9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Dispatcher's Golden Rule

Written by Randall D. Larson

One constant about the 911 profession is that dispatchers are going to have to deal with a variety of hostile, hysterical, arrogant, rude, panicked, inebriated, and mentally incompetent callers. Abusive callers can often stretch even a good dispatcher's patience to the breaking point. Dispatchers don't like to admit it, but there are times when the line between being assertive, controlling the caller in order to quickly clarify the problem, and becoming rude and intolerant right back at them, is blurred or sometimes even scuffed completely out.

When that happens, and the dispatcher is, as we most always are, on a recorded line, that behavior can come back and bite the dispatcher. Big time. Especially if the news media gets hold of it. Like recently when Ohio's Columbus Dispatch happened to get hold of a certain 911 call made early last February, when two young Columbus PD dispatchers happened to treat one caller with some derision, one caller that just happened to possibly be the highway shooter Columbus area law enforcement have been seeking for several months.

Certainly, neither dispatcher expected their statements to wind up on TV news or in the local papers. But such is the nature of our profession. Occasionally we're praised, but if we do something wrong, we'll always hear about it. Along with maybe the rest of the country. Since the media tends to play up mistakes more than it does commendations, bad publicity, whether deserved or not, is going to be harmful to all dispatchers. Like one bad cop putting a bad taste in the public's mouth for all cops, dispatch mistakes put a stain on the entire profession, because that's what the public remembers.

I'm not disparaging either of these Columbus dispatchers - certainly, ongoing crimes like their highway shooter attract all sorts of crank calls and it's likely that an accumulation of these cranks may have sparked their dismissive behavior on the calls in question. But it is a wake up call. We dispatchers don't have the luxury of letting ourselves be irritated into unprofessional behavior. Just as we need to be 100% accurate in the information we process, we likewise must be 100% professional in the way we handle our callers - even those who fall into that abusive, arrogant, and hostile category.

It's really as simple as something many of us learned years ago in Sunday School. Consider it the Dispatcher's Golden Rule: treat each caller as you would want to be treated if you were reporting what you perceived to be a credible emergency. Always convey empathy and consideration, and a professional attitude of helping instead of hindering, even if they may not seem to be as sharp as we are in the nuances of reporting emergencies. Take control of the call if the complainant is rambling or confused, but don't cop an attitude. Treat them as you would like to be treated if you were in their shoes.

In the larger centers this may not always be entirely possible, not when the calls are coming at you like machine gun fire, but you can still exemplify a spirit of consideration and composure. It may be helpful to put yourself in the caller's shoes for a moment. We dispatchers answer dozens to hundreds of calls each shift - most callers may only dial 911 once or twice a lifetime (well, we each have our various "frequent fliers"....), so treat each one as if it were the most important call you are taking. Give them the attention they deserve, even if what they're reporting may seem to you to be rather trivial - or they sound like a crank.

Some protocol systems that script specific verbiage may appear to block this by requiring specific questions be asked with little or no deviation, but voice tone and inflection can certainly reveal empathy in these cases - just as they can also reveal inappropriate demeanor on the part of the dispatcher.

We can't afford to hinder our ability to help by giving in to an emotional response to a caller's lack of intellect, lack of clarity, or lack of grace. It is our job to be as much an anchor of composure for the panicked caller as we are a proficient provider for the patient one. We've got to swallow our pride and perpetuate our professionalism at all times. Just as we'd like the dispatcher to do for us when it becomes our time to be one of those panicked callers.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know how you guys do it! Such a stressful job!