9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Police Dispatching Tips & Tools

Taken from Public Safety Communications E-Mail - Communication Trends & Intelligence - July 14, 2011

Written by Rhonda Harper, RPL, lead telecommunicator, dispatcher and CALEA communications accreditation manager for the Forth Smith (Ark.) Police Department.

A 9-1-1 telecommunicator listens to the radio, calls for a wrecker, runs warrants and dispatches officers on calls for service, all while providing cusotmer service to the multitude of everyday callers. Telecommunicators possess the innate ability to complete several tasks - such as hearing multiple conversations and obtaining additional information for officers - at the same time without missing a beat. But sometimes, callers are less than cooperative or unable to give telecommunicators necessary information. For every call received, emergency or non-emergency, telecommunicators need to use various tools to obtain additional information for responding units.

Mobile Complications

The number of 9-1-1 calls placed by people using wireless phones has radically increased. According to the FCC, about 50% of the millions of 9-1-1 calls received daily are placed by wireless phones, and that percentage continues to grow year on year.

Many users today prefer cell phones over landlines because of their innate portability, causing a majority of the public to completely discard their home phones and only use their cell phone. For many users, having the ability to call 9-1-1 in the event of an emergency is one of the main reasons they own a cell phone. Additional wireless 9-1-1 calls come from Good Samaritans reporting traffic accidents, crimes or other emergencies in progress.

Wireless phones can be an important public safety tool, but they can pose a problem for 9-1-1 telecommunicators trying to locate callers when the caller is unable to give their location or the call is coming from an uninitialized cell phone.

During public incidents, such as domestic violence, disturbances, accidents, shootings, fires, etc., numerous calls will be recieved on a single event. It's during these calls that the telecommunicator must determine if there is any new information to be obtained or if it's merely someone else calling on the incident that has already been reported. In contrast, there are incidents for which we may have only a single caller. It's in these situations that we, as telecommunicators, begin searching and using our available resources to obtain location information.

A Telecommunicator receives a cell phone call that is an open line and, at first, nothing is heard. Then, just before the line is disconnected, voices can be heard in the background. The telecommunicator quickly realizes the female caller is being taken against her will and the phone is an open line. During a call like this, it's difficult to get a location if ALI information is not working or if the computer systems are down. So the question is, "what do we do?"

The first step is to rely on your training not to listen just to what is being said, but also to what is not being said and, further, what can be heard in the background. In our example, the telecommunicator was able to determine by background noise that the caller was in a moving vehicle. Because of the numerous wireless carriers available to users, this can become a process of elimination. However, there is a tool that can be used to quickly determine which service provider currently holds the number in question: the Number Portability Administration Center (NPAC).

NPAC is a law enforcement/9-1-1 personal identification number (PIN) registration website. Via NPAC, law enforcement agencies and 9-1-1 PSAPs can register for access to Neustar IVR, an automated system that allows queries for telephone numbers. PINs are strictly limited to:

  • Law enforcement agencies - agencies of the U.S. or of a state or political subdivision thereof that are empowered by law to conduct investigations of, or to make arrests for, violations of federal, state or local laws; and

  • PSAPs - entities performing public safety answering point functions in the performance of their official duties.

PINs can be shared by users within an agency. Therefore, each agency only needs one PIN. Once the cell phone provider is known, you can contact that provider for additional information.

Each service provider has different requirements. One provider may want a pass code, and another may need to verify your identity with your agency each time before giving information. It's best for each agency to find out what the providers require and have that information ready when asked. Depending on the variables involved, the cell phone provider may be able to triangulate the cell phone to give a basic direction of travel, if in motion, or a basic area in which to look. The location is often not pinpointed, but combined with information picked up from the open line, this information can assist in saving a life.

Some cell phones have GPS systems that can be tracked through computer software by the phone's owner.

Agencies with caller identification capability can take the number calling in, if it came from a landline, and run it through the system manually using the ANI/ALI system on their 9-1-1 display screens giving address information. Most agencies are now using mapping systems. In the event a call is coming in from a cell phone, then you can retransmit the information for a possible Phase II location. These same mapping systems can also be useful for those callers who just can't give you an address but are able to give directions to the location. Telecommunicators can take the information and directions given and map out the directions to a possible address.

NAWAS & Hams

The National Warning System (NAWAS) is a comprehensive network of telephone circuits connecting state and federal warning points throughout the U.S. Funded by FEMA, NAWAS is a national system, but the day-to-day operation is under the control of individual states. Each state has its own plan for the use of NAWAS during emergencies, such as hazmat situations, tornadoes, floods and hurricanes. NAWAS conducts several daily roll calls that must be answered to ensure a PSAP's equipment is working properly.

In times of severe weather, ham radio clubs will occasionally contact their 9-1-1 comm center with weather updates. Their role is to act as a link between the comm center and storm spotters to ensure immediate access to storm warning information. If the phone lines and power were to go out, the ham radio operator would still have access to the radio via their equipment. This can be a great resource during any severe storm. However, when receiving information, remember to always follow your agency's policies and procedures accordingly.


Telematics vendors, such as Hughes, ATX, OnStar, Ford Sync and Digicore, can be another useful tool for the 9-1-1 telecommunicator. There are several different vendors, and each functions differently.

OnStar brings together emergency service providers, wireless phone, and satellite technologies that are powered by a vehicle's battery. As long as the battery is not damaged or disconnected, the system can be used to determine the location of a vehicle or listen to what's going on in a vehicle. With certain vehicle models, OnStar can shut down a vehicle completely when police have arrived in the area to take control. This capability can be useful in take-down situations and for stolen vehicles. For OnStar to give information about a vehicle, two items are needed. First, a report has to be taken, and then the telecommunicator must enter the vehicle into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. After these two things have been completed, OnStar can take action and release information to law enforcement personnel.

Unlike OnStar, Ford Sync does not have a call center. Instead, the initial call from that vender is routed directly into the 9-1-1 PSAP.

Online Tools

The Internet is also a valuable source of informtaion for telecommunicators - not only for specific websites, but also to find information that can be used to track down individuals.

These websites include peoplefinder.com, yellowpages.com, publicrecordfinder.com and skipease.com. You may need to pay a nominal fee for information from some of these sites.

In the event of severe weather, the National Weather Service website (www.weather.gov) can provide up-to-the-minute weather reports.

The information obtained from these sites, when combined with other information, can be a rich source of information for responders. Some agencies have access to their city's utility billing information, tax records, marriage licenses and so on. This type of documentation may have alternate phone numbers, addresses and further contact information that can be used to contact people.

Also, let's not forget about social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. With more than 500 million users, Facebook is now possibly the world's largest social network, connecting people with friends and others to allow information sharing. People are now calling 9-1-1 regarding suicidal subjects due to comments made on such sites. On average, 1.3% of all deaths reported are from suicide, with approximately 750,000 suicide attempts reported each year. Social networking website profiles are filled with information about the user, giving additional opportunities for subjects to be found prior to them harming themselves or others.

Databases & Clearinghouses

Many agencies are now using Justice Xchange, a program launched in 2002, with benefits that include locating offenders, monitoring probationers and parolees, tracking down individuals in thousands of criminal justice databases, setting up watches for wanted persons and mapping capabilities for offenders. This is a secure, integrated justice database that manages nearly 40 million booking records, including photos, warrants, probation and parole records, and persons of interest, making it a valuable source of information.

The National Crime Information Center has been called a lifeline for law enforcement. It's an electronic clearinghouse of crime data that can be tapped into by virtually every criminal justice agency nationwide, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Criminal justice agencies enter records into NCIC that are accessible to law enforcement agencies nationwide. Telecommunicators can search NCIC at the request of an officer while on a call, traffic stop, or subject stop to determine if the vehicle in question is stolen or the subjects have possible warrants out for them.

The system responds immediately. However, a positive response from NCIC is not probable cause for an officer to take action; the telecommunicator must first confirm the record in question. NCIC policy requires the inquiring agency to make contact with the entering agency to verify the information is accurate and up to date. After the record is confirmed, the inquiring agency can take action to make an arrest, return the missing person or juvenile, charge subjects with violations of a protection order or recover stolen property. The master name form is very useful when you have limited information on a subject. This can assist you in obtaining a possible date of birth so you can run a wanted inquiry or criminal history search.

Most states have a system similar to NCIC that operates within the state and handles state files and records.


Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems are used to send messages and call details to responding units' MDTs (mobile data terminals) laptops, and for storing and retrieving data, such as calls for service, unit history logs, caller information, etc. CAD systems are also used to maintain the status of responding units in the field. By running a query through the system, you can quickly identify a responding unit's history, caller, location or phone history. Hazard information entered into call records during past incidents can also be recalled for units responding to that location. A CAD system, when used to its fullest potential, can quickly produce results with a few keystrokes.


Education is a telecommunicator's best ally. The APCO International website and magazine provide a wealth of knowledge readily available to all. The monthly continuing dispatch education (CDE) articles, along with the new and innovative courses and the original base courses available, can assist any telecommunicator in their quest for industry knowledge, best practices and understanding of terminology.

The APCO website (www.apcointl.org) contains listings of courses and start dates, as well as information on scholarships available for those courses. Formal education can also enhance your skills as a telecommunicator. Continue your education and seek out new learning opportunities.

It's never too late to learn something new. This is an ever-changing field, and we must grow with the industry, utilizing best practices along the way to keep up with new technology and stay one step ahead.

Policies & Procedures

Telecommunicators, first and foremost, should always follow their individual agency's policies and procedures. This type of documentation is in place to protect yourself and your agency from any risk or liability situation that may arise. When using the various tools available to police dispatchers, always use them while following the policies and procedures set forth by your agency.

Telecommunicators, by nature, take on a vast amount of responsibility while dealing with the public, people who are sometimes having the worst day of their lives. Inattention to detail is not an option for telecommunicators and is regarded as unequivocally unacceptable. There's a golden rule that can always be followed: "If you have things, and if you own things and would then like to keep your things, then always watch out for liability because you may lose those things."

Putting It All Together

Here's an example of how beneficial it can be to have multiple tools available for use. In 2006, an officer responded for a call of a disturbance with weapons. Upon the officer's arrival, the subject was located and arrested. It became clear to the officer on scene that the subject was lying about his identity. With the information given, the telecommunicator kept getting a response of "no record in state file." The officer then took the subject to jail to be booked in the system.

At the jail, the suspect's fingerprints were run through IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System), also resulting in no hits.

The next day, the same officer was dispatched to the same location. The suspect had gotten out of jail and returned to cause more problems, again brandishing a weapon.

After the telecommunicator received the call, she immediately began searching with the limited information she had, running a criminal history using a variation of the name previously given and an alternate date of birth found through JusticeXchange. With the new information, the criminal history returned an alternate name with an alias matching the name given to the officers on the previous day. The telecommunicator found an NCIC warrant showing full extradition for parole violation from another state, which was contacted for a previous booking photo. Officers were sent the photo and were able to immediately identify the suspect, arresting him for the warrant.

Upon the suspect's return to jail, his prints were run again, resulting in a hit on the NCIC warrant. Systems can go down, and that's what had happened when using IAFIS the previous day. By combining the systems available to telecommunicators, a positive ID was located, resulting in the extradition of a wanted subject.

Ultimately, there are numerous tools available to telecommunicators for use on a daily basis, each of which provides different information based on the information you already have. A final resource available to every telecommunicator is each other.

Over the years, dispatching has changed drastically from the use of the first radio system and keeping up with units by pencil and paper to the use of CAD systems today. With all the changes that have occurred over the past few decades, each 9-1-1 center with typically have individuals around with the experience and problem-solving abilities to assist during critical situations that can arise within comm centers. When the power goes out, the backup generator stops working and computers go down, newer telecommunicators can rely on more seasoned telecommunicators who have worked with paper and pen to keep up with units in the past. This is not an individualized industry focusing just on you, the person. It is, instead, a team environment with the whole team working together for the safety of responders and citizens.

In every agency, there's a span of knowledge from the newest dispatcher to the most senior dispatcher with years of built-up experience and knowledge. Be open to each other and willing to learn from each other. 9-1-1 dispatching is a team environment, working together to provide safety to responding units.

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