 2010
Written by Barbara Graham, assistant chief operator for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. She has been a trainer with the agency for ten years. She is an APCO certified instructor and has taught at APCO and NENA conferences in Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa.

I've been in law enforcement for 32 years. Thirty-one of those years have been in communications, working the console on a daily basis. I've seen many, many changes over the years. Gone are the manual typewriters, the ticker tape machines, the rotary dial telephones. The radio console in use when I started is currently in the Patrol's museum, along with the old ticker tape machine. In fact, hanging above the console is a picture of me working, so I can truly say I am a museum piece. I have seen and continue to see dramatic changes in technology. So much so, it's hard to comprehend.

One recent change is all the talk about interoperability. Did someone just make that word up? I tried to research this in a 1988 edition of Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, in our comm center. Guess what? I couldn't find it. Don't get me wrong, I understand where the word came from. The attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001, changed our whole lives, especially our lives working in a public safety communications center.

There has been so much talk about readiness in the comm center in the past several years. We have backup phone systems, backup generators, even backup comm centers. What about backup telecommunicators? I wanted to know, "What about me?" What if I were the one working (stuck) in the comm center when something big happens? Is there anything out there to prepare me?

I tried to research communications preparedness. I got plenty of responses on comm center preparedness. APCO and NENA have many articles about how to keep your comm center prepared - what type of equipment is available and suggested. But I found nothing about the telecommunicator's preparedness. So I contacted several Telecommunicator Emergency Response Teams (TERT) and got some recommendations as to what telecommunicators should have ready in case of deployment. I finally found most of the information I wanted from the Florida, Missouri and Alaska emergency manuals. I'd like to share my findings with other telecommunicators.

What If....?
The most important step is to talk about the "what ifs" with your family. What if you're "stuck" working when the hurricane, the ice storm, the blizzard or the tornado hits, or the terrorist attacks (heaven forbid)? Have you discussed what plan of action you and your family should take? Do you have a plan as to how the kids will be picked up at school or day care? Do you have a plan if your house is damaged? Where should your family go, or what should they do while you're at work? The best plan of action is to talk with your spouse, your children, even your parents or neighbors about what to do in the event of an emergency.

Write a family emergency plan. List ICE (in case of emergency) numbers in your cell phone. Keep all phone numbers in an accessible place where they can be located in the event of an emergency. Keep a list of family members' names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and important medical information. This may sound silly, but if the family is separated, this information is invaluable. Most of us know our own information and possibly our spouse's, but do you know all of your children's Social Security numbers?

Make a list of your out-of-town contacts, including names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. You may need to contact out-of-town friends and family members. Do you know their information off the top of your head?

Keep a list of important information you may need in the near future: doctor's names and phone numbers, pharmacist names and phone numbers, medical insurance policy numbers, homeowner's insurance policy numbers.

Make copies of birth certificates and other important information. Keep important documents protected. Consider keeping this information in a folder at your work or protected in your emergency list.

Develop a plan that addresses the possibility that your family might not be home together when an emergency arises. In this day and age, our families are scattered. School, work and church activities keep us on the move and rarely at home all at the same time. Discuss a plan the entire family knows and understands. How will you reach each other? Depending on the emergency situation, you may not have phone contact with each other. You may not be able to use your cell phone to call each other, but you may be able to text each other. Consider having a plan to contact a family friend of an out-of-town family member. Make sure everyone in your family knows who this is and that you're all on the same page. Consider having a neighborhood meeting place or a regional meeting place. Do you have children in schools or day-care facilities? How will you reach them? Is there a plan in place at the school or day-care facility if you can't get there? Do you know the evacuation locations in your area? Find out, and make sure your family knows. The better prepared your family is, the better your family will be able to face an emergency situation.

Shelter at Home
Include two scenarios in your family plan: one for home and a second one if you should have to evacuate. You may not have a choice in this decision; officials may order you to leave. You can prepare a shelter at home, and you can also prepare a "go kit" if you have to leave your home. Remember, you could be at work when your family must face these decisions without you. It will make it easier for them if they know exactly what to do. Remind them to use common sense and stay calm.

If you must shelter at home, choose the most secure room in your house. Select a room with few windows or doors. The room should be large enough for the whole family, including pets. Keep the exterior doors locked. Remember to also have your emergency supplies in this room, along with a television or a battery-powered radio to listen for updated information.

Remember, during an emergency, the electricity may not be working. You may not be able to get food or water. Have three days' worth of food and fresh water. Remember to have at least one gallon of water for each individual for each day. If room is available, try to store two weeks' worth of water for each person.

Other items you should have in your shelter are flashlights, a radio, extra batteries, prescription medicine, first aid kit, blankets, clothing, cash, eating utensils, duct tape, heavy-duty plastic bags, matches, paper, pencil, needle, thread, toilet paper, liquid detergent, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deoderant, bleach, plastic bucket with tight lid, disinfectant and a whistle to signal for help. Don't forget the cash. ATMs don't work without power.

Go Kits
Find a tote bag or a backpack, and put together a go kit. The kit can be kept at home, in the car or at work. You'll need some of the same items you have in your shelter: a gallon of water per person, several cans of food or dried foods, manual can opener, flashlight, extra batteries, blankets or sleeping bag, first aid supplies, extra money and personal hygiene items.

I brought a big plastic tub into work and encourage my co-workers to bring in non-perishable food items, such as canned soup, oatmeal, tuna, peanut butter, etc. to have on hand in case of an emergency. If we're out of electricity, that means our snack machines won't work and we'll need something to eat.

Here are some suggestions of what to have on hand in case you're the one who's stuck behind the console when the big one hits - whichever the big one is:
  • Medication and copies of prescription;
  • Nonperishable food items;
  • Water - 1 gallon per person per day;
  • Personal hygiene items;
  • Complete change of clothes;
  • Eyeglasses/contact solution;
  • Paperwork;
  • First aid kit;
  • Flashlight/batteries;
  • Cell phone charger;
  • Blanket;
  • Bucket with tight fitting lid;
  • Heavy-duty trash bags;
  • Utility knife;
  • Matches/lighter;
  • Small toolkit;
  • Battery-operated radio;
  • Leather/latex gloves;
  • Mess kit;
  • Bleach; and
  • Rope

Final Thoughts

When considering worst-case scenarios for your comm center, don't forget to consider your own preparations. Make a family plan. I also encourage every telecommunicator to start your own go kit to keep in the trunk of your car or in the work storage area.

Livable Centers: Creature Comforts & Beyond

Taken from Public Safety Communications, May 2010
Written by Steven E. Loomis, LEED AP, FAIA and Nathan D. McClure III, MPAM ENP
Mr. Loomis is an assistant vice president and the justice and public safety design director for AECOM. He has more than 20 years of professional architectural practice. Mr. McClure is an associate and public safety consultant at AECOM. He has more than 40 years of public safety communications experience and is a past president of APCO International.

The next-generation PSAP is characterized largely by the attention to livable spaces, beginning with the communications room and carrying through to supporting spaces. From ergonomically designed consoles and chairs to lighting and sound control, facility designs that provide relief from daily stress increase job satisfaction, retention and service delivery.

Let there be light: The main operations room must be efficient and uplifting. Contributing to ultimate livability, large windows can offer natural light and calming views. New glass technologies make natural light possible even in areas with the most severe weather. When possible, windows should take advantage of diffused northern light to avoid glare and uneven heating conditions. If this orientation is not possible, or other views are desired, automatic rolling blinds can be installed.

Another way to get diffused natural light into the operations area is a light shelf that spans between the outside and inside of the exterior glass and effectively bounces sunlight up onto the ceiling. Artificial lights can be switched off when there's enough ambient light entering the space, which supports green, sustainable principles.

This concept works best with higher ceilings. The height should be proportional to the size of the footprint of the roon. For most medium to large centers, this results in a ceiling that's about one-and-a-half stories high. This spacious setting allows for indirect light fixtures to be used much like the light shelf. The fixtures are suspended from the ceiling and direct their light upward, providing a similar diffuse lighting effect. Task lights can be used at each workstation. Our experience suggests that a lower light level is desired in most operations center.

Sound control: Acoustics can be affected by wall placement and other elements, such as floating or irregular ceiling panels. Non-parallel room surfaces can eliminate "flutter" echo and effectively dissipate conversational noise. Acoustic wall panels and carpeted floors contribute to a queit room, and most console furniture have acoustic panels to provide separation between operators.

Non-optional amenities: Break rooms, kitchens, quiet rooms, restrooms, lockers and physical fitness areas are considered standard for next-generation facilities.

Like the operations floor, break rooms should have natural light, and most dispatchers prefer an open, inviting setting where they can get away from the action of the floor. The break room may be completely separate or remote from operations, which may be possible only in larger centers where sufficient relief is available for breaks. Smaller centers generally request that these areas be immediately adjacant to the work space.

Basic break room elements include a kitchen or kitchenette, dining tables, vending machines and casual seating. Often a TV is available, and some centers have fountain drink machines. The kitchen design depends on the number of telecommunicators and departments. Many centers have a full-size range with a hood, but others have only a cook-top or microwave. Sometimes a commercial range hood and chemical fire suppression system are required even for residential appliances. Often, several refrigerators are provided too so each shift or department can have its own. Pantry space should be included.

Additional considerations: Soft seating, computer stations and telephones. Highly livable centers include an adjacent, secure, outside break area, allowing dispatchers an opportunity to catch a breath of fresh air before returning to work. Out of public view, break areas can be outdoor gardens with benches and a covered area for group activities, such as staff picnics. Some centers even include gas barbecues, located on a raised balcony or roof area or enclosed behind a screen wall next to a first floor break room.

Exercise rooms provide employees with a great outlet for stress reduction. The most livable centers plan for a reasonable amount of equipment and size the room accordingly. Showers and changing lockers need to be provided in close proximity to these facilities. These spaces are also critical in times of extended work shifts and uncertain home conditions, which may be the case during large-scale disasters.

Quiet rooms provide the respite required by telecommunicators after a particularly traumatic call or event. Ideally, the quiet room should be located adjacent to the dispatch floor in order to provide easy access to the dispatcher, as well as allow supervisor observation.

Livability issues and support spaces are more than mere functional requirements. Providing needed relief from the daily high stress activity, these livable principles and design concepts promote employee wellness and satisfaction with working conditions - one of the most important factors in employee retention.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Who's In Charge? Tenure Does Not Equal Leadership

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, May 2010
Written by Kelly M. Sharp, co-owner of Workplace Consulting NW. She holds a Master's degree in Education from the University of Phoenix and a Bachelors degree in Commuication from Washington State University. She has 14 years' experience as a police/fire/medical dispatcher and is a Certified Training Officer for APCO and CJTC.

It's 3:30 a.m. in a typical comm center and the skeleton crew, made up of the lowest seniority dispatchers, is working the graveyard shift. Call volume is nonexistent, radio traffic is low, the magazines are out, and the night progresses at its normal, boring pace. Suddenly, the phones light up with calls of a multi-level office building fire, or a frantic call comes in reporting a major chemical spill at a manufacturing plant or an officer is shot. What happens next can determine the success or failure of the incident.

It becomes a question of "who." Who do the dispatchers turn to? Who is in command of the comm center? Who sees the overall picture? Who has the leadership ability to help her fellow dispatcher through the disaster? In many understaffed dispatch centers, the person in charge is often simply the person with the most seniority. But tenure does not always equal leadership, and this can be fatal during a major incident.

In most comm centers, there are three levels of supervisors. First, is the person who officially holds the title. This person is usually someone experienced in the job itself and who has been promoted through some kind of interview or testing process. At this level, it should be assumed that the supervisor has been provided with basic supervisory or leadership training, understands the overall needs of the center and has the ability to coordinate and evaluate her staff.

The second level of supervisor is the acting watch or lead. At this level, employees are experienced enough in the job to be able to answer questions from co-workers and oversee the basic operations of the comm center. The best lead programs involve a testing process that reviews evaluations and job skills and an interview process that asks the employee how she would react in specific situations. Leadership or supervisor training classes would then be provided to educate the new lead on how to respond to supervisory challenges or during emergencies. Although this level of supervisor is not responsible for overall performance of the employees, they can be expected to run the center without supervision and may also be asked to provide input on employee evaluations.

The third level of supervisor comprises those who are forced into the position by default. Usually found on graveyard shifts, this supervisor is in charge based only on their hire date. In this model, the most qualified person to supervise the shift is the one with the most seniority, regardless of their ability to lead others. These people have usually had no training of any kind and are simply there to answer job-related questions and make decisions.

The Default Supervisor
The challenge facing many comm centers is a lack of supervisory preparation for a major incident. It has often been said that supervising dispatchers is like herding cats: If they're going the same direction you are, great; if not, you're in trouble. Established supervisors often have challenges getting those around them to head the direction they want them to, but supervisors who switch back and forth from being a co-worker to being the one in charge often have no chance of leadership - even before a major incident.

There can be two specific challenges for a supervisor during a major event. First, those in charge are often considered to be a working part of the shift, so they're too busy answering 9-1-1 lines or working radios to be able to step back and see the big picture. This leaves the supervisor with the decision that may set the tone of the event: Do they let the 9-1-1 lines ring and coordinate a response to the incident? Or do they continue to answer 9-1-1 lines and hope their co-workers can handle the rest without them? Although most dispatchers have exceptional multi-tasking skills, the reality is that very few have the skills needed to successfully synchronize a major incident while still answering phones or working radios. Expecting them to do so is setting them up for failure.

The second challenge is defining the position the supervisor will fill during a significant event. When running a major incident, the supervisor needs to take the role of coordinator or commander and control the situation by answering questions, providing information and coordinating resources for the call-takers and dispatchers. This can include communicating with sergeants or fire chiefs, advising administrative staff or emergency services personnel, calling in additional staff for overtime or ensuring employees are provided with breaks.

Of course, knowing what the person in charge should be doing and understanding how to do it are two separate things. In their article "Asking the Right Questions About Leadership: Discussions and Conclusions," J. Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman say, "Leading well, therefore, may require a considerable degree of emotional maturity in dealing with one's own and others' anxieties." This means that not only must the lead or default supervisor understand the needs of the position but they must also have the ability to understand the needs of the people.

A leader is only a leader if they have followers. When a lead dispatcher is promoted on the basis of a testing process but then not provided with any leadership training, or a default supervisor is simply put "in charge," they may find they have no one willing to follow them. Dispatchers are notoriously autonomous and may simply ignore the direction of someone they don't feel is a true leader capable of providing them with direction. Add to that the fact that often the default supervisor is in charge of a low-seniority crew, who may not have the experience to make the correct decisions, and suddenly there's a complete breakdown in communication.

For example, Andrea was promoted to lead dispatcher two years ago but has not been provided with any training in how to supervise. One night, one of her graveyard dispatchers limped into work and told her he had sprained his ankle earlier that day, but he's doing OK because the doctor gave him Vicoden and he took "a couple." She can tell that he's impaired but does not have the confidence in her abilities or position to send him home. She tries to reach her supervisor at home for advice, but he's not answering the phone. She is too unnerved to call the director at home and admit she cannot handle the situation. So she tells the dispatcher to go work on the phones and hopes for the best.

Or take default supervisor Liz, a dispatcher for 23 years. She is not the best dispatcher or the worst, but rather her job skills range in the middle ground on her yearly evaluation. She is considered an adequate dispatcher by her co-workers, but she has no leadership skills. Regardless, based strictly on her seniority, she is in charge every day from 0300 to 0700 with a crew that has fewer than five years of experience. Now add a domestic violence shooting at a local manufacturing plant and a structure fire.

Liz has worked multiple incidents in her career and understands what to do as a dispatcher. She has years of experience knowing what units to send, how to call in SWAT, how to coordinate with her sergeants, how to control her radio traffic. She understands the logistics of dispatching fire, coordinating with the battalion chiefs and rescue and how to call out additional fire resources. The problem is that Liz is now in charge of the center and no one has ever taught her how to lead her dispatchers. Barb, over at police, is undone because the sergeant wants her to page out a sniper, while Samantha at fire can't find the number for public works for road-closed signs, and the phones are ringing off the hook. Liz, as supervisor, decides her best option is to continue to answer 9-1-1 calls and let the dispatchers fend for themselves.

Even worse, think about the typical graveyard crew made up of dispatchers who all, including the default supervisor, have less than four years of experience. When they get a big incident, they are left to decide as a team how they will handle it based on their experience and knowledge. The only problem is that their experience and knowledge have not prepared them for this type of situation.

Comm center directors, managers and supervisors need to take a hard look at the leadership skills of those who are tasked to be the go-to person during a major incident. Does the person in charge have the leadership skills necessary to coordinate the needs of police, fire, citizens and dispatchers? Have they received training in how to lead and how to deal with emergencies from the supervisor's point of view? And most importantly, do those on the frontlines feel they can follow the person who has been left in charge?

Plan Ahead
In all three of the previous scenarios, employees were asked to respond to situations outside their normal field of work and outside their training. This, of course, leads into the problem of negligence. If the comm center manager is lucky, the crew will work together to come up with a solution to the challenge they are facing. This does not imply they will make the correct decision, but rather they will pick the one that sounds best to them. But what happens when the staff, either the acting supervisor or the group, makes the wrong decision? Should they be punished? If so, the employees are in the position of being blamed for not knowing what to do simply because they lacked training. Or should the blame go to the administrator who chose to leave a 9-1-1 center with an inexperienced or untrained supervisor? Either way, it's a no-win situation.

So, how can this situation be prevented? In their article, "Looking for Dr. Jekyll but Hiring Mr. Hyde: Preventing Negligent Hiring, Supervision, Retention, and Training." Kathryn Lewis and Susan Garner state, "Prevention begins by confirming the knowledge and skill levels of new employees and appropriately training them to perform their jobs correctly and safely."

This applies even more for those who are in a supervisory capacity, regardless of the level. First, each shift must have someone in charge, and that person must be minimally qualified and trained, not just assigned by seniority. Administrators must look at each person on the shift and consciously choose who the best leader will be. The employee who has 23 years in dispatch may not be as qualified as the employee who has only been employed for three years, but who served two tours of duty leading soldiers in Iraq.

Second, there must be some kind of vetting process to select a person in charge, even if it's only for a few hours. Many comm centers believe they can "get away" with having seniority supervision for just a few hours each day because nothing has gone wrong in the past. This is dangerous thinking. The same applies for those who say they have no one who is qualified or who could pass an interview for the lead position. Those administrators may want to review the concept of negligence and re-think their strategy.

After the acting watch or lead is selected, they need to have some kind of formal, documented training. An acting watch or lead, although not responsible for the formal duties of a supervisor, still needs guidance on how to react in an emergency situation or what to do with a significant personnel issue. Another benefit: The more training they receive, the better chance they have of being able to count on their co-workers to follow their decisions.

Acting watch or lead training does not have to be intensive supervisory style training. Rather, it's training provided to help the lead determine how to make decisions and where to go for help. Lists of phone numbers for people who are on call for guidance, opportunities to shadow full-time supervisors, even handbooks providing training and guidelines are all cost-effective options.

To successfully lead a crew through a disaster or major incident, the person in charge needs to have an understanding of the needs of the job, the trust of the staff and the ability to make decisions and stand by them. Even senior employees, with their years of job-related experience, may not have the leadership skills to successfully navigate the trials of a disaster. Administrators who take care to select leaders based on more than just time on the job, and then train them appropriately, can go a long way toward increasing the chance of success for everyone involved.

Bridge the Generation Gap: As Millennials Enter the Workforce, Comm Center Managers Must Adapt

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, May 2010
Written by Bob Smith, APCO International's Director of Strategic Development

Read as many public safety publications as I do, and you've probably noticed the amount of attention folks are giving to the "next" generation of public safety professionals. Complaints include: "They're hard to get through to." "They have different agendas than we do." It's one challenge after another. Or is it?

Is it more likely that it's just the same thing those before us said when we were cutting our teeth in the business? The Buddy Holly generation, who said it about the Jimi Hendrix generation, who said it about the Metallica generation, who in turn said it about the Nirvana generation -- an ongoing cycle of trying to deal with the fresh young faces flooding the industry.

So why are we seeing so much attention on the subject now? For starters, this is the first time in history in which four generations are in the workplace at the same time -- not just in public safety, but everywhere. Traditionalists/veterans, baby boomers, generation X and the millennials are all working together. What does this mean to public safety?

Let's start with those labels. The labels and the dates assigned for each generation vary by source and they aren't specific to a month or day, but the most common breakdown is:

  • Traditionalists or veterans - born during the WWII era;
  • Baby boomers - born between WWII and 1965;
  • Generation X - born between 1965 and 1979;
  • Generation Y or the millennials - born between 1980 and 1999 or the turn of the millennium; and
  • Generation Z - born since 1999.

It's hard to avoid talking in generalizations when discussing generation gaps, so keep in mind that every person is unique, and comm center managers must approach employees as individuals.

Although many millennials have just entered the workforce, they will soon become the majority. As a generation, millennials are exceptionally tech-savvy. They are tuned to their own value in the job market, have limited loyalty to a particular employer and tend to insist on working in a stimulating job environment. These qualities can be viewed as liabilities, but let's look at them as opportunities.

As a former comm center director, I know that having an employee who is tech-savvy is always a good thing. Many agencies can't afford dedicated information technology staffs, and having a little technical know-how on staff can be of great assistance and help keep expenses down.

As for the other qualities - being especially turned into their own value in the job market, having limited loyalty to any particular employer and insisting on a stimulating job environment - all of these will ultimately benefit an entire agency. As employers consistently strive to meet these needs, they'll improve morale and create a positive work environment, thus improving their agencies overall. All of this can lead to higher recruitment and retention rates as employees start seeing more about an agency to appreciate (e.g., challenging work, adequate compensation and sufficient recognition for a job well done).

A bit more information about this up-and-coming workforce: They have a greater requirement for accountability and performance measurement. This means they'll give 100% effort 100% of the time if needed, but in return they'll require proportionate recognition. Exceptional work will require exceptional recognition - a reward that is more than a paycheck and on the same level as their performance.

This requires agencies to implement and maintain a formal employee recognition program. It can be as simple as thank you notes, gift cards or paid days off. However, it has to occur more often than once a year during National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. It has to be an ongoing part of agency operations. Reward employees once a year, and you'll get exceptional performance once a year. Reward and recognize them regularly all year long, and you'll get exceptional performance all year long.

Goals and objections will also need to be clear, and there must be an established benchmark for success. This will require a formalized employee performance evaluation program and well-maintained policies and procedures that are reviewed and updated regularly. An agency should be doing this anyway.

These are just a few examples of qualities and characteristics of the next generation of public safety communications professionals. Not all are challenges or obstacles that need to be overcome. In fact, in most cases if an agency prepares itself to meet the needs of this new workforce, it will ultimately improve overall operations and increase performance levels and morale for all generations on their staff.

The bottom line: Bridging the gap between senior leadership and a younger generation of employees is a task that must be faced now. As technology and the workforce of tomorrow grows and evolves, today's public safety leadership must use this diversity for the benefit of their agency and the communities they serve.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Three and Me

Author Unknown

I am the Police Officer, follow me,
Preserving the peace is where I'll be.
I am the torch that lights the way,
In darkness my courage will never sway.
Leading the others, that is me.
I am the Police Officer, guiding the three.

I am the Firefighter, follow me,
Into the flames is where I'll be.
I am the one who battles the beast,
To protect that on which it would feast.
Lending strength to the others, that is me.
I am the Firefighter, supporting the three.

I am the Medic, follow me,
Easing the pain is where I'll be.
I am the one who helps them survive,
Lifting the fallen to keep them alive.
Treating the others, that is me.
I am the Medic, healing the three.

I am the Dispatcher, don't follow me,
Agony and chaos is where I'll be.
Working in obscurity, this forgotten place,
Not death but insanity is the danger I face.
Answering the call, that is me.
I am the Dispatcher, protecting the three.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

7 Deadly Mistakes: Knowing What Can Go Wrong Can Help Telecommunicators Prevent Negative Outcomes

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, April 2010
Written by Lori A. Vangilder, adjunct instructor with APCO Institute. She retired after 22 years with the Lake Mary (FL) Police Department and is a past president of Florida Chapter APCO.

"911 saves lives." We've heard this statement since we were children. We learned how to dial it, and we taught it to our children. But it's not until you become a telecommunicator that you appreciate the human factor involved in saving lives.

Every day, a phenomenal amount of work is accomplished by public safety telecommunicators who work at the highest level of our cognitive process. Without conscious effort, we take in new information, reframe it and compare it with previous experiences. Then, our brains access that information and, bam!, we've done something so complex that we sometimes amaze ourselves.

In 2006, more than 240 million 911 calls were made in the U.S. Millions of times each year, responders are dispatched, everything goes right and lives are saved. But occasionally, something goes wrong. At times, our problem-solving and decision-making skills aren't used as effectively and as efficiently as they should be. The result is errors, and because our profession is public safety communications, those errors are magnified, scrutinized and publicized as deadly mistakes.

It's up to us -- as comm center directors, supervisors and telecommunicators -- to identify the many different situations that can create deadly errors and take steps to prevent negative outcomes -- a life-saving proposition. Below, seven mistakes to avoid.

1. Miskeying & Misunderstanding Locations

Location, location, location. We are taught from Day 1 that acquiring the accurate location of an incident is the most important part of the job. With an accurate location, we have somewhere to send responders. But the simplest task creates the largest room for error.

In most comm centers, when a call is received the information is immediately typed (keyed) into a CAD system. In larger centers, a telecommunicator may handle hundreds of calls per shift. No matter how big or small the center, there's the potential for human error every time an incident is entered into the CAD. Keying in the wrong house number or street name will cause responders to be dispatched to the wrong location.

Most comm centers require a minimum typing speed (e.g., 40 words per minute) as a prerequisite for employment. But must typing tests are given in a vacuum, with no distractions for the one taking the test, so accuracy isn't measured under realistic conditions. Factor in the physical toll of an eight-, 10- or 12-hour shift, the need to simultaneously listen to a distraught caller who may or may not speak English fluently, pass the call along to a dispatcher or dispatch the call themselves, listen for and answer other lines, and it's easy to see how a telecommunicator could miskey an address or misunderstand a street name.

Dispatching field units to a wrong location for a traffic crash could escalate a traffic crash with injuries to a traffic homicide investigation if someone dies because EMS was delayed. Consider the consequences of dispatching a fire department to the wrong street address of a fully involved structure fire in which people are trapped. Any way you look at it, it spells liability.

Tip: Telecommunicators can decrease the risk of a potentially deadly error by developing the positive habit of ending each call by repeating the location to the caller to ensure accuracy. If a street name is similar to another street name, duplicated in a nearby city or just plain confusing, spell it out. Example: "Mrs. Smith, units will be dispatched to 120 C-H-O-C-K-T-A-W Street in the Briar Community to meet with you regarding the burglary of your residence." This gives the caller one last chance to correct you and ensures that units are dispatched to the correct location.

Because typing speeds and keyboarding skills are vital in today's comm centers, another way to reduce errors is to ensure your keyboarding skills are kept up to par. Numerous typing tutorials and tests are available commercially and free online. Start a challenge in your center that gauges everyone's speed and accuracy. Everyone wants to be the "best," and most telecommunicators are perfectionists, so many will be willing to participate for fun, resulting in more accurate keying and faster typing speeds.

Mistakes are also more prevalent if a telecommunicator doesn't know their jurisdiction's geography. Many street names are similar from area to area, some differing by the addition of a compass direction. Although addressing personnel attempt to review every street name to decrease confusion, many agencies still have a Main Road and a Main Street -- or a Pine Street and a Pine Tree Street. Complicating the issue further are common primary name starters, such as "Wood" in Woodfield, Woodfair and Woodmere, or complicated spelllings, such as Econolatchee Trail, Tamiami Drive or Tchoupitoulas Street. Knowing your jurisdiction with its street names and locations will help minimize problems.

Tip: Make a list of similar street names and share it with your co-workers. Does your center provide map training, map book tests or map challenges? These are all in-house training methods that ensure personnel are aware of their response areas. Ride-alongs with field units can create a bond between response personnel and telecommunicators. Suggestion: Create local treasure hunts in which the telecommunicator must obtain the house number of the blue house on "X" Street or the name of the store at the corner of "Y" Drive and "Z" Road.

As telecommunicators, one of our biggest fears is dispatching units to the wrong location. We rely on the information we receive, and we must verify that information to ensure we heard it right.

2. Lack of Follow-Up & Due Diligence

Lack of follow-up can create the potential for deadly error. Follow-up is essential for 911 hang-up calls. Many agencies require a field unit response and a call back to the phone number. If the line is busy, many agencies require second and third attempts within specific time parameters. It's important to know your agency's policies and procedures, especially those pertaining to hang-up calls, 911 open lines and 911 call backs.

Due diligence is ensuring that the job is done right -- and thoroughly. For those of us familiar with National Crime Information Center (NCIC) teletype operations, we know it's common for the teletype channel to be overwhelmed with requests and backlogged with returns. It can become easy to simply glance at the NCIC information returns, but you might advise field units that a person is "Not Wanted" when in fact a more careful review of the information return would indicate the suspect is "Wanted." Don't become so overwhelmed with the volume of requests that the quality of your review is less than acceptable. This can result in a fatal error.

3. Not Asking For or Relaying Info

Most agencies are adequately staffed for daily operations; however, when a large-scale incident occurs, it seems as though there are never enough personnel on hand. The siege of phones ringing off the hook and the radio garbled with transmissions of field units talking over one another can be intimidating, and it's easy to become overwhelmed. At times like this, telecommunicators must be extra careful. You could easily neglect asking each caller complete questions.

Take a deep breath, depend on your training and skills, and remember that you need to handle each call as a unique situation. Ensure that every fact received on the call is logged into the CAD system. What may not seem pertinent to you at the time could be what breaks a big case in the long run.

Don't forget to ask for the exact location to determine if more than one incident is occurring. Don't miss that single fact a caller tells you that could be life altering. Remember, the only question not answered is the one not asked. Although we can't allow playback features and logging records to become a crutch, they are useful in retrieving information that could have been missed during busy moments.

When it comes to traffic crashes, we must wipe away the "routine call" phenomenon. When an accident occurs on a specific road, it can become routine to pass off all accident calls on that road as being the same just to clear the phone lines. All a caller needs to indicate is a traffic crash on "that stretch of interstate," and telecommunicators immedicately want to say that units are already responding and pick up the next line. Unfortunately, it's common for multiple crashes to occur as a chain reaction after the first. Not asking complete questions can stop the telecommunicator from dispatching field units to a location where there may be serious injuries.

Just because you're currently working a train derailment or car crash doesn't mean that a similar second incident isn't occurring at the same time. Because location is everything, we must ask every caller for the incident's exact location, even if they say it's on the same street. Never skip a question just to respond with, "We already have that report." Don't assume -- ask.

It should be standard to ask a caller about weapons or hazards that may be on scene. If there are weapons, ask how many and what type. If there are hazardous materials, determine what type of material or chemical, how much and whether or not it's contained -- and relay that information to responding units. If information is obtained and not relayed to first responders due to limited radio time or other unforseen circumstances, the result could be officers being shot and killed or fire-rescue personnel being exposed to potentially poisonous materials.

Agencies should have a QA/QC (quality assurance/quality control) program. In fact, it's beneficial if telecommunicators are included in the organization of the monthly call review. It would also be appropriate to have a dispatching review to ensure dispatchers are providing responding units with all of the initial and supplemental dispatch information via the radio or a mobile data computer.

4. Loss of Composure

Answering the phone and hearing desperate screams for help may evoke a strong personal reaction. It's easy to adopt the caller's emotions as your own and react with them. If these emotions are relayed to the caller, they may feel that not only are they out of control, but you are too and there's no help to be found. Relaying emotions via your volume and tone is called voice inflection. On the radio, the sounds of an excited dispatcher can pump up the emotions of responding field units who are already experiencing an adrenaline rush and may be driving at increased speed with lights and siren. Your calm voice may be what prevents their deadly mistake.

Emotions are also involved when a telecommunicator "hypes" a call, or embellishes the facts of a low-priority call to make it a high-priority call. Every time responding units travel hot (with lights and siren), they put themselves and the public at risk for traffic crashes. We must ensure that the true and honest facts of each call are relayed accurately, timely and thoroughly.

5. Making Assumptions

"He did what to a what?" Sometimes we receive calls that are almost too odd or shocking to believe. As calltakers, we cannot make assumptions. Doing so is potentially deadly. Not believing that what's being reported is actually occurring or wasting time trying to convince the caller they're mistaken could cost valuable time for such incidents as stranger abductions. It isn't hyping the call if the facts presented by the caller truly indicate an abduction. Assuming a potential suspect was just playing around when he pushed a woman into a vehicle and took off could be the end to that woman's life.

When there's a long-term, ongoing situation, such as repeat harassment, threats or stalking, never assume. Dispatch the call as received. If the victim wants or needs a law enforcement unit, the comm center is not in a position to see what's occurring on scene and should relay the facts -- as received -- to responders.

Calls from drunk people have their own special set of challenges, but just because a caller is intoxicated does not mean they aren't aware of what's happening. If the intoxicated caller reports an emergency, field units should be dispatched. And sounding intoxicated doesn't mean a person has been drinking alcohol. They could have an altered mental status or speech impediment or be having a stroke or diabetic emergency.

6. Succumbing to Distractions

A telecommunicator must be mentally focused to provide emergency medical dispatch pre-arrival instructions or get the facts in a major felony that's being reported. We must be on our toes, alert and prepared for the duration of our entire shift. Sometimes callers may have only one chance to say their location or report what's occurring. A law enforcement officer who is being ambushed and is shot may only have one chance to report it. If you aren't focused, their one chance may be missed.

As adults with busy lives, we tend to burn the candles at both ends. This is common with individuals who work early mornings and overnight shifts. Public safety communications is a profession in which it's essential to arrive at work awake and alert. Realizing that what you do makes the difference between life and death should be enough to encourage anyone to ensure rest prior to shift.

Some comm centers allow telecommunicators to use televisions, DVD players, have full Internet access and personal laptops on duty; others don't. Regardless, we must keep our main focus on the job that we do. Movies and games can be paused. Laptops can be closed.

Most agencies have call-answering time standards that must be met. Radio channels must be answered immediately, and relaying information to field units must take priority.

7. Lack of Communication

The last deadly error we discuss here is lack of communication, both intra-agency (within one's own agency) and interagency (with other agencies). In agencies with separate calltaking and dispatching assignments, there must be reliable, accurate and timely communications between the calltaker, dispatcher and field units. If the calltaker is aware of hazards, weapons or changes to an incident while field units are responding, the dispatcher must be notified and relay that information to the units. When the incident and its tapes are reviewed is not the time for relevant information to be revealed.

It's standard for EMS responders to stop and stage away from a situation that may be hazardous. Numerous call types, such as a fight in progress, shootings and stabbings, require staging. Yet the most pertinent bit of information for these units to know is when the scene is clear and when they can advance on scene.

Interagency communications must be timely, accurage and documented. If the center is chaotic, it's better to make multiple notifications rather than none. Then, document, document, document. Documentation is the key to ensuring all tasks and duties are completed responsibly and thoroughly.

Learn From Others

We are public safety telecommunicators. It's our nature to want to help others, to be protective of our agency family and to have perfectionist tendencies. No one wants to be the person who makes a deadly mistake. So learn from the errors of others. Complete case study reviews within the comm center and share newspaper or Internet articles about incidents that have occurred elsewhere and the mistakes that might have been made. If we don't learn from mistakes, we're bound to repeat them.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Anonymous Calls: The Dispatcher & The Supreme Court

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, April 2010
Written by Tony Harrison, President of the Public Safety Group and chair of APCO International's Commercial Advisory Council. He has been in public safety for more than 20 years. Prior to serving with the Public Safety Group, he was a supervisor for the Oklahoma City Police Department.

Let's say you receive a call from a person following a drunk driver or a caller tells you that they know a person inside a specific house has drugs or that a person on the street has a gun. In each case, your caller wants to remain anonymous. You'll dispatch all of these calls in accordance with your local policies and procedure. However, does your officer, after they arrive on scene, have the authority to take enforcement action without any further information? According to the U.S. Supreme Court, it just may depend on you.

In a recent article in Law and Order, Randy Means and Pam McDonald examined the issue of what police officers can do with anonymous calls. The authority an officer has may very well depend on your ability to gain information from that anonymous call. McDonald and Means examined a few court cases. The first was Alabama v. White. In this case, the anonymous caller stated that Ms. White would be leaving a specific apartment at a specific time to go to a specific motel in a Plymouth station wagon with a broken taillight and they would have cocaine in a brown attache case. Officers responded, located the car and followed it until they were close to the motel. They stopped her and found cocaine in her car. The Supreme Court ruled that the tip was corroborated by independent police work that provided reasonable suspicion for the stop. The court said the caller obviously had insider knowledge of the situation and the police had been able to corroborate significant aspects of the caller's statements.

In Florida v. J.L., the Court ruled that the anonymous tip lacked sufficient reliability to justify police action (a Terry stop and frisk: under Terry, a police officer may stop a person and perform a limited weapons pat-down if the officer has observed suspicious behavior that would justify making such an examination.). In Florida v. J.L., the caller stated a young black male standing at a location wearing a plaid shirt was carrying a gun. The police located three black males at the location, only one wearing a plaid shirt. The officer approached him, frisked him and seized a gun. The Court said this was an illegal search because the credibility was not established. The caller did not explain how he knew there was a gun or provide other inside knowledge or predictive information that the police could corroborate. The caller did not provide information that could be tested by police to support the credibility of the caller. If the caller could have provided information about the gun or other information that a person driving by would not have known, it would have made the caller more credible.

With anonymous callers about drunk drivers, the U.S. Supreme Court has not given guidance in this area. However, most state courts have upheld the need to make investigative traffic stops on allegedly drunk or erratic drivers even when police have not personally witnessed traffic violations. The reason that most state Supreme Courts have held that officers don't have to witness traffic violations is because of the imminent danger of having a drunk driver on the road. In Virginia, however, the court has a position requiring police to personally observe driving that indicates the driver is intoxicated. Most states don't require this.

What Does All This Mean to Communications?

With anonymous calls, collect as much information as possible:
  • How does the person know what they are reporting?
  • Can they provide you with inside information, such as where the person is going or where they came from, descriptive information of the drugs or weapons or location of drugs or weapons?
  • Can they provide predictive information, such as when the person will leave, where the person is going or what they will be driving?

The more information you can obtain from the anonymous caller, the better the chance your officer will have the information to make an arrest that will stand up to court review. These cases illustrate the importance of a well-trained communications officer and your ability to elicit information from callers. Your role as the first, first responder is critical.

Mishandled 911 Calls: Dealing with Public Scrutiny

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, April 2010
Written by Bob Smith, Director of Strategic Development for APCO International

"In today's news, a recent call to 911 resulted in ______________." I'm sure you can fill in the blank. Recent "exposes" by prime time news organizations have reinforced the perception that the 911 system is broken. Is it? Maybe -- or not.

The point is more about how it's perceived. We teach telecommunicators that "perception is reality." That means that if the little old lady down the street calls 911 because she can't get the batteries into her television remote, her perception is likely that someone will promptly arrive at her house with lights flashing and siren blaring to solve her problem. Is this reality? It is to her. So when a botched 911 call story airs, she can identify with the lack of customer service and professionalism described.

Sometimes these stories provide an opportunity to educate the public about our industry. In January, NBC's Today Show aired a feature that provided a dramatic snapshot of the current state of public safety communications. Although the focus was on a tragic incident in Texas, it was expanded to cover many of the issues we face daily. It was just a quick snapshot, but it was a fairly accurate depiction of the problems plaguing our industry, such as lack of funding, inconsistent or nonexistent training and the inability to recruit and retain staff. Too many times however, the story is less educational and more hostile.

So how do you prevent such stories from making your 911 center part of the latest headlines? Prevent them from happening in the first place. Training personnel and employing an effective quality control program will go a long way toward minimizing such incidents.

Formal policies and procedures are the most effective tools for avoiding increased liability and negative publicity situations. Having policies and procedures in place that are regularly reviewed and updated will lay an optimal foundation.

Another way to ensure your organization is operating as effectively and efficiently as possible is to monitor and evaluate the rest of the industry. Use the lessons learned and experiences of others to benchmark your agency's operations. A good example is emergency medical dispatch (EMD). Many civil suits related to 911 in recent years have stemmed from the failure to provide pre-arrival instructions. In this case, it's apparent that lack of an EMD program or failure to adhere to an existing program can be a source of liability for your agency, and this should be addressed.

Prevention aside, today's comm center director should accept that these types of events can and will occur. The key is to be prepared for the resulting publicity.

Alexander Pope said, "To err is human, to forgive divine." Because we're only human and the public and media we deal with daily are far from divine, the need for preparation is obvious. After your agency has been touched by this type of event, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, launch an internal investigation, following your agency's policies and procedures for handling complaints and investigations. Hopefully, your agency already has such a formalized process in place. Follow this process as it's written with no deviation. Any level of deviation, modification or omission can be viewed as an attempt to cover up an incident. This policy should also include such factors as who is responsible for conducting the investigation and whether the employee or employees involved in the incident in question are allowed to continue to function in their daily roles or are suspended or assigned elsewhere pending the outcome of the investigation.

Second, be honest and forthcoming. If the media has launched an "investigation" of its own, you can't avoid reporters or attempt to downplay accusations. Most journalists are aware that public safety must maintain confidentiality in some areas and will find this answer agreeable -- if it's explained adequately. One acceptable response: Inquiries involve an active investigation that prohibits releasing any information until the appropriate time. Use caution here. Prolonging an investigation in an attempt to avoid external accusations will only make your agency look worse. Follow your agency's procedures as they are written with no deviation. This includes the amount of time allocated for each stage of the investigation.

Finally, and most importantly, consult your agency's legal counsel. Beyond the negative publicity implications of these events, there's usually some level of increased liability risk, and, therefore, great potential for civil or even criminal charges to be filed. This requires your agency's legal counsel be involved every step of the way.

The bottom line: Benjamin Franklin said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." In this industry, those are words to live by. Agencies can avoid a majority of negative publicity and public discontent by standardizing training, instituting a formal quality control process and updating policies and procedures regularly. All of these actions will establish an effective operation with limited liability risk and little potential for these incidents to occur. However, these events happen, and the "prevention" Franklin mentions includes being prepared to address them and learn from them.

Friday, April 2, 2010

When We're Bad, We're a Disgrace - When We're Good, We're Ignored

Excperts taken from Police Link website, training articles
Written by Michelle Perin, police telecommunications operator with Phoenix AZ Police Department for eight years. She received her B.S. in Justice & Social Inquiry/English Literature from Arizona State University. She now writes full time.

It doesn't take much effort to find emergency communications operators doing things wrong. Criminal behavior and poor choices show up in the newspaper, on television, and in thousands of e-mails sent from government watch groups. Sometimes the behavior warrants front page placement, but most of the time it's the person's employer which makes it newsworthy. For example, since October, 2006:

Guilford Metro (NC) dispatcher Shannon Crawley was charged with murder.
Austin (TX) 911 dispatcher Eric Mackey received a written reprimand after ignoring a call about smoke from a restaurant which subsequently burned
Cleveland (OH) dispatcher Tina Wickline faced administrative trouble over saying "shoot to kill" to a detective who soon shot and killed the teenager they were discussing
Milford (CT) fire dispatcher Teresa Burrows, and police dispatcher Steven Gifford were terminated over comments such as "he's doing the funky chicken" while getting medical assistance for a prisoner who eventually died
Carbon County (PA) 911 dispatcher Joseph D. Homanko Jr. received community service for sending police and fire units to a non-existant brushfire
Hudson (OH) dispatcher Russell D. McCormick was charged with felony theft in office for stealing $1,400 in cash payments for parking tickets
Philadelphia (PA) dispatchers Patricia Bradley and Tamara Mitchell were charged with extortion for selling information to an individual who stated he was going to rob the houses

These examples are just a few which made the news and a small portion of the incidents of bad behavior occurring within police departments. Communications operators, like any other members of society make both good and bad decisions. But unlike most citizens, when they make a mistake, their title alerts the media.

Most communications operators perform well, but when they don't everyone knows. For example, when one of my co-workers was found having sex with an officer in the back of his patrol car in our bureau parking lot, we all knew. Supervisors managed to keep it out of the papers, but internally everyone was talking. Even in situations not as extreme, such as when a 911 operator makes a bad choice in wording to a caller, the incident is gossiped about. But, what if an operator does something good? What about when a 911 operator comforts a child who just witnessed his mother's murder? What about a dispatcher who works an officer-involved shooting with poise and efficiency? Will a good operator be recognized in the media, or even in the supervisor's pod? Sadly, the answer is, most likely, "no."

In their 2005 book The Effective Corrections Manager, Richard Phillips and Charles McConnell state lack of recognition is one of the most frequent reasons people quit their jobs. Everyone likes to be acknowledged, especially when their job is stressful and extremely thankless. For the most part, a citizen is not going to ask to speak with your supervisor to say you did an excellent job, even if it involved a carjacking withh small children in the back, and you managed to track down the car, calm down the caller, direct officers in to rescue the kids, recover the car without damage, and arrest the criminal. It's not that many citizens aren't appreciative. They are. It's just often the officer at the scene gets his rightfully-earned gratitude, and also yours. And, many times, citizens intend to call and commend you, but things are forgotten. And, generally if a call is handled correctly on the part of the police department, the information goes straight from the media employee's hand into the trash can. So, where should recognition come from? Supervisors.

Credit where credit is due

Morale is one of the biggest complaints in the emergency communications business. The job is stressful. The hours are long. The work can be sedentary and boring, or it can be overwhelming. Employees work bizarre shifts while still trying to maintain a life away from the department and include a bit of time for their families, and maybe themselves. For all these reasons, it is important that supervisors recognize an employee doing a good job. Many departments have established rituals like the Employee of the Month, but if my former employer's record is any indication of other departments, the board had huge gaps when nobody was nominated. Knowing the exemplary work my peers did, I don't believe this was due to no one qualifying for recognition. Having a supervisor say you do a good job can lead to a positive work environment.

Another important aspect about employee recognition is to make sure the employees know when they're recognized. Recently, a police communications operator was reviewing her personnel file and was surprised to find a myriad of commendations and letters of appreciation she had received over her career. She didn't even know she had many of these. This is unfortunate, because the writer took the time to get these letters of recognition approved and would not be happy knowing their gratitude and recognition were shoved into the receiver's file without presentation. Recognition isn't any good if it is silent. Operators need to know when they do well.

If you are a supervisor, recognize your employees. Tell them when they do something right or are performing well. Advise them when someone else, whether a peer, a supervisor, or a patrol officer, recognizes them. Encourage your employees to recognize each other and let you know when someone does something worth praising. An increase in positive reinforcement could mean the difference between an average employee and one maximizing their potential.

If you are an operator, do your job well. Insist on a work place which includes recognition. If you do something worthwhile, nominate yourself for recognition if you have to. Check your personnel records; you might find a letter of commendation you didn't know you had. Encourage field units and supervisors to speak up when you and your peers excel. Let a supervisor know when a co-worker does something well. A positive atmosphere with mutual respect and recognition can be one of the best places to work.

When a communications operator does something wrong, people will hear about it. Headlines will remind every public servant how easy it is to make a poor decision and end up disciplined, fired, or worse. Every conversation with internal and external customers is a chance to make a personal and professionally devastating mistake. Every action outside of the work place also holds the possibility of ruining a reputation and career. But, more times than not, operators are not behaving badly and making the news. Usually, they are doing an excellent job and being ignored.

A Dispatcher's Promise to Their Loved Ones

Taken from Police Link Website, training articles

Unknown author

This is going to be a strange title for a training article, but I wanted to provide something that I give to all my new trainees for their families. I believe it is a vital tool for a new telecommunicator to have. Just like all emergency responders, dispatchers also carry stress home with them at times. As hard as we may try, it still happens. This is a one page sheet I give them to give to their families that will hopefully help them understand the stress of their new career.


I became involved with emergency service work because there is a need for people to help others in trouble. Sometimes there are calls I receive, however, that are difficult to talk about--even with the people I love and trust most in the world.

There are, at times, experiences that hurt me very deeply, and I might bring my suffering home. Sometimes my feelings bother me so much that I can't even talk about them. Maybe it's because I don't want you to even imagine what I've suffered, or maybe it's because I'm afraid that you won't fully understand the depth of my feelings. During these times, I may become moody or irritable, and I may not seem to care much about your feelings or problems.

You love me for who I am. I chose to do what I do because it is so important to me and to those I help, and although it is sometimes difficult, I love what I do, and I do it well. I'm proud of what I am and I hope you are proud of me.

There are times, though, when I feel that I didn't do enough--so many people out there depend upon me; there are times when I get frustrated and even angry with my co-workers, myself and even the victims or tragedy. There are times that the horrors I have to deal with just overwhelm me. That's when I have to sort things out, by myself, or with others who were there with me.

So, please, if I have a really bad call and just can't talk, or seem irritable, it isn't because I don't love and care for you, it's not because I doubt your love and concern for me. I'm just not ready to open up. When this happens, don't try to understand, just accept the fact that I am hurting--and that I'll talk to you when I can.

Officer-Dispatcher Relations-Dealing with the Love/Hate Thing

Taken from Police Link Website, Training Articles
Written by Michelle Perin who worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix AZ Police Department for eight years.

The relationship between officers and dispatchers is unique. It's been described as a love/hate thing. I love her for getting me back-up quickly in that fight. Or, I hate her for seeing I statused eating for ten minutes past the approved time and clearing me over the radio to ask about it. It is also parasitic. Both the officer and the dispatcher feed off the other. The officer gets the information he needs without having to look it up on his own. The dispatcher gets to have a bit of excitement in patrol without actually having to be out there being spit on. The relationship is similar to a marriage. Like many, it is co-dependent and, often, dysfunctional. The funny thing is there are few sources for nurturing the officer/dispatcher relationship. No books like 101 Ways to Keep Your Officer Happy. No counselors trained in crisis intervention when the relationship turns sour. So, what are a dispatcher and her officer to do? Here are five tips aimed at happy marriages. They have been altered to fit.

1. Adhere to the correct role relationships

Officers are not trained to do a dispatcher's job and dispatchers are not trained to do an officer's job. This statement is simple enough. Unfortunately, in practice it gets a bit more complicated. Often officers feel like dispatchers are telling them how to go about their routine business. After all, most dispatchers get to tell officers what calls to take, what time they can eat and whether or not the person they are out with is a dangerous felon who might decide he doesn't really want to go back to jail. There is a lot of power there. But, like Spiderman was told, "with great power comes great responsibility." And part of the responsibility of being a dispatcher is remembering that officers know what they are doing. If they aren't taking a call or don't ask for some information, there is a reason. Remember, as a dispatcher, your role is to assist the officer along with dispatching calls for service. Officers, likewise, need to remember the distinct roles. Dispatchers are there to help, but they also have certain policies and procedures. They're also required to follow any directives given at any moment, like the liuetenant saying no one eats until that burglary holding since this morning is taken care of. If each remembers their role, the marriage can be a pleasant one.

2. Forgive and Forget Conflicts

This is a huge must. Officers and dispatchers can hold on to an incident long after the moment has passed, the animosity lasting for hours, or days, or years. When my husband switched squads, he told me of a chat he had in briefing. Another officer told my husband, in reference to me, "I remember her. I typed her something once and she sent back this nasty reply." Regardless of the thousands of interactions I had with officers, this one thought of me negatively over a single incident. And it goes both ways. If an officer goes on a traffic stop right after you give him a paper call, you might think he did it to avoid the call and, in essence, to spite you. It sure feels that way, but it's usually not the case. The biggest thing to keep in mind when you feel slighted is it probably wasn't intentional. With a quick phone call or text message, the issue can be worked out. And, if the other person, be it the officer or the dispatcher, was just being nasty, oh, well. No point getting yourself all worked up over it. Like the saying goes, holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.

3. Live on a Mature Level

This should go without saying, but if you consider the age differences in police work, some of the confusion can be cleared up. Imagine a 19-year-old rookie working with a 64-year-old dispatcher, or a 52-year-old veteran and a 21-year-old dispatcher. There are going to be conflicts, but again, there are many things that can be done to keep the marriage harmonious, no matter how Spring-Autumn. First, like with forgive and forget, talk things through. If you feel something about the other's professionalism needs to be addressed, try to work it out. If that doesn't work and it's detrimental to the police department, take it to a supervisor. After all, you are colleagues, not siblings. Second, as long as they aren't dangerous, accept the flaws in the other. He might naturally sound amped up all the time, even when asking to eat. She might have an annoying voice that reminds you of nails on a chalkboard. Try to overcome the annoyance and accept them for their ability to do their job.

4. Keep a Shared Passion

Entering the law enforcement field is not a decision most people take lightly. Many officers talk about how they wanted to be a cop since they were "this high." Although few dispatchers dreamed of the headset at a young age, once they get into that seat, they love their job. People in both occupations often have similar attributes; they like to be in control, they want to help people, they are organized, and the have confidence. Although these traits play a huge role in the officer/dispatcher marriage conflict, keep in mind the big picture. Everyone is trying to help the community, to serve and protect and to do one of the finest jobs in the world--public safety. Shying away from the us vs. them ideology will help you remember you're all on the same team.

5. Know When You Are Talking Too Much

Enough said.

Police work can be challenging without the added difficulty of a troubled relationship between the officers and dispatchers. The good news is that by working together, like in a healthy marriage, you can enjoy a wonderful, fulfilled relationship. Accept each other. Support each other. Encourage each other. You're in it together. You might as well be happy, because divorce isn't an option.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why So Many Questions?

Taken from blog "911 Not 411"

The questions 911 calltakers are trained to ask are not to delay response of necessary responders but to enhance the responders' needs and to protect the caller or any nearby citizens. The answers that are provided are relayed to all of the responders who are enroute. This relay of information provides the responder with vital information about the call itself, the nature of the problem, the people it is effecting, the severity of the situation, and the protection of the responder and anyone nearby.

This information also helps the responders determine whether there is a need for lights and siren or if they can respond with the flow of traffic. The caller's answers to these questions help ensure the right unit is dispatched, the right number of units are sent, in the right mode of response. The Fire/EMS and Law Enforcement system as a whole also is utilized more than ever before. The information obtained through careful interrogation of the caller allows the dispatcher to correctly prioritize the calls and send the units to the calls needing the quickest assistance first.

Without the information, the calls would line up and be dispatched in the order they were received. For example, a minor fender bender could be handled before a grandmother in cardiac arrest. The use of properly trained 911 dispatchers can positively influence all aspects of Fire/EMS and Law Enforcement response.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Home Life, Work Life

Taken from Law Officer Magazine, Volume 4 Issue 12, December 2008, Bullethead Column

Dear Bullethead:

I occasionally read the Law Officer magazine my husband receives. My husband is also a father and a detective for the county. I have a very loyal and devoted man in my life. He tries hard to separate work and home life, but the reality is, you can't. Over the years, we've watched many young couples try, fight, separate, work it out and divorce. I was prepared to be in love, be happy, struggle, argue, worry, be richer, be poorer and create a family - not live in silence.

As a wife and daughter of cops, I know what the silence, uncertainty, waiting, brooding, pouting, anger, frustration, adrenaline and exhaustion can do to a family. I respect the privacy issues, the violent or repulsive details that he doesn't share.

Unfortunately, for all the wonderful deeds done by an officer, few are glorified. I'm proud of the officers who serve and the families who stand at their sides.

If you get a slow month, please write to the many officers about supporting their spouses out there who are trying to live both lives, too.

- Mrs. Detective in Tennessee

Dear Mrs. Detective:

Slow month nothing. This is way too important for that. The stability in an officer's life that comes from a good supportive home is essential to the long term success of the officer, their department and the law enforcement mission. You bring up some great points about the things a normal spouse can enjoy that law enforcement spouses can't. Let's examine those.

I know a whole bunch of officers who like to go to work "clean." These officers won't start their shift before ensuring they have no signs of their life outside the job. This means no rings, no pictures and no shirts for their kids' sports teams or school. The ring thing is usually what ticks off a spouse because many think their officers look great in uniform and want the ring there to slow down the vultures that may be circling. I've never been a ring guy, but even the vultures fear ol' Bullethead's salty, crusty ass, so Mrs. Bullethead doesn't have to worry. I agree with not carrying pictures, but most officers now have them all over their phones anyway.

Not talking is a big issue for many cop's spouses. They want to know what happened on the shift and be involved in their officer's work life. This one can get real sketchy, and if not handled properly it can be the start of deep issues in a marriage. The cops think they're protecting the spouse because who would want to know about dirt bags anyway? The spouse gets resentful because all the cop does is come home and drink beer and not talk about anything.

I've said it before: Bullethead is no therapist. I can offer a few suggestions, though. Officers must let their spouses know they trust them. They can do this through communication. Most departments have enough internal entertainment an officer can share to get them about half way there. Simple stuff such as "Officer No Load is a lop" or "The lieutenant is an idiot and I'm sure glad we have such a good sergeant to keep things together."

Officers should also talk about their shift and just leave out the bad details. Example: "Billy Bob got behind a stolen car, but the driver ran away and I spent half the shift freezing my butt off on a perimeter while they found him." Spouses don't need to know the bad stuff, such as the creep who left his one-year-old in a stolen car and ran away from his own child, but they should be allowed into the officer's life as much as possible.

When officers come home after seeing a dead child, they may not want to say a thing, and spouses need to get this and give them some space. Officer shouldn't keep them guessing, so just tell them: "I had a bad one and I need some room today."

Most importantly, police families must find a way to keep things cool when the officer is getting ready for work. The officer needs a clear head when they're working. For the Bullethead clan, no matter how big a pre-work fight is, we try to wrap it up and save it for some other time. And by the time we get back to it, we've both cooled down and the fight is more like a negotiation, which is great.

Every cop should go and plant a big one on their spouse and thank them for all the little things. After that, you might even get lucky!

Dispatch vs. Cops

Taken from Law Officer Magazine, Volume 2 Issue 6, August 2006, Bullethead Column

Dear Bullethead:

I'm a dispatcher, and I found your column when I was looking at a copy of the magazine left in our communications center, I'm looking for advice on the relationship between cops and dispatchers. Why do we have so much friction? In my department, the dispatchers are non-sworn and mostly female, while the cops, of course, are sworn employees and mostly male. Okay, I understand that right off the bat this makes somewhat of a difference, but why the upper-class, lower-class mentality?

Our department has well over 100 officers, and this means that at any time, about a dozen or more cars are out on patrol. We have two or three dispatchers on at a time (once in a while, four), and it can get really, really busy. The patrol guys seem to forget there's more going on than just the radio. In spite of all the other things like 911 callers and walk-ups, we always make the radio priority, but sometimes the officers will get really intense when handling a hot call. They step on each other when transmitting, make countless demands of dispatch in terms of getting resources and ask for information we have no way of getting (and if we had it, we would already have given it to them).

Seems like when a call goes incredibly well, the cops did a great job. When things get screwed up in the logistics or deployment, dispatch dropped the ball. It's tough - we still have to do the shift work, put up with the surly callers (rude cops sometimes) and work in a paramilitary unit. When you consider that we do it for a whole lot less money than a cop and without the better retirement benefits, it makes us feel pretty crappy when we're treated like the ugly stepchild of the department.

What can we do? Where do we start? I'd like to make things better, but there seems to be a lot us us-vs.-them mentality. You seem like you've been around the block a few times. Any ideas?

- Depressed Dispatcher

Dear Depressed Dispatcher:

A dispatcher huh? And you think Ol' Bullethead has been around the block a few times? Just so we're clear, I've been around the block more times than a cop-hopping dispatcher working on her fourth ex-husband.

I'm gonna give you a few ideas and a few thoughts. Some of what I'll say will tick you off. Hopefully some of what I say will help you understand the relationship between cops and dispatchers - as I understand it - and maybe even help you make things a bit better at your agency.

First things first. Last time a cop was shot at, did any of the rounds skip past a dispatcher's head? Last time a cop was chasing some felon through back yards and over six foot walls, was a dispatcher standing by ready to go toe-to-toe at the end of the chase? I don't think so. Don't take this personally; I'm just trying to set the tone.

I'm not too big on sports analogies, but since at least part of your question deals with male vs. female issues, I'm going to use one to illustrate a point. Back in the heyday of the Chicago Bulls, did people show up and tune in to see Phil Jackson the coach, or Michael Jordan the player? Certainly they were both part of the same team, and they were both equally important to the success of that team. It's equally certain it was Jordan who filled the seats and sold the TV spots.

The place you work is called a police department! Quality dispatchers are essential to the function of a police department, but it's not called a dispatcher department, now is it? Think of it this way: Would there be a two-tier system going the other way if you worked at a place where the primary purpose was dispatching? You're damn skippy there would. Perhaps you wouldn't be one of the people pushing it, but the overall atmosphere would absolutely include the very real fact that dispatching was the agency's primary function.

What do you think happens after you take a call from a surly caller? Do you think they turn nice when the cops get there? Pretty much they turn into jackasses big enough to pull the equator to Canada. We spend 20 minutes or so trying to get the equator somewhere south of Canada. When we get back in our car and get on the radio to let you know we're ready for the next mess you're going to send us to, do you think the shouting match we were just involved in might effect the way we speak? It shouldn't because that isn't the professional thing to do, and because the dispatcher was not the person in our face. But some cops need to blow off a little steam in a relatively safe direction to avoid spending all their free time in IA. This isn't right, but it's reality.

For their part, dispatchers don't always take the high road either. When we finish with one of the many jackasses we seem to meet and our anger or frustrations come out over the radio, take the high road and answer in the most pleasant voice you can. If you throw it right back at us, the cop will think, "What's up with this dispatcher? I'm the one who just got yelled at by a jackass," Then the cop answers with even more attitude, and the cycle goes on and on.

Deep down even the cops with attitude know dispatchers bust their asses keeping up with who is doing what, who needs help, etc. I'm positive it's incredibly difficult to sit in a darkened room with nothing to look at except a computer screen when an officer is calling for help and it's taking time for that help to arrive. I'd be trying to crawl through the radio to help the officer in need, and I have no idea how a good dispatcher can keep their cool and just continue doing their job during some of the critical incidents I've been involved in. I'd much rather be directly involved in such an incident because at least you know what's going on and can take an active role in assisting.

Any of you cops reading this and calling Bullethead a liar or an idiot, just take a second to think about the last time you heard one of your fellow officers calling for help when you weren't close enough to assist. I can see you. You have the radio handset in your hand and you're squirming around in your seat, yelling for the help to arrive. Your heart rate is through the roof, and you feel helpless. For me, there are few things worse than feeling helpless. Don't get me wrong folks, we all know who might end up in the hospital or worse at the end of any critical incident, but that doesn't mean the dispatchers aren't working their rear ends off trying to make sure that doesn't happen.

At my agency, a critical incident debriefing includes all the involved parties, including the dispatcher who worked primary and probably the dispatcher supervisor working at the time of the incident. This tends to open the lines of communication to discuss any potential problems with what happened. It also gives the dispatch supervisor the chance to throw praise on the dispatcher and to allow the rest of the head shed to see what a good idea it is to do that.

Stand up and get yourself included during the next critical incident debriefing. Play back the dispatch tapes, and don't be afraid to explain dispatch procedures. Don't be afraid to point out useless traffic that burned important radio time.

More importantly, consider playing a trump card to all the useless traffic on the radio during an incident. I've heard really good dispatchers come over the air early in an incident with things like, "Copy, waiting for a return on the plate and working on a helicopter and a K-9." That allows the cops to concentrate on their task and leaves the dispatchers to do the same.

Another idea: ride-alongs. New cops should spend a shift in dispatch to try to understand the job, and dispatchers should jump in a black-and-white from time to time. The people providing the ride-along should be chosen with care on both sides. I'll let dispatch figure out which dispatchers the cops should sit with. When dispatchers ride with cops, they should ride with the doo doo magnets. This will give them the best chance of feeling terror and understanding why cops don't always sound nice on the radio. Remember: They don't call them hot calls for nothing, anld feeling that flame may explain alot.