9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Telecommunicators Role in Gang Cases: A Police Officer's Perspective

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, December 2011

Written by Matthew O'Deane, PhD, investigator for the San Diego County District Attorney's Office.

When gang cops hit the street and begin the daunting task of addressing gangs and the crimes they commit, they typically have peace of mind in the fact that they have communications personnel standing by to assist. I have worked hundreds of operations against gangs and as I reflect on the individual operations, they were successful in large part due to the efforts of a telecommunicator assigned to the operation.

When working such operations as gang sweeps, saturation patrols, warrant compliance operations or daily street-level suppression, police officers need to have a skilled telecommunicator monitoring the operation frequency to make sure officers have the critical information they need in a timely manner.

During gang operations, the activity officers engage in is typically generated one of two ways, either via a radio call for service or a self-initiated contact.

During gang operations, telecommunicators often receive calls from individuals who need assistance or want to report suspicious or criminal activity they believe is being conducted by gang members or suspected gang members. The telecommunicator will determine the type of assistance needed by carefully listening to the caller. The questions a telecommunicator may ask will help them find out the type of issue, its severity and the location of the problem.

Taking these calls requires a considerable degree of initiative and independent judgment to respond to emotional, disturbed and sometimes abusive people in a variety of situations. Once information is obtained from the caller, the telecommunicator activates the necessary services. A good telecommunicator is critical in gang cases; the information they skillfully extract from callers may make the difference of life or death, or the difference of the suspect being apprehended or getting away.

Telecommunicators attempt to determine the location and nature of the call, the who, what, when and where questions ascertaining the gangs involved, monikers if known, descriptions of people and vehicles and so on. Once the information is received, the telecommunicator will determine which units are available for dispatch and send the appropriate number of units in response to the call for assistance.

Once units are dispatched, the work of the telecommunicator is not over. They must maintain contact with all units working that assignment, and maintain and update the status and location of all police units working the operation. Once officers arrive on scene, additional work is required of telecommunicators. Police officers will need the telecommunicator to enter, update and retrieve information from a variety of computer systems. Exampe: A police officer may arrive on scene and see the suspects in a vehicle, which may trigger a request for registration or driving records and warrant checks.

The telecommunicator must monitor public safety radio frequencies and operate a variety of communications equipment, including radio consoles, telephones and computer systems while assisting officers in the field. During these calls, the telecommunicator must monitor radio traffic before, during and after these contacts and investigations, and record their disposition. Many of these calls may result in an arrest, for example, which will require the arresting unit to be out of service for the duration required to process the prisoner(s). The telecommunicator may need to assign units case numbers; dispatch tow trucks, prisoner vans or evidence-collection units; or call out detectives. Telecommunicators maintain files of information relating to personnel rosters and emergency call-out lists to make the proper notifications and get the proper resources to the scene in a timely manner.

When gang officers make contact with gang members, the telecommunicator will often process information for the police officers. When an officer initiates contact with a gang member or group, the first thing relayed is often the location of the contact, followed by the catalyst for the stop, such as a gang fight in process, a group hanging out in front of market or possible drug activity.

The telecommunicators will enter this information and create a call in the system. Often, officers will request an additional unit(s) upon contact and the telecommunicator will want to get units heading that direction in as timely a manner as possible. At times, the initial contact may be an immediate priority, such as when suspects become confrontational with the officer making contact, requiring an urgent request for cover officers to respond, or suspects run away on contact, requiring the telecommunicator to help coordinate the set up of a perimeter and where responding units need to set up in an effort to contain the suspects.

Once the officers advise they have the contact under control, they will conduct inquiries via the telecommunicator to identify and investigate the incident and subjects. The telecommunicator will input and access information in the automated system at their disposal, including teletype networks and computerized data systems regarding firearms checks, wanted persons, stolen property, vehicle registration, stolen vehicles, etc. Officers may request such information as Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) or California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) checks. The telecommunicator will access and enter sensitive date in local/state/national databases as necessary to accomplish the goals of the specific gang operation.

The California Department of Justice and other states maintain information about the known criminal history of everyone arrested in their state. That information is commonly referred to as a "rap sheet." Data collected from fingerpring cards and arrest reports must be entered into the system, along with the case disposition. If officers are preparing to execute a search warrant at the residence of a gang member, for example, information relating to their past criminal activity is important to enable an informed decision as to how entry should be made.

The California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System provides all California law enforcement agencies with information from federal and state computerized information files. Other states have similar versions of this system, often named for their home state. The system provides fast and highly reliable point-to-point messages between law enforcement agencies about active warrants, wanted people, missing people, etc.

All information received from the officers in the field or the telephone callers is entered into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. The CAD system verifies the name, address and phone number of the caller and displays the nearest cross streets to the caller's address, as well as pertinent emergency services information. The system's advanced computer mapping system can pinpoint the caller's location to aid in directing units to the scene.

Another benefit to CAD systems is their ability to use crime mapping or geographic information systems (GIS), also know as geospatial information systems. These systems capture, store, analyze, edit, integrate, share, manage and display geographically referenced data that police officers working gang operations can take advantage of in the field. In a more generic sense, GIS is a tool that allows users to create maps and present the results of all the operations. The systems also help enhance a police officer's time on the streets by identifying hot spots of gang activity before gang operations are conducted and arming officers with information relating to locations where gangs have been most active, the days of the week and times of the day gang crimes have been reported. This provides insight about the gangs involved.

An officer or telecommunicator with access to GIS software and additional data-sets, such as parolee and probationer data, can run queries from a laptop in the patrol car and check how many parolees or probationers were recently released on their beat, the conditions of their release and if they have violated any of these conditions.

In addition to plotting the geographical attributes of gang crime, law enforcement agencies seek answers to why specific gang crimes occur in a certain area and evaluate long-term solutions to the problem associated with the particular location. This technology can be used for gang investigations, resource management, asset management and community impact assessment, which are important for managers who must justify and fund anti-gang efforts.

In many agencies, especially smaller police agencies, telecommunicators have collateral duties that take time away from their computer terminals. Some telecommunicators act as a matron/jailer and may be asked to assist with searches. For example, if a male officer believes a female offender has contraband she put in her pants on contact, a female matron may be a more appropriate choice to recover the contraband, and this may limit exposure to allegations of inappropriate contact.

It takes a special kind of person to be a telecommunicator. The essence of the job is being the lifeline to the people who are actually in harm's way. It is not less vital than risking bullets or assaultive gangsters.

Never forget that a telecommunicator protects and serves as much as the officers on the street and without a good telecommunicator on the other end of the radio, police officers would have a much more difficult and dangerous job.

The Joy of Management: Motivation by Example

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, December 2011

Written by Patricia R. Mooney, communications manager of Lucas County (Ohio) EMS and an Ohio APCO member. She has more than 30 years of management experience in both the private-business and public safety sectors.

Comm center management has evolved over the years that I have been a manager. During my college years, I worked as a manager in a retail sales establishment, which taught me a lot about communicating with people. Likewise, many of my college classes revolved around management, humans resources and personnel productivity. I still enjoy taking these types of classes, which might explain why I'm writing this article. From my perspective, comm center managers need to enjoy supervising, leading and working alongside their dispatchers.

When I began my public safety career in 1988, I saw many negative people management principles being used. Initially, many of the dispatchers were people who were in trouble, on medical placement or had low seniority, which explained why they were working in a comm center. I saw no motivation being given to these personnel to better themselves, the comm center or promote good morale.

When I sat with one of these dispatchers, I was informed that they prioritized calls according to various specifications. For example, if the incident involved a weapon it would be a priority 2, unless there was an injury which would raise it to a priority 1 call. Crimes that were reported as happening right now -- or in progress -- were also given priority 2.

While I was sitting with the dispatcher, we receive a call about a dog barking. In reviewing the priority listing, I felt the call would be prioritized as a "noise" complaint -- priority 4. However, the dispatcher said it would be a priority 2, because the dog was barking right now.

I learned by the end of my visit that this telecommunicator coded everything priority 2, making the priority 2 queue almost unmanageable. No manager talked to this dispatcher; he was only temporarily assigned to the comm center, so why make waves?

Over the years, comm centers have evolved from using temporarily assigned personnel to using career telecommunicators. People actually apply for these positions because they want to work in a comm center. What a novel idea, having someone who truly wants to be there work in that position.

There are college-level classes in comm center dispatching, specialized training for dispatchers (e.g. EMD, EFD, EPD), and even public safety management courses. Yes, we have come a long way, but, we also still have a long way to go.

Our personnel have evolved out of the dark ages, but has our comm center management evolved? Do you or any other managers/supervisors feel that your personnel get a good paycheck for doing their job, so money is their prime motivator for showing up to work? Don't get trapped into believing that the only motivator for working is money. Yes, we all need a good salary, but we also need to be treated in a way that makes us feel like we belong to a team that positively affects others lives. So what can management do to promote positivism?

Each team member must be given all the tools needed to handle their responsibilities and understand how their position fits in the big picture of public safety. Initial training should include how they answer the phone, how they enter a call and how they talk on the radio, and explain the why behind the actions. Giving trainees the big picture will help them understand the reasoning behind why they are expected to do things a specific way.

Be certain to have a policy and procedure handbook that covers day-to-day situations. This establishes the foundation of the comm center responsibilities. However, don't try to write a policy for each situation; it's better to empower your team members to handle incidents that are outside "normal" daily incidents.

Historically, managers have been afraid to empower their employees. They'd rather be paged whenever something beyond standard operating procedure (SOP) occurs. However, telecommunicators who have been empowered to handle situations not covered by an established SOP and then notify the manager typically have a personal investment in the position. This leads to the development of a more cohesive team.

In other words, don't keep them in the dark and fertilize them with manure. Often, morale problems can begin with rumors of things to come, especially when the perception is that management keeps secrets from team members. I know at times management can't give out all the information to their employees, but being truthful during those times will be accepted positively by the employee. Just say, "At this time, I can't give out the details, but when I can, I will."

If you then follow through, your employees will trust that you'll not keep them in the dark and you'll gain their confidence.

Don't show your face on the comm center floor just when something is wrong, or everyone will cringe every time you step out of your office. One of the hardest things for managers to do is to adopt MBWA -- the management by walking around style.

You should get out on your comm center floor and listen to your telecommunicators' comments, suggestions and, yes, their complaints. They are the people who handle the job day in and day out, and they'll have some good suggestions, if you just listen. If you take some action on their comments, you'll show your support for them.

Other ways to show support are to discuss with them ongoing training programs, hold regular comm center meetings, maintain a positive attitude and, at the very least, say hello and be polite when walking by an employee. Think about it: You say hi to total strangers you pass in a hallway. Why wouldn't you do the same for the people you trust to make your comm center run smoothly?

Making your telecommunicators' environment comfortable will help keep morale high among team members. Such factors as lighting, temperature, visual and audio distractions, and especially the chair and console can have a large impact on your telecommunicators' ability to efficiently handle their duties.

In the past, many managers felt that taking suggestions from the team in regard to ergonomics would not be cost effective; telecommunicators would surely choose the most expensive items. A dispatch chair meant to be used 24/7 might be slightly more expensive than a normal office chair, but we need to look at the bigger picture: cost compared to time in service, warranty offered, telecommunicator comfort and acceptance. The chair you choose can have a great effect on your overall comm center's effectiveness, making a few extra dollars spent a very good investment.

Set the bar. If you set the bar on the side of high expectations, then your dispatchers will meet it. Expect your telecommunicators to handle situations appropriately, and they will. Don't set them up to fail by expecting them to fail.

Managers must also lead by example and show their good morale, positive attitude, ability to work as part of the team and professionalism. When you show telecommunicators what's expected of them, they'll work to reach the bar.

If the manager is constantly negative, doesn't back the telecommunicators in their decisions or doesn't fight for things that will help the dispatchers do their jobs, then you will have created a non-functioning, disgruntled, unenthusiastic team.

A manager who consistently shows they care about their telecommunicators and is willing to go to bat for them will help build a cohesive, happy and motivated team.

Think of what treats your dispatchers would enjoy. We all know that bagels, donuts, cookies, candy, pizza and cakes can create a positive surprise for your team. But what kind of treats could you occasionally supply that wouldn't also make their weight move up on the scales? Possibly, 100-calorie packs of snacks, cookies, etc. to help keep the serving portion in mind would be a good surprise. Non-food items such as stress balls, coffee mugs, key chains or greeting cards can also help keep morale elevated.

Do you allow telecommunicators to eat at their desk, drink coffee at their workstation or even have a candy bar while at work? Some comm centers are very strict on their rules about food while others are more lenient. When considering this aspect of operations, remember that people who eat together can feel more like family, which will create a tighter knit team. If you have strict rules against eating in the comm center, maybe you should look at allowing an occasional potluck and see how things go. Surprise the troops.

Another idea: Schedule a holiday gathering at a local restaurant to allow team members and managers to meet in a more social atmosphere where you're all equal. The telecommunicators may take this idea and surprise you by turning it into a quarterly or monthly social gathering, which will also help keep morale positive.

So what's the difference between comm center management then and now? The comm center is not longer "that place" where people are assigned as punishment or light duty. Public safety communications has become a career of choice and has become a profession, not just a job. Managers need to enjoy supervising this unique action-oriented group of individuals. Telecommunicators today are proud of the job they do, and they want to continue learning, be given clear directions, goals and policies, and be trusted to handle their responsibilities consistently.

The manager then was more worried about getting the job done and less worried about how telecommunicators fit into the equation. Often, they said such things as, "If you don't like the way I run the place, there's the door," "Because I said so," and "You get paid to do this job, don't you?"

The manager now is not only the leader of the team, but should be part of the team, a leader who worries not only about getting the job done, but empowering and supporting each team member. Comments from today's managers should include, "What do you think of this draft procedure?," "We're changing our policy because..." and "How's your family doing?"

Managers are somewhat like parents. They have to set the guidelines and boundaries, deal with those who do not follow the rules, and try to keep them on the right path of life. But is that all moms and dads do? No, they also talk with their kids, ask them how their day is going, laugh with them, sometimes cry with them and, hopefully, have fun with them; they truly care about them.

Telecommunicators do a stressful, important job in today's society, and no one says they can't enjoy doing it. And some of that enjoyment starts at the top and runs downhill. Managers, don't just let the bad stuff run downhill. Show your team that good things can also come from management.

Start today by going out to your communications center. Spend some quality time, say hi to everyone, ask how their day is going and really listen when they respond. You might surprise yourself, and find out that you enjoy managing people today even more than you did yesterday.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Comm Center Career Path: APCO Standards & Training Can Help You Forge Your Way

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, December 2011

Written by Frank J. Kiernan III, member of APCO and director of emergency communications for the city of Meriden, Conn.

So, you've been hired as a dispatcher, a career that in some cases requires testing and training similar to that of other first responders. Now that you're here where do you go? Sadly, in most cases you are where you're going to be, looking forward to top pay and vacation pick seniority.

When I was first hired as a civilian dispatcher, our turnover was due to telecommunicators leaving to become police or fire personnel, moving to a career with established career paths. I myself spent two years as a civilian dispatcher before testing and being hired as a police officer.

During my career as a sworn police officer, I continually found myself being assigned to communications. The town had decided that civilian dispatchers were not working out and placed police officers in the dispatch center.

Many times, I heard, "Don't go in there. It's a dead end." or "It's a career killer." To understand where these opinions come from we have to look at the position itself: civilian dispatcher. Just the sound of it has a negative connotation. How many times have we ourselves said to the public or others, "I'm just a dispatcher?"

APCO and others have been working hard to rid the industry of this stereotype. We are not just a dispatcher of a civilian dispatcher. We are public safely telecommunicators.

We have established an ANSI National Standard, Minimum Training Standards for Public Safety Telecommunicators, APCO ANS 3.103.1-2010. Having a national standard and meeting its requirements raises the professionalism of the public safety telecommunicator.

In the center where I currently work, one of the first changes I wanted to make was to establish a supervisor position for each shift. This required negotiation with the union, as well as establishing a promotional process. Since past practice had been that the senior dispatcher on the shift received crew leader status, this was necessary. Some of the senior people did not want the responsibility -- and with good reason: They received no special training. They got the position only by virtue of the fact that they had been here the longest.

Once the positions were agreed to and budgeted for, the time came to fill the spots. I wanted to provide the interested candidates with information to use during the oral interview, part of the process established to narrow the list of candidates. Our department provided each with a copy of current city policies and a copy of APCO's Minimum Training Standards for Public Safety Communications First-Level Supervisor. The training standard for supervisor has helped establish the job description and provided a baseline for us to work from. It has established a clear career advancement path.

The standard establishes requirements, as well as duties and responsibilities, for a supervisor. According to the standard, "the supervisor shall have effective interpersonal communication skills and leadership qualities in addition to having a thorough working knowledge of the agency's policies, practices, operational activities, and telecommunicator skill sets...

"The supervisor shall demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of agency resources and capabilities, including location of public safety/service buildings, apparatus and equipment, emergency-management services, and facilities and emergency-planning documents...The supervisor shall be aware of and understand the opportunity of all employees to participate in such programs as listed below, demonstrating the ability to inform subordinates of these services and make referrals, as necessary [to]: 1) Employee Assistance Program (EAP); 2) Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)/Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD); 3) health and wellness programs; [and] 4) stress-management techniques.

"The supervisor shall fully understand the safety requirements of the position as required by the agency, appropriate state regulations and, if applicable, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

"The supervisor shall fully understand the impact of the ADA-specific requirements of PSAPs for equal access, as well as internal hiring and accomodation practices."

The agency has the responsibility of providing training to the supervisor so they can reach these basic supervisory competencies and agency-specific requirements, along with training in interpersonal communication skills and leadership.

To all of those who still say dispatch is a dead end or career killer, I say, "Not anymore."

I went from civilian dispatcher to police officer to communications training officer, and now I am director of emergency communications. I made my career path, and, now with the help of APCO International, you can direct your own.