9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, April 5, 2010

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.

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