9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Protectors of the Thin Blue Line

Taken from Officer.com, 9/19/12
Written by Michelle Perin, she has been a freelance writer since 2000.  She worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years.  She has a Master's degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University.

Officer safety is the most important thing in law enforcement.  Everyone gains when an officer makes it through incidents and goes home after shift.  We, as emergency communications operators, play an important role in increasing and maintaining officer safety.  We do this in different ways starting from the beginning of our careers and ending when we give our last transmission.

In the Beginning

I remember the excitement and the anticipation that filled me when I walked into the classroom my first day as a 9-1-1 operator.  I knew the training would be grueling, but what really stood out for me was a heavy sense of importance.  Not in a narcissistic way although I'll admit that as I got better at what I did it evolved more into this.  It was more of my head swimming with my officer husband's comments about how dispatchers had the power to really mess things up for them.  I sat down at that table determined to be a dispatcher that focused on officer safety and my role in it.


Every agency has a unique training program.  Some larger agencies have a whole training section with dedicated people who put together curriculum based on best-practices.  Some agencies just have those on the floor teaching the newbies based on their experience.  Either way, listen closely to your trainer and keep an open mind.  Often, emergency communications operators have strong personalities even from the beginning and this can lead us to feel things should be done a certain way all the time.  Try not to be rigid and don't take it personally when you make a mistake.  It's part of the journey to becoming a great dispatcher.

Listen more than you talk

Self-initiate learning.  Look around and see who you admire.  Who has the respect of the officers and other dispatchers?  Ask them for advice.  Ask your officers what dispatchers do that increase and decrease their safety.  Learn from their experience.  Although learning from other dispatchers is a great way to increase your ability, our perception of what officers need may not always be accurate.  Be willing to open your ears and shut your mouth.

In the Moment

When an emergency call comes in and you have officers en-route or an officer comes on screaming, this is our time to shine.  This is when it is most important for us to lean on our training and keep control of the situation while focusing on officer safety.

Don't lose your cool

Working emergency traffic is crazy.  Adrenaline shoots through our bodies and hypervigilance sets in.  Unfortunately, we can not physically fight or flight.  We have to sit in our chair, typing and pushing buttons while internally we want to explode out of our skins.  Due to this, it is easy to get flustered, start making mistakes and stop thinking clearly.  Take a deep breath, try to relax and plan to go for a very long run when you get off shift.

Don't freeze

On the other spectrum of the fight/flight response is freeze.  Recently, a dispatcher friend of mine was telling me about a critical incident they had.  Afterwards, she listened to the tape and was appalled.  The relatively new dispatcher had an officer down and other officers were trying to get information from her.  "She said absolutely nothing for at least three whole minutes," my friend lamented the disgust heavy in her voice.  As an emergency communications operator, the life-line for your officers, there is nothing worse than doing nothing.  You may not know exactly what to do right then, but do something or get someone who can.

Do ask for assistance

If you are feeling overwhelmed or unsure about what to do, ask for help.  There is often a relief operator or another operator available to help you if you need it.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness or inability to do your job, it's a sign that you're looking out for the best interest of your officers and that is definitely not a weakness or inability.  If you are with a small agency or don't have another operator available to help you utilize those in the supervisor's pod.  Whatever you do ask for the help you need instead of doing a half-baked job or doing nothing.

Don't dominate the air

There is no feeling worse than putting your foot down and hearing the tell-tale sound of covering a unit who is trying to clear at the same time, unless of course this happens when you are working emergency traffic.  Realistically though, this is going to happen.  Focus on keeping your end of the air as open as possible so that those who may need to get help can.  Keep your comments brief but understandable.  We have a tendency to want to control the situation from our end and often this exhibits itself as too much domination of air time.

Do give the officers all the information

As operators, we aren't privy to exactly what is going on on-scene.  Due to this, we don't really know what information is important to pass on.  Often it feels we have too many details and we hesitate to take up airtime with superfluous information.  What we need to remember is although we can make an educated guess about what needs to be said over the air and what doesn't, we shouldn't hold on to any information.  If it's too much to read, alert the patrol supervisor and let him or her know there is a lot of information typed into the call and to be aware of it.  Let them make the choice to sort through it and relay what's important.  In the same vein, make sure you continue to read the incoming information on call.  A suspect description, direction of travel or the appearance of weapons might be hidden twenty-five lines down.

Throughout your Career

Even after our initial training days are long in the past and when nothing much is going on, we can be cognizant of how we influence officer safety and focus on ways to be valuable people and employees.  There are things that we can do for ourselves throughout our careers that make us better operators.

Take care of yourself

Mental, physical and emotional well-being is super important if you want to be at your very best every moment you are on shift.  Get enough exercise.  Eat well. Practice stress-reduction techniques such as meditation.  Use alcohol and caffeine in moderation.  Get enough sleep.  Take time off.  Have interests outside the agency.  All those things that help maintain our balance will help us increase officer safety.


Training doesn't end once you get that certificate saying you are a full-fledged emeregency communications operator.  Continuing to learn good dispatching techniques, increase knowledge of the technology you use as well as continuing to learn good wellness techniques can make your trek through your career an easier, more satisfying, less physical and mentally disintegrating one.  Join associations such as National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and utilize their offerings.

When I was completing my fire training, my instructor told me a motto I should hold close to my heart when it came to prioritizing during a critical incident, "You go home.  Your partner goes home.  The citizen goes home."  As dispatchers, this applies to us as well.  We need to take care of ourselves and continue learning so that we can make sure our co-workers, our officers, go home as well.  Finally, these skills will trickle down to our citizens because making the streets a safer place for our law enforcement makes the streets safer for them as well.  We don't control the world, although many of us feel like we should and could.  What we can control is how we view our role in officer safety and our continuation to make that a priority with our actions.

10 Things Dispatchers Want You to Know

Taken from Policemag.com, 9/13/12
Written by Dean Scoville

The dispatcher is your guardian angel on the job; help him or her give you the information you need to prevail.

Minutes after a gunman opened fire at the midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises," it became the job of an emergency communications specialist to send help.  In a clear, calm voice Kathie Stauffer directed officers, paramedics, and EMTs to the aid of the victims.  Afterward, she was praised for helping first responders get the resources they needed to help the wounded and dying and for maintaining professionalism despite great stress and distress.  Stauffer's role in the response to the Aurora Massacre is proof of the critical role emergency communications specialists, commonly known as dispatchers, play in public safety.

The emergency dispatcher is the police officer's lifeline out in the field: coordinating resources, making notifications, running checks, and getting you help when and where you need it.  When your butt is on the line, so is theirs.

Sometimes the channels of communication are wide open and everything clicks.  Information comes through just in time to avert disaster.  Suspect descriptions are spot on.  Officers speak in perceptible tones and dispatchers return information with lightning speed and accuracy.

But things don't always run as smoothly as both sides would hope.  Sometimes external factors -- bad radio reception, stepped on transmission traffic, and the inexplicable delay between a request and an answer -- make communication less than effective.

Empathy helps.  But how many cops have really sat in a dispatcher's shoes and know what it is like to deal simultaneously with both sides of an invisible equation, hearing nothing but voices, reading nothing but text, and having no facial or bodily expression to go off of, and no situational awareness of what is happening beyond their headsets?  The stress level for these unsung heroes is tremendously high, for they take their jobs seriously and understand that even minor mistakes can have deadly consequences. 

Communication, particularly in law enforcement, is a two-way transmission.  With that in mind, here are some things that dispatchers say you can do to help them communicate the critical information that you need in the field.

1. That Lousy Call is Not Their Fault

In larger departments, dispatchers have little or no discretion about which calls they handle.  If they get a request for an officer to be sent to a location, they send one.  True, they can make alternative suggestions to the caller.  And where they are given some latitude, they can screen away some of the extraneous situations with relative ease.  The guy who advises that he's out of toilet paper and asks for an officer to help hiim is not going to get that help.  The woman with the spider in the motel room is also not going to see you.  Nor will you be talking to the young woman who wants you to roll on a custody dispute, then identifies the involved father as "Adolph Hitler."  Dispatchers use their best judgment to the extent that we are allowed to avert calls that you will never even hear about.

2. Be Patient

Dispatchers are juggling other things.  So don't expect them to automatically jump at your beck and call.  Cindra Dunaway, state certified public safety telecommunicator/training officer for the Lee County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office, says there can be as high as 1:40 ratio of dispatchers to field units.  "Recognize that there is a lot going on behind the scenes while you are waiting for a response.  The informant may be speaking to a 911 operator, who relays that information to me, while I'm typing the information for you," she says.  "There may be a politically sensitive issue involved that you may not be aware of, or an officer safety concern that may be dangerous to broadcast.  Remember that we're in the same boat as you are: doing more with less.  While there may not be as many of us as there once was, we are expected to do more."

3. Let Them Know Where You Are

Dispatchers are your lifeline.  But if they don't know where you are, all the cries for help in the world are not going to help you.  Let your dispatchers know when and where you are conducting some manner of investigation.  Tell them who you are dealing with and clue them in to the nature of the problem.  Sometimes that may be enough for a dispatcher to recognize that you need assistance, even if you don't feel comfortable making the request.  Dunaway notes that, "We don't know where 'by the red car' is.  Unless you tell us where you are, it makes our job that much more difficult and stressful."

4. Know Your Codes

If the radio code you used while requesting a tow truck actually means fire, don't blame the dispatcher if you see a bright red engine pull up.

5. Slow Down and Take a Breath

Unless it's an emergency, take your time in relaying information to dispatchers, especially when they have to transcribe your request.  Odds are the dispatcher was not a stenographer in a previous life, so save the auctioneer cadence for another time.  And remember, most of the time you can run, or you can talk -- odds are you can't do both, at least not to the extent that anyone can understand you over a radio.  Prioritize and decide what is your top priority: Catching the suspect yourself or coordinating assistance to help you catch him.

6. Know How to Ask Dispatchers for Information

Dunaway says that cops should give her everything they need on a subject in the beginning of their request instead of asking for it piecemeal.  "Most of us will drop the information once we give it out and get ready for the next transmission," she says.  "Most telecommunicators will give you a hit about how they need information given to them.  We have several databases that we work with and each one is different.  I consistently get about half of my deputies who give me last name first, even after I ask for first name first.  Another thing that bugs us to no end is when there's more than one unit on scene and both will run the same person."

7. Stick to Business

Many a female telecommunicator has heard it said that she has what is known as "dispatcher voice," as tone that inspires all manner of fantasy.  But we're dealing in reality and on the department's dime.  Don't try to romance the dispatcher on the job.

8. Show Some Professional Discipline

In emergencies, dispatchers know that you will be responding.  Many agencies now have technology that lets them know that you are rolling with lights and sirens and where you are rolling from.  If such information stands to be redundant, and there is an officer who is trying to put out suspect information or request for paramedics, that's the voice the dispatcher needs to focus on.  Please give the dispatcher the opportunity to hear it.  Also, dispatchers are aware that you are "running a firearm."  If the dispatcher tells you that he or she is on the phone, it may well be because the firearm had been stolen a half-hour before and the dispatcher has the victim on the line.  If it is something less substantial, you can hold the dispatcher accountable later.  In the meantime, give him or her the benefit of the doubt.

9. Show Some Compassion

Believe it or not, dispatchers care.  They are often just as anxious to know what has happened to their fellow public safety employees as you are.  If you think about it, let them know how the situation ended.  It gives them closure to know who survived and who was just sent to jail.  Better yet, stop by sometime to le them know when they've done a particularly good job coordinating a broadcast.  That really makes their day.

10. Remember Dispatchers Can Help You

If you anticipate the possibility of some complicating presence, let the dispatcher know.  If you have a backdrop concern, the dispatcher can contact residents or occupants and have them evacuate a location via a rear door.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Butt Calls, Eye-Rollers, Disbelievers and Scowlers

Taken from Officer.com, 3/15/12
Written by Michelle Perin

More and more, it seems 9-1-1 is becoming public.  Not publicly owned or controlled; it's always been like that because we're public servants.  Not publicly available, although that's increased too with the ability for landlines, cell phones and computers to access 9-1-1 services through talk and text.  What I mean is publicly listened to.  Not a tragedy goes by now without a news clip appearing several days later playing the 9-1-1 call live.  What used to be things I only heard in my headset, I can now hear from my television, radio or computer speakers.  And, I don't have to catch the "tragic, humorous, ridiculous, fill-in-the-blank call" right then.  They are archived on media sites, as well as, the ultimate voyeuristic site, YouTube.

After a recent trip exploring my fellow telecommunications operator's work on YouTube (and after a quick prayer of gratitude I had been lucky enough not to be from a time when all calls went public), I started thinking about the types of calls we get and some of the reactions they can create.

Butt Calls/Pocket Dials

Toronto (Ontario, Canada) Police Department has established a campaign (also on YouTube) called "Lock It Before You Pocket".  The ad states that 2,100 pocket dial calls are made per week to 9-1-1.  Also known as butt calls, these calls give the operator front row seats to everything from silence to conversations to musical concerts.  One of my favorite archived calls (you know those calls that are saved for years and played over and over for operators both new and old) was a gentleman who presumably butt dialed while driving (not an unusual occurrence since so many of my fellow-city-dwellers spent  hours locked in traffic each day).  During his call, he graced the original operator (and dozens since then) with his rendition of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, aka the theme from 2001:A Spacy Odyssey complete with all the dun-dun-dun-DUN-DAAAAAAAAs you could ever want.  Although butt calls can be amusing, especially if they include a snippet of conversation between two people discussing something private, they can also be frustrating when it's a super-busy summer Friday night and the calls just keep coming and coming.  As operators, we're required to listen to enough of the call to establish it is just a butt dial and not a terrified 15 year-old girl hiding in the closet scared to breathe lest she be heard by the rapist/murderer who just climbed in the window.


Many of these calls begin with, "This isn't an emergency, but...." Seriously, if there's a "but" involved, it might have been worth the time to look up the non-emergency number.  On the other hand, I found many of these calls just met the minimum criteria for being an appropriate 9-1-1 call (just barely).  A good example is the "Missing Orange Juice" call.  A man calls 9-1-1 from an Oregon McDonald's because they messed up his order and now his brother is crying because they forgot to put in the orange juice (I can visualize all the eye-rolling that occurred from my colleagues).  Although the premise is ridiculous, what the situation came down to was the caller and his family were refusing to leave the drive-through and the employee had also called the police.  So, in essence you had a trespassing/unwanted guest/verbal dispute call that needed police assistance to rectify.  They don't call officers keepers of the peace for nothing.


I can think of a few other ways to describe these calls, but most involve four-letter words that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap as a child.  Disbeliever calls are those where you just cannot believe the person is calling 9-1-1 with their particular type of problem.  An example, (again found on YouTube so now this caller's amazingly bad choices and subsequent arrest are now common knowledge) is the Connecticut man who called 9-1-1 for "a legal question" on "how much trouble you could get into for one plant...only a seedling."  You can hear the disbelief in the operator's voice as she handles this call.  I think it's funny to note that the news report states after his arrest, he left the courthouse, turned around and stuck both his middle fingers up at the dispatchers.  Guess he was in disbelief too.  Personally, I had a similar call where a gentleman wanted us to come out because he had paid for some drugs and didn't receive them.  After a few clarifying questions from me and gentle reminders of who he was callling he decided he would just cut his losses and go home.


Some citizens know how to play the system.  They know the keywords to get an officer out fast in any situation and they often don't hide what they are doing.  But, due to policies and protocols, there is nothing an operator can do in these situations except for play the role of teh pawn and send out units usually Code 3.  I guarantee there is a scowl on your face the entire time you're punching those buttons.  For me, the call that fell into this category most solidly was a loud music complaint.  Her neighbor was having a party, lots of loud talking, drinking and carrying on.  She had called numerous times and I'm sure it was annoying, but it was a busy night and officers were tied up on other calls (if I remember correctly there had been a sexual assault and a shooting nearby).  When I explained that the officers were handling other emergencies and would come out as soon as they were available, there was a pause and then in what I would describe as a completely sarcastic, dead-pan voice she stated, "Well they have a gun.  Yup, they just fired a shot."  I scowled the whole time as I followed procedure and took officers off other calls and sent them lights and sirens to her house knowing what they would find - lots of loud talking, drinking and carrying on.  Disposition - No gun.  No shots fired.  Included in this category are those calls that include statements such as, "Lady, just send me an officer..."

As public safety telecommunications operators, we handle a lot of calls.  In my department, we averaged 250 emergency and non-emergency calls per shift.  That's a lot of calls in a career.  Many are true emergencies, but some are butt calls, eye-rollers, disbelievers and scowlers.  Thanks to YouTube and the public's fascination with those who call in for emergency services we can experience not only our own calls but those from around the world as well.

Dispatchers Recount Stresses of Job

Taken from EMS1.com, 4/11/12
Written by Josh Stockinger, The Chicago Daily Herald

KANE COUNTY, Ill. - A 911 dispatcher in Kane County for 18 years, Tammy Kieveno is never far from the calls that shook her.

A child run over by a truck.  A husband committing suicide in front of his wife.  A teen sobbing as her dad holds a gun to her mother's head.

"Sometimes you don't ever find out if they survived," said Sieveno, who took up running to deal with the stress.

It's no surprise to Kieveno, but a study suggests 911 dispatchers are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

The findings come from Northern Illinois University researchers Michelle Lilly and Heather Pierce, who wanted to know how indirect exposure to trauma effects emergency call takers.

Their study is believed to be the first of its kind, surveying 171 dispatchers in 24 states.  Respondents weighed in on everything from the types of calls they handled to how they reacted.  They also recounted their most disturbing on-the-job experiences.

"The descriptions were just shocking.  They're behind a desk, they're on the telephone, they're not publicly visible -- and yet they're going through these phone calls that are just horrifying," said Lilly, who teaches psychology at the DeKalb university and lives in Glen Ellyn.

More commonly associated with combat veterans, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can lead to flashbacks, nightmares, confusion and depression, among other symptoms.  It's usually set off by a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster or assault, experts say.

The NIU study, published March 29 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, should broaden the debate on how trauma is defined, Lilly said, because it "suggests that one does not need to be physically present during a traumatic even, or to even know the victim of a trauma, in order for the event to cause significant mental health challenges."

The study found dispatchers are most often troubled by calls involving the unexpected injury or death of a child, followed by suicidal callers, police-involved shootings and unexpected adult deaths.

Respondents reported feeling fearful, helpless or horrified in nearly a third of calls considered potentially traumatic, with 3.5 percent of them reporting symptoms severe enough to  be diagnosed with PTSD.

"We've always known the profession is stressful, but now we have empirically shown it can be potentially traumatic," Pierce said.

Pierce herself was a 911 dispatcher in Kane and Kendall counties for 10 years before she went back to school to study psychology and later teamed up with Lilly, her professor.

She said dispatchers face "enormous pressure" to remain composed while extracting key information under some of the most intense circumstances.  Sometimes their efficiency is crucial to life-or-death situations.  And it all happens fast.

"You can go from dead silence to chaos within seconds.  It's a very short period of time to collect yourself," said Pierce, of Yorkville.

The majority of dispatchers surveyed were white women with an average age of 38 and an average 11 years experience.

Lilly said the sample is "pretty skewed" because it consists of only dispatchers who were willing to talk.  She suspects a broader study would find an even stronger link between 911 calls and anxiety.

"At this point, we probably don't have a true estimate," she said.

Whether the research has any impact on professional standards or liability for employers remains to be seen.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 120,000 dispatchers working at an estimated 6,000 emergency call centers, according to the National Emergency Number Association, a nonprofit focused on issues related to the profession.

Rick Jones, the organization's operations issues director, said it recently undertook a committee project devoted to issues of stress and PTSD.  He said the committee of dispatchers, mental health professionals and 911 administrators is likely to suggest call centers put in place stress management programs across the board.

Jones said some 911 entities already have programs to help employees deal with job stress while "others have nothing."

"It's very important that as we go forward, we are expanding," he said.

Jones said the need for stress management likely will increase as technology paves the way for 911 calls by video.  The deaf and hard of hearing have had access to video 911 services for years, he said, but the prevalence of smart phones and other handheld video devices could eventually push them into the mainstream.  Also increasing is the real-time demand on dispatchers, with some learning to talk callers through the baby deliveries and first-aid techniques.

"In more recent years, there's been recognition from the local and particularly the national level that call takers and dispatchers are the first responder," he said.  "We've got call centers using medical protocols, and some of the bigger ones deliver a baby a week.  If somebody gets shot, they're doing first aid by phone before anybody gets there.  This isn't clerical work."

John Ferraro, who oversees about 60 dispatchers as deputy director of DuPage Public Safety Communications, or DUCOMM, was among those eager to review the NIU study.  He said the call center has come a long way over the years to beef up assistance for dispatchers who may be overstressed.

"I like to think we're proactive," he said.

Ferraro said managers are trained to identify situations that might be particularly upsetting, and dispatchers are encouraged to leave their desks and talk with a supervisor after a "tough call."

In the past five to seven years, he said, dispatchers also have become regular invitees to stress-debriefing meetings with police, firefighters and other front-line responders.

"It's just about everyone kind of talking about it and feeling better about it," Ferraro said.  "It helps not only with the stress of the situation, but it helps them to hear what the responders were dealing with.  Kind of the group hug feels good."

Ferraro said call takers also can receive counseling through an employee assistance program, and several were sent to a training seminar last year on dealing with stress.  For Kieveno, it eventually became too much.

In late 2007, the Sugar Grove woman left her job with Tri-Com Central Dispatch in Kane County after realizing she'd become somewhat "indifferent," a disposition she attributed to years of burying her own emotions.

Kieveno still speaks fondly of her days as a dispatcher, but says she feels healthier at her desk job with the Geneva Fire Department, where she's an administrative assistant.

"You really don't realize how it impacts so many areas of your life until you don't do it," she said.  "It kind of becomes your nature."

Emergency Dispatching: Not for the Faint of Heart

Taken from EMS1.com, 11/21/11
Written by Jorge Valencia, The Roanoke Times

ROANOKE, Va. - The hallway to Roanoke County's emergency call center is lined with photos of recruits from recent years.

The other day, Aleta Coleman, a longtime supervisor, was listing the places some now work.

From 2003's class, one left for Carilion Clinic.  From 2004, one left for the Internal Revenue Service.

From 2006, one left for the Virginia State Police.  From 2007, one left for a local restaurant.  From last year, one left for Franklin County's call center.

"Do you know how much time we spend training these people?  And we spend a lot of time before anyone even starts training," she said.  "It's very disheartening."

The Roanoke County center and others in the Roanoke Valley fit a trend:  They lose about two of every 10 dispatchers every year, which is the national average, according to the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

This means that, even if one in 10 Americans doesn't have a job, the managers of these centers are permanently recruiting.

In Roanoke County, department managers are looking to trim their selection process from eight weeks to five by testing and interviewing people at an open house on Saturday.  They have four vacancies.

"A lot of people withdraw their application because the application takes so long and they find a job somewhere else first," said Bill Hunter, assistant communications director in Roanoke County.

"Work is work, brother."

It's a long process because, among other things, applicants are interviewed by several people and are given a criminal background check, a polygraph test and a psychological test.

Many who pass the testing leave during their first year, and most leave during their first five years.

The most common complaints: high stress and low pay.

Dispatchers often get frantic calls from people living the worst day of their life or from officers in a potentially violent situation.

For Coleman, a rare dispatcher who has worked at the center for 20 years, the incidents she tries to forget are many.

One she remembers easily was a time she was on the line with a police officer looking to arrest a suspect wanted in the city of Roanoke.

The suspect sped off on US 220, throwing cigarette butts out of the window and leading officers on a two-hour, 13-minute chase to the Botetourt County Jail in Fincastle, where he surrendered.

The suspect told police he was trying to avoid the Roanoke City Jail, Coleman said.

"The officer got very upset that day," said Coleman, 49.

More troubling calls are from people who are threatening to commit suicide.  Sherre Oakes, a long-time dispatcher in Roanoke who quit in 2010, says she'll never forget a call she got in the late 1990s from a woman who had swallowed dozens of pills.

The woman wanted to kill herself because her husband had recently died, but changed her mind after thinking about her children and her dog, Oakes remembered.

Oakes spoke to the woman while medics arrived.  The woman didn't survive.  "I'll never forget her name.  LeeAnn," Oakes said.  "I could hear her fading."

Oakes, now a security officer at a beachside hospital in Florida, said she left because she was losing sympathy for callers and because she disagreed with some management decisions, though she would not elaborate.

In some emergency centers, like Roanoke's, dispatchers work 12-hour shifts and are routinely changed from morning to evening to overnight schedules.

Starting salary in Roanoke's center is $27,613 and in Roanoke County's is $27,240.

Roanoke and Roanoke County employee salaries have been frozen since 2008.

Wayne Guffey, a dispatcher in Vinton and Roanoke County for seven years, left earlier this year for a job training people in other centers how to use emergency call software.

He said he left for substantially higher pay, though he didn't specify how much.

"It's a very good career, but it's not for everybody," Guffey said.  "You can get stressed out very easily.  You have to keep calm while everything around you is nuts."

Chase Ferguson, 27, is in the new generation and in the rare breed of dispatchers who last more than five years.

He joined Roanoke County's center in 2004 because he wanted to be a police officer, and he says his job is stressful but "addictive" because he likes helping people while staying behind the scenes.

"I like what I do.  Am I going to do this all my life?  I'm not sure," Ferguson said, sitting behind a panel of six monitors.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Is Your PSAP Ready for NG9-1-1?

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, April 5, 2013
Written by Edward P. Thomas Jr., Senior Marketing Programs Manager for Stratus.
For more information, see www.stratus.com

In every 9-1-1 emergency, time is critical.  Time makes the difference in saving heart muscle for a heart attack patient.  It's getting a family safely out of the burning house.  It's relaying instructions for delivering a baby at a rest stop along the highway.

Emergencies can occur anywhere at any time, so the more information dispatchers have and the faster they can direct that information to the appropriate emergency response units, the better the outcome.  The fact is everyday communication has evolved well beyond the common telephone.  Mobile phones dominate voice communications.  Millennials, by and large, text more than they talk.  The proliferation of smart phones has put high-resolution digital photography and video instantly at people's fingertips.

It is time for the nation's 9-1-1 system to catch up with today's digital, wireless forms of communication - and that is the impetus behind Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1).  NG9-1-1 is an initiative to update the 9-1-1 service infrastructure in the U.S. and Canada to support transmission of text, images, video, and data to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs).  The goal is also to enable PSAPs to relay that rich information on to emergency response personnel.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) first identified the need for NG9-1-1 in 2000, and since 2006 the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) have been advancing NG9-1-1 in their respective countries.  On January 24, 2013, the CRTC announced the first implementation of NG9-1-1 employing text for the hearing and speech impaired.  In the United States NG9-1-1 proof of concept (POC) studies have been conducted in Washington, Montana, New York, Minnesota, and Indiana setting the stage for national rollout over the next several years.

NG9-1-1 and the Impact on PSAPs

NG9-1-1 will bring to PSAPs a whole new level of emergency response capabilities.  The ability to receive and share multimedia information will have a huge impact on public safety.  By providing law enforcement, fire fighters, EMTs, and other emergency crews with more detailed and complete information about the situations they are about to encounter, they will be better prepared to perform their jobs successfully.

Here are just a few examples of what NG9-1-1 will enable PSAPs to do:
  •  Receive 9-1-1 text messages along with accompanying photos and video, and route this information to first responders
  • Transfer 9-1-1 calls to PSAPs in other locations, allowing for other call-handling features such as nationwide access to 9-1-1 for automotive telematics call centers, alarm monitoring operations, and others.
  • Accommodate advanced features such as automatic routing for language translation, distribution of overflow calls, receiving data from personal safety devices, and more
  • Issue emergency alerts to wireless devices and highway alert systems in an area, via voice of text message
  • Share emergency information more effectively with allied agencies, traffic management centers, and other public organizations
To make all this possible, PSAPs must have the appropriate technical infrastructure.  First, the PSAP will require a high-availability IP infrastructure interface to send and receive multimedia content across the Emergency Services IP Network (ESInet) - the foundational enabling technology of NG9-1-1.  This will likely require modifications to the existing PSAP network equipment and software to support voice over IP(VoIP) communications, as well as enable internal routing of text, image, and video data to the computer-assisted (CAD) system and simultaneously to the communications recording system.  Since most existing communications recorders are only capable of recording audio, significant changes to these devices may also be required to bring them into NG9-1-1 compliance.

How to Handle the Threat of System Downtime

With so much riding on the PSAP's ability to handle emergency calls 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, ensuring system uptime has always been a critical concern.  The advent of NG9-1-1 ups the ante even further.  The increased volume of incoming calls and messages, many with rich media attachments, will push the limits of most traditional infrastructures.

To help PSAPs meet the demands of NG9-1-1, the U.S. DOT has issued guidelines for an infrastructure that incorporates:
  •  A proven database architecture that delivers functionality, scalability, high availability, and low latency
  • High availability and disaster recovery options that maximize system uptime and provide for no single point of failure
  • Redundant processing capabilities through mirrored databases, which must be backed up to a remote site for complete disaster recovery
  • Data Redundancy within the primary site, as well as with an alternate site that is miantained with the same availability as the primary data center
There are a number of ways to address these requirements.  For example, in St. Charles County, Missouri, the Department of Dispatch and Alarm relies on TriTech VisiCAD softwar running on Stratus ftServer systems.  Not only has this combination provided nine years of operation with zero downtime, it also supports cross-jurisdictional dispatch, which puts St. Charles County in an ideal position for supporting NG9-1-1.

Marion County, Florida has gone even a step further.  Using TriTech CAD running on an ftServer system, this innovative county enables seamless communication between law enforcement, EMS, and fire safety.  By consolidating multiple systems onto a single platform, the county saved $327,000 in infrastructure costs.  But more important was the savings in efficiency.  Through cross training, a single call taker can now handle police, fire, and medical emergencies.  By eliminating the need to pass calls from one person to another, the county saves 30-40 seconds per call - in many cases, that savings means the difference between life and death.  Following on this success, the county has recently extended the TriTech/Stratus solution to the county seat, Ocala, consolodating their fire, police, and EMS services for another $396,000 in savings.

Time is Life

As St. Charles and Marion counties have demonstrated, PSAPs can leverage technology to dramatically improve efficiency today while laying the foundation for supporting NG9-1-1 tomorrow.  The impact of NG9-1-1 on the nation's public emergency communication services will be profound - and daunting for many PSAPs - but the change is essential in our ever-more mobile and wireless society.

Just think of the difference NG9-1-1 could make in a multi-vehicle accident on the highway.  With texts, photos, and videos coming in from motorists at the scene, decisions on the right equipment and services required can be made more quickly.  Any involved vehicle with an Advanced Automatic Collision Notification (AACN) system automatically sends important crash data to the PSAP, which dispatches the correct emergency services, even if the passengers are unable to respond.  Everyone in the vicinity with an Internet-connected device is automatically notified to avoid the area, and highway message signs display the warning.  In this scenario the number of messages flowing into and out of the PSAP could be exponentially greater than is typical today.

In public safety, there is never a good time for your servers to stall or go down.  Confusion sets in.  Seconds tick by while someone manually contacts the EMS.  And on the scene a child desperately needs CPR.  That is why having systems that can deliver continuous, round-the-clock availability - without fail - is so important.  Because although to most industries time is money, for PSAPs and the first responders they support, time is life.

Social Media in a 9-1-1 World

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, April 30, 2012
Written by Lisa Dodson, ENP, 9-1-1 Coordinator, Harris County Sheriff's Office.  In addition to managing 9-1-1 operations, she manages the Facebook page for the Emergency Dispatch Center which provides 9-1-1 public education outreach and keeps Harris County citizens informed on safety issues in their area.  For more information, see the Harris County 9-1-1 web site at http://www.911.org/

Social media has taken the world by storm and has quickly become a form of communications that could not have been imagined when 9-1-1 was first implemented.  With over 1.4 billion users between Facebook and Twitter alone, this new medium provides a great deal of potential for public safety to interact directly with the citizens in their communities.

So why haven't most 9-1-1 PSAPs embraced social media yet?  It may partially be blamed on yet to be implemented NG911 technology such as the use of text-to-911 and the sending of photos and videos to a PSAP along with a voice call.  While these technologies are widely available to the average consumer, they are foreign to PSAP operations that have relied solely on voice communications for over 30 years to process emergency calls.  The rest of the blame is the simple fear of the unknown.  PSAP operation managers struggle to determine how these new technologies, including social media, fit into their agency's operations.

Looking beyond the processing of emergency requests, social media can easily be implemented and utilized for various functions to support a PSAP.  If you have Internet connectivity, then your agency can have a social media site.  But before you fire up that login, you must put some thought into how to use it effectively.  A good first step is to review your agency's strategic plan.  Think creatively and determine where social medial can help you achieve the goals outlined in your plan.  Most agencies have some component of community policing, fire prevention, commuications, or interactive community involvement in their strategic plans.  These are excellent areas that can be enhanced by social media because they primarily require dissemination of information from the agency to the public.

In order to create interest in the activities of your agency, the community wants to know information that is useful to them in their daily lives.  Utilizing social media can turn your agency into its own media outlet.  While traditional print and television media can be expensive and require waiting unitl the next broadcast or edition for their stories to be released, social media allows for your agency's public information officer to post real-time information to your community.  This can include agency press releases on major crimes or fire incidents, mug shots of wanted persons, status on investigations, employees service awards, news services implemented by the agency or changes in command staff.  Social media can ensure that your message is communicated in the context that you want it to be communicated, giving the agency greater control over information release to the public.  Agencies such as the Los Angeles Fire Department (@LAFD) and Seattle Fire Department (@Seattle Fire) use Twitter to give up to date information on current fire scenes which may help the public be aware of why they hear fire trucks in their neighborhoods or see them running in emergency mode down their streets.

In our recent economy, funding for 9-1-1 public education has been a victim of public sector budget cuts.  Social media has been able to fill the void between public education efforts and the lack of funding.  Agencies using Twitter, who allows users users to send text-based posts of up to 140 characters called "tweets", are posting short, concise tips on the proper use of 9-1-1, such as the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communication's Center (@RW911_PR).  These "tweets" are seen by subscribers to an agency's Twitter page and can then "re-tweet" or repost them to their own Twitter page, thus expanding the reach of your public education efforts to thousands of Twitter users in your community, without any additional effort.  Facebook's ability to post messages greater than 140 characters, as well as photos and vidoes, have allowed agencies to expand their education efforts even further.  After attending a safety fair or a school festival, public educators can post pictures of the event along with 9-1-1 tips to reach community members that did not attend that event, such as the Ogle County 9-1-1 Emergency Telephone System Board.  Spare the expense of costly video productions and create your own presentations using desktop software on topics such as wireless 9-1-1 or the importance of knowing one's location and publish them on your agency's social media site.

The month of April is designated as National 9-1-1 Education Month and this year we saw several agencies use Facebook at its fullest for distributing tips on 9-1-1.  At the Harris County Sheriff's Office, our emergency dispatch center uses Facebook for keeping our community up to date on 9-1-1 technology, correct use of 9-1-1, as well as announcing awards received by our personnel.  For public education month, we set a goal of posting at least one 9-1-1 tip each day.  Utilizing Facebook's analytical tools, we were able to monitor how effective our daily messages were, and how many individuals were able to see our posts.  A post about the ability of VoIP to dial 9-1-1 during a power outage allowed us to reach over 1,900 people on a single day, increasing our reach over 300% over the previous month.  It has really proven that if you venture into the social media world, that you need to stay committed and keep your site fresh.  Each day, with each new post, we saw our interaction with the community grow.  If you could deliver your messages like that on a single day, it would by far exceed your reach at a safety fire, thus augmenting your public education programs.

In some situations, it is not just about what information the public wants to know, but more about what they need to know.  According to a survey by the American Red Cross, Americans are relying more and more on mobile and Internet technologies, including social media, to learn information about disasters.  The role of social media should be considered when reviewing your agency's contingency plans.  Providing information such as evacuation routes, shelter locations and road closures could greatly alleviate call volume to a PSAP during a disaster, allowing dispatchers to focus purely on disaster responses.  In 2011, Texas suffered the worst drought since 1925, creating extremely dry and volatile conditions.  This created several large wildfires throughout the state, with by far the largest affecting Bastrop County in central Texas.  Fire and emergency management agencies utilized social media to keep residents informed on fire conditions, status of fire suppression efforts and neighborhoods that were evacuated and closed off due to active blazes.  Citizens were able to view real-time information on whether or not their homes were still intact, find out when they could return home, as well as how they could help emergency responders who came from all over the country to fight the fires.  All of this could be accomplished without having to make a phone call.

While all of these ideas sound grand, social media is not without its challenges.  Once your agency takes the plunge into the social media world, you are out there for all to see.  Your social media presence may bring an expectation of service that you are not yet ready to provide.  There have been examples of individuals contacting emergency services through social media, such as a Minnesota boy posting on his Facebook page for a friend to call 9-1-1 when his mother was being assaulted and a Washington man who suffers from Muscular Dystrophy that used Facebook to have his friends call the fire department when a fire broke out in his house.  While these are successful incidents, they are not reflective of how 9-1-1 works today.  9-1-1 dispatchers are used to receiving requests that have been routed to them based upon a caller's location and includes verifiable contact information.  Anyone can create a profile name on a social media site and start posting.  9-1-1 dispatchers may find it difficult to trace an individual that may need assistance if a legitimate identity is not used.  This may cause a delay in receiving help.  In the case of the Washington fire, friends in Indiana and Texas made calls to their local 9-1-1 PSAP to report the fire.  This created a challenge for those PSAPs in trying to quickly determine the correct agency to notify.  Before social media can be fully embraced for the use of emergency requests, it will need to be integrated into NG911 technology in some fashion in order to ensure that this type of medium for contacting 9-1-1 is afforded the same quality of service that a traditional voice call receives.  If your agency is not prepared to have emergency requests posted to your social media site, it is prudent that you consult your agency's legal resources and post a disclaimer on your site so that it clearly states its purpose.

Embracing social media can be daunting, but used effectively, it can become a useful tool in your agency's ability to communicate with your community.  There are several social media technologies out there besides Facebook and Twitter.  Start by researching all your options, including the goals that you want to accomplish.  The International Association of Chiefs of Police has an excellent repository (www.iacpsocialmedia.org) on social media that is a good starting point for agencies looking for answers.  You will find ideas for its use, sample policies, case law as well as links to agencies already using social media.  So what are you waiting for?  Take the plunge into the social world!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

THE CALL: 9-1-1 Goes Hollywood - The Dispatcher as Action Hero

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, March 16, 2013
Written by Randall D. Larson, Editor, 9-1-1 Magazine

I just got back from seeing THE CALL, the first movie thriller to feature a 9-1-1 dispatcher as its central protagonist.  While not without criticisms, I enjoyed the movie and felt gratified to be able to cheer the film for its positive image of the public safety telecommunicator in a heroic role of action.  Xena, step aside!

In a time where field responders seem to get all the glory in Hollywood moviedom, THE CALL, which opened Friday, stars Oscar-winner Halle Berry as a veteran Los Angeles Police dispatcher named Jordan.  She is haunted with guilt over a call she took from a teenage girl reporting a break-in -- a call that went horribly awry, resulting in the child's abduction and murder.  Overcome by stress, Jordan transfers to the training unit, sharing her expertise with the agency's new recruit dispatchers.  Fast forward six months later: when a probie dispatcher proves unprepared to handle a call about a similar abduction, Jordan is asked to step in and take the call over.  Overcoming her panic to control the caller's hysterics and ascertain a location (the kid - very well played by nearly-grown-up Oscar nominated child star Abigail Breslin - is calling from the trunk of the kidnapper's car on a pay-per-call cellphone with no GPS), Jordan uses her wits to keep the caller calm and help her out as much as she can while other dispatchers and her supervisor coordinate with responding units, allied agencies, and keep up with call-tower pings from the girl's cell phone in urgen attempts to locate her.  In the process Jordan realizes the perp (a very good psychological portrayal by Michael Eklund) is the same killer from her previous call, stimulating her to take action into her own hands.  In true Hollywood fashion, the storyline culminates in a face-to-face confrontation between Jordan and the bad guy.  (All of this is shown in the film's trailer, so these aren't really spoilers that you haven't already been teased by in the movie's advertising.)

The film is a taut thriller, thoroughly engrossing in its suspense and excitement from beginning to end.  It's supported by expert direction by Brad Anderson (best known for having directed 2004's THE MACHINIST as well as producing and directing several installments of the science-fiction TV series FRINGE), a credible set design of a large municipal 9-1-1 Center (although liberties are taken by the magical capabilities of some of its technology), and a creepy, tension-building electronica music score by veteran film composer John Debney in a welcome return from scoring romantic comedies to generate a searing undercurrent of apprehension throughout THE CALL.  The film is very much a suspense thriller, although some scenes near its climax wander very near outright horror without completely crossing over that grizzled line, but you will be gripping the theater arm-rests (or your moviegoing partner) fairly tightly.  Those who enjoy the exciting ride of a good suspense story well told should enjoy this movie.

Much is to be commended about Halle Berry's performance as Jordan in the film.  She is natural and believable in the role, and since she's the focus of almost ever scene, it's a performance that really makes the film.  In preparation for her role, Berry went into the field to research our frequently unheralded profession and sat along in a Dispatch Center to see and hear how calls were handled and how the dispatchers acted.  In an interview with writer Chris Eggertsen of hitflix.com during the film's press junket, she mentioned how she had been shaken after listening to one particularly horrifying real-life call.  "I heard one call that I will never forget," Berry said.  "I heard a woman being raped.  And the perpetrator didn't know that she had called 9-1-1 and that the line was open, and she went through a rape, and the 9-1-1 operator was listening for most of it until it got disconnected."  That incident also gave Berry insight into one factor of the dispatch profession mentioned in the field: the communicators rarely get closure on their calls.

The journey taken by Berry's character in the film - from the tragic trauma she experiences in the first call to being able to actively participate the perp's disposition at the end of the film - is a traditional one by Hollywood standards, but it's just as effective and satisfying now as it was nearly a century ago.  "It does start off where she's a bit broken in a way and somewhat defeated," Berry told Eggersten.  "And throughout the movie, she finds a way to get her power back and at the end of the day redeem herself while trying to save a little girl [a kidnap victim played by Abilgail Breslin].  She was just as much saving herself as she was saving the little girl, which is what allowed her to do what 9-1-1 operators just never do" [take matters into their own hands].

(Read more of Eggersten's excellent interview with Halle Berry about preparing for her role, and the film's depiction of 9-1-1 telecommunicators, at hitflix.com)

The film's storyline is fairly simple, but satisfying enough for this type of film - it's the typical Hollywood saga of a person who makes a horrible mistake and has the chance to redeem herself by confronting and overcoming the situation anew.  Professional dispatchers in the audience (and I suspect there will be quite a few, since we've never been the hero of a feature film before) may accurately criticize some of the film's minutiae, but I found it a fairly honest portrayal of the profession, showing the dedication and camaraderie of the dispatchers and revealing a few insights into what makes the job special.  Its depiction of the interworking of the LAPD Communications Center is credible and effective, particularly in its portrayal of essential role played by the dispatcher in the public safety system (in one scene, Jordan takes a group of new-hires on an orientation, accurately telling them how the dispatcher is the vital link between the public and the emergency responder).  Director Anderson's camera circulates over and through the maze of consoles in the film's version of the LAPD dispatch center, complete with mock Vesta screens, with numerous close-ups of Halle Berry's fingers deftly operating the equipment.  The interaction between dispatch and the field units, while greatly abbreviated for the film's pace and focus, is very good, and snippets of other calls taken by Berry and her colleagues like Flora (Denise Dowse) and Marco (Jose Zuniga) are true to form.

As Manohla Dargis put it in his review of the movie for the New York Times, the LAPD dispatch center, here called "the hive," is "buzzing with the trills of incoming calls and the hum of reassuring voices...where every rote greeting -- "9-1-1, what is your emergency?" -- becomes the opening line in a never-ending procession of melodramas, comedies, dramas, tragedies and horror stories like the one that puts the chill in this no-frills diversion."  The film indeed gets this right.

The small role of Jordan's supervisor in the 9-1-1 Center (stiffly but plausibly played by Roma Maffia) provides both support and direction to Jordan, although Jordan's role a calltaker in a large Communications Center like LAPD would probably not see her also dispatching or updating field units directly.

The movie loses a lot of its credibility - but gains most of its coolest moments of suspense - when Jordan decides to go far beyond her job description and duties and take herself out into the field (by herself) to locate the kidnapped girl.  Rather than calling her officer boyfriend this time, she drives out to a potential suspect address which of course is right where the perp is conducting sick business with kidnapped Casey, and suddenly we're in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS territory.  This becomes cause for innumerable "don't go in there!" moments when unarmed Jordon foolishly enters the environment of a predatorial killer known for his painstaking planning and expertise.  The film's ending has already been criticized as implausible; its concluding twist seems out of character for both Jordan and Casey as they have been initially developed in the story, but it does work within the context of the movie-as-suspense-thriller, and the film's (arguably) morally gratifying resolution ends the film on a note of wicked justice.  But, in view of the verisimilitude the film has maintained up to that point, ending the movie on such a dark punch line is kind of a let-down.

Overall, I felt THE CALL was a solid suspense thriller that displayed our profession well.  It had its Hollywood moments, of course - it is fiction, after all, not a documentary, and so of course it's going to take liberties and choose artistic license in order to tell the best story it can with as many thrills and chills it can get away with - but it's a well-made and believably engaging thriller that manages to make the role of the 9-1-1 dispatcher as laudable and heroic as that of the cops and firefighters who are usually the heroes of these kinds of movies.

What, then, does THE CALL teach us about the dispatch profession?

That not every call will have a happy ending.  Despite our best efforts, some calls will go sour.  Most modern dispatch centers have support programs and critical incident stress management services - or access to them - to help with the kind of stress demonstrated by Jordan at the beginning of the film.

That dispatchers should always give themselves the freedom to leave the calls at work and not bring the stress home with them.  But that doing so is easier said than done.

That despite the dispatcher's mantra that "may all my mistakes be small ones" (followed by the corollary, "and out of sight of the media"), mistakes will happen because we are human.  Sometimes a well-intended mistake, such as Jordan's at the film's start, will lead to an unhappy situation.  It's important to learn from our mistakes, even from discipline when it is applied constructively, and actively endeavor self-improvement in a profession when mistakes can't be tolerated.  Get some moral support, get more training, get focused, and get back in the saddle.

That dispatchers (especially call-takers) will rarely get closure on the calls they take, and if they do it's usually through the news media or by calling an associate in field operations.  Our role isn't to invest ourselves in what happens, anyway, as much as our curiosity craves knowing what happened.  Our role is to serve as that conduit of information from caller to responder.  We don't often get to know what happens.  What we do get is: the next call.

That dispatchers will never, ever make typos, especially when stressed out while taking an emotionally fragile and extremely urgent call.  I don't know about this one, either.

That dispatch supervisors are there to support their subordinates, but not hold their hands or micromanage what they do.  They should step in and direct staff members when necessary, especially if one of them is having an emotional issue about the call, as Jordan does, but perform their supervisory role with respect and empathy.

That the hot dispatchers always date the hot officers.  Lonely dispatcher dude Marco: get over it.  That is just the way of the world.

That the dispatcher's role is to be heard but not seen in the world of public safety, unless they're on a ride-along or assigned to a function in the incident command post.  Understand your role and stay within its responsibilities.  I've known one or two dispatchers who took it upon themselves to go out into the field and play investigator off duty, and none of them are dispatchers any longer.

That dispatchers do play a vital and often unrecognized role in the public safety process, beyond that basic role as a conduit of information.  They serve as counselors, calming the hysterical, transforming the panic-stricken into productive agents in our own rescue, anticipating the needs of field responders, networking a myriad of resources, and more, and rarely get credit for their supportive role in solving crimes.  Our rewards are almost always rewards of self-reassurance and peer recognition.

That sometimes dispatchers should be allowed to think out of the box when questioning callers in particularly unique cases, or when necessary information isn't forthcoming.

That Jordan, at the end of the film when the perp says, "you're just the operator," should have corrected him.  "No I'm not," she should have told him. 
I'm the dispatcher."

Fade to black.

Okay, I've never done this before, but I'm curious.  I haven't seen this movie yet, other than the trailer, and I've read that the trailer has a lot of spoilers in it.  How many of you out there have seen this movie, and what did you think of it?


Is There a Place for Social Media in Public Safety?

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, March 12, 2013
Written by Kevin Pagenkop, ENP.  Supervising the Training and Quality Assurance Department of a Fire and EMS Communications Center in Central California, Kevin Pagenkop successfully restructured the curriculum and quality processes which led to continued Accreditation as a Center of Exellence.  With a decade in emergency telecommunications, Kevin is a frequent contributor to a number of EMS publications, a local and national conference speaker, an ENP, and an ED-Q Instructor.  He is passionate about improving the standards and training required of all emergency dispatchers.

***This column was originally published in the Jan/Feb issue of NAED Journal, and is used with permission of the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch***

Social Connection, Technology opens strange, new world

As Emergency Telecommunicators, we're trained from day one to value customer service and teamwork.  Then we're handed headsets and spend the rest of our careers tethered to phones and radios that often connect us to emotional callers or complaining responders.  These stressors add up and have a cumulative effect on our mental, and often physical, wellbeing.  Stress relief is an important part of our health but how we choose to "blow off steam" often affects our jobs as well.  Yelling at the caller is poor customer service.  Taking frustrations out on your responders is not conducive to good teamwork.  Often, dispatcher turns on dispatcher and center morale becomes an issue.  As we're now in the digital age, public safety professionals are increasingly utilizing the Internet and social media to air their grievances, post complaints, and in general, vent their frustrations.

Is this an appropriate way to de-stress?


The Internet is public.  Even when comments or posts are sent directly to a specific distribution group or only shared with "friends" there is nothing stopping these individuals from forwarding, re-posting, or sharing with others.  There is nothing more embarrassing than complaining about a co-worker (or your boss) only to have them eventually receive and read your comments.

Venting through a keyboard is anonymous.  Anonymity factors highly in the tone and content of messages.  Consider a disagreement or an argument with your officers, firefighters, or EMTs.  Is the issue addressed differently face-to-face than it is over a radio?  Often, it is our inner-voice that winds up punching the keys and providing an outlet for our subconscious.  As a result, a casual complaint or professional observation might come across as a rant or personal attack.

Consider privacy issues.  Venting about incidents and callers can be healthy, but when posted on-line, we must consider the implications of violating protected health or patient information.  In addition to external privacy issues, we've seen photos posted online of dispatchers clowning or sleeping at their workstations?  Circulating these photos can be damaging to that employee as well as to the agency and Public Safety as a whole.  Is that how we want to portray our positions and jobs to the general public?

Mobile devices provide instant access to social media.  Continually updating your status or routinely checking you accounts can affect your ability to monitor radio traffic or answer phones.  In some cases, social media becomes an addiction that affects judgment in terms of prioritizing responsibilities.

Blasting anyone or anything related to your job is a hot issue.  On the one hand, comments posted through the employee's personal accounts or applications should be protected as "free speech."  On the other hand, most employers have policies clearly defining what can, and should, be shared, posted, or blogged.

Regardless of legal ramifications, slamming an employer or co-workers creates an uncomfortable work environment - which has the opposite effect of relieving stress and resolving conflict.  Even if your current employer does not address the content of social media, future employers might.  Many employers include some form of Internet content review in their background investigations.

Forethought (or proofreading) must be applied prior to publishing to the world.  Before having a confrontational conversation, or writing an angry letter, follow the sound advise to let the issue rest for a few hours or days before "shooting from the hip" and acting out of anger or frustration.  Immediately venting or posting while upset often over-values the emotion rather than the message and can create larger problems out of minor issues.


There is value in social media.

Social media lets us connect to a larger audience and provides an opportunity to interact with like-minded individuals who share the same experiences, and are more objective or compassionate.  Engaging in positive exchange with other public safety professionals is a great way to "recharge your battery."  Networking also provides an opportunity to exchange phone numbers or addresses.

An agency can also use social media for the public's good.  In addition to posting practical information - such as road closings and storm warnings - an agency can show a friendlier side of doing business through Facebook and other social media outlets.

Balancing some considerations with value, many of the issues and problems that arise are based upon how the technology is used rather than the fact that it is being used at all.  Public Safety will continue its journey into the next generation of the digital age.  It is up to us to determine what role, if any, social Internet applications should have.

Rescuetainment: Real Life TV: Friend or Foe?

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, September 13, 2011; originally published in May/June 2000
Written by Nancy C. Rigg - writer, filmmaker, and consultant with an extensive background in swiftwater rescue, public safety education, and disaster preparedness.  She is a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.

A thirteen-year old girl is swept down a flood control channel in Los Angeles as swiftwater rescuers struggle to pluck her out of the terror.  A woman and her son are in a violent automobile accident and rescuers make a heroic effort to save them.  The parents of a young man receive a surprise telephone call from police officers informing them that their son may be the victim of a homicide.  A well-known Hollywood actor discovers his beautiful wife lying at the bottom of their swimming pool.  Distressed and agitated, he calls 9-1-1.

Other than the obvious emergency response connection, what do these incidents have in common?  Each intensely private, devastating, and frightening moment was "caught on tape."  Some incidents ended up on the news.  Others were edited into rescue-oriented documentaries.  And some tumbled into the murky world of "rescuetainment," where the drive to get "exciting," "real life," "dramatic" sound and video footage on the air overshadows all other concerns, including an individual's "right to privacy" and dignity.

The constitution securely protects the mainstream news media.  Most public safety agencies have learned to work with reporters during disasters and other major events, where news organizations serve as a vital information link, broadcasting storm warnings, airing instantaneous reports from disaster ravaged neighborhoods, and alerting the public about potentially life-threatening hazards.  News helicopters often provide personnel in command centers with an instantaneous overview of what's happening in the field.  And when handled responsibly, follow-up news reports, including interviews with fire-rescue and law enforcement personnel and survivors who have been rescued, or the families who have lost loved ones, can be educational, informative, and serve a genuine public information purpose.

With the burgeoning marketplace on network and cable television for "reality programs," as well as the infant media market on the Internet, the line between legitimate news and documentary programming and mutant "rescuetainment" has been steadily eroding.  Demand for the most vivid, knuckle-biting, and sometimes shocking footage has skyrocketed, with hefty profits luring amateur and professional videographers around the world to chase tornadoes, or aim their cameras at avalanches, bank robberies, school shootings, or any similarly "thrilling" event.

Beyond the sometimes questionable moral, ethical, and artistic issues surrounding this trend, there is a deeper and more serious legal threat that public safety agencies need to be aware of.  Individuals whose personal tragedies have become the unwitting subjects of "reality television" shows are beginning to assert their legal rights and demand greater accountability.

Media "Ride-Alongs"

When Ruth Shulman and her son, Wayne, were involved in a serious auto accident, they were grateful for the quick emergency response that saved their lives.  What they never bargained for, however, was that Mercy Air, the air ambulance company that was on scene, had permitted a video cameraman who was employed by a television production company to do a "ride-along" that day.  The cameraman captured the extrication of the Shulmans from the car, including efforts by a flight nurse and paramedic to provide medical care in the helicopter during transport to the hospital.  The flight nurse wore a cordless microphone that picked up not only her comments, but also the distressed voice of Ruth Shulman.

Antony Stuart is a Los Angeles attorney who is representing the Shulmans in a lawsuit filed against both the television production company and Mercy Air.  "The Shulman tape was edited into a broadcast television show, with sound effects added and narration that presented some untrue facts to heighten the drama of the rescue," Stuart explained.  "An hour-long rescue was compressed into a nine-minute segment.  Everything was very dramatic, with gasoline dripping onto the patient and paramedic, so there could be an explosion at any moment, and the situation was very volatile, but despite all this danger the nurse and paramedic continued to work."  Beyond several factual problems, including the threat of a gasoline explosion, Ruth Shulman and her son had no idea that their personal tragedy had been videotaped and, without their consent or cooperation, was scheduled to be the subject of a "reality" television program.

Three months after the accident, while Ruth Shulman was still in the hospital, her son called and told her to turn on the television.  "Ruth turned on the TV," Stuart recounted, "and was forced to relive the most harrowing moments of personal tragedy in her whole life, because she was rendered paraplegic by the accident."

The lower courts initially dismissed the case, but upon appeal, the California Supreme Court determined that specific "causes of action" could proceed to trial.  "The Shulman case attempted to draw a line," Stuart said.  Mercy Air was eventually dismissed from the case, but the message was clear.  "Ride-alongs put individual rescuers and public safety agencies in a precarious position," Stuart cautioned, "especially if personnel in the field are asked to wear microphones."

Most reputable television production companies would do everything possible to avoid the kind of legal nightmare that grew out of the Shulman rescue.  The Learning and Discovery Channels feature a variety of medical and rescue documentary programs, some of which draw from news and home video sources, and others, like Paramedics and Trauma: Life in the ER, which are created with "ride-along" cameras.  Bronagh Mullan, Manager of Program Publicity for the Learning Channel, noted that extra precautions are taken to secure permission from anyone who is featured on their shows.  "We have a number of different safeguards in place so that the patient's rights are respected," Mullan explained.  "We work with a medical ethicist to decide what's appropriate and what is not.  We also work very closely with the hospitals and paramedic units.  If they don't think something is appropriate, they'll tell us to shut the camera down."

Clearance procedures are very exacting, Mullan added.  "We have a double consent process where we receive permission from the patient or a family member when we first film them.  And then we go back after we put the show together and ask again for their consent to ensure that they're clear about exactly what we're doing and what the show is about."  The double consent process has worked well, Mullan said.  "There have been instances where we've gone back the second time for clearance and a family member or patient has said that they're not comfortable with this, so we've pulled the segment.  It's their life and it's their right."

Performing for the Camera

One of the potential problems with having a camera operator trail around after public safety personnel in the field is the "pressure to perform for the cameras," Stuart said.  Stuart is representing the parents of a young man whose body was discovered in his apartment by police.  Video shot on scene was later featured in a "reality" television program, including a scene where one officer, who was wearing a cordless microphone, called the parents of the young man to inform them that their son was dead.

"This was the worst moment of their lives," Stuart said, "and in you watch the video, you can hear the audio engineer pumping up the volume so that he can capture the sounds of the parents' voices coming through the receiver."  Not only were the parents unaware that the phone conversation was being recorded, which is a "violation of eavesdropping statutes," the act of informing the parents by phone about their sons' death violated basic protocol.  "Police are not supposed to make the notification of death," Stuart explained.  "The coroner's office is supposed to do this, and they don't do it by telephone.  They do it in person.  In this situation, however, apparently motivated by the potential for drama with the camera rolling, the police officers made the call right from the scene of the death."

The parents filed suit not for "financial gain," Stuart said, but out of a desire to set some boundaries.  "We offered to give up our right to monetary damage for invasion of privacy in exchange for an agreement from the city to enact a policy that would protect future victims," Stuart said.  "As a condition of doing a ride-along, media representatives would be required to obtain written consent from victims and their families before utilizing anyone's image or voice recording in a broadcast."  Because city attorneys never responded to the offer, Stuart's clients filed suit and the case is ongoing.

An Endless Brush with Death

High profile events that are captured by news cameras often jettison victims into a painful and sometimes embarrassing realm of "perpetual replay."  When 13-year old Megan Cole waded into a flood-swollen wash in Los Angeles to try to save a friend who had been swept downstream, news cameras were on scene immediately to capture the dramatic swiftwater rescue and air it "live."  A media frenzy ensued. "Being inundated by the media was tough," Megan's mother, Deirdre Cole, said.  "First it was the news media.  Then by the third day the talk shows were calling.  We were not seeking publicity.  This happened.  The girls were rescued.  And we wanted to show our gratitude to the people in the fire department who rescued them.  Period."

News footage of Megan Cole's rescue eventually wound up in a number of rescue documentaries.  "This footage has been used over and over again, with or without Megan's permission," Deirdre Cole sighed.  "I feel like the news stations should have to ask permission before they sell their footage to an entertainment or documentary program.  That's Megan's face up there!  Covering the news is one thing.  But do they have a right to own this piece of my daughter's life forever?"

9-1-1 Tapes: Where to Draw the Line

Using 9-1-1 audio recordings and radio traffic on the news and in documentary and reality programming poses a unique set of challenges.  Guidelines for obtaining access to 9-1-1 calls vary from state to state.  According to Barry Furey, Executive Director of the Knox County Emergency Communications District, "Tennessee is a fairly liberal state with regard to the release of information.  If the release of a 9-1-1 tape does not impede an ongoing investigation, we are obligated to release it, because it falls under the Tennessee State Freedom of Information Act.  In some cases I may have a moral concern about the release, but unfortunately that is overshadowed by my legal obligations to release the information."

In an attempt to better protect traumatized victims calling 9-1-1, several states have refined the definition of what "information" falls under the Freedom of Information Act.  Nancy Pollock, Executive Director of the Metropolitan 9-1-1 Board in St. Paul, Minnesota, noted that, "Anybody can request a copy of a 9-1-1 call, but you don't necessarily have to provide them with the audiotape.  You may have to provide them with a written transcript.  In Minnesota there is a law that states that a transcript of the call is public data, but the actual tape, including the emotion with which the message is given, is private data."

In the State of Pennsylvania, 9-1-1 calls are exempt from "right to know" statutes, although there is an on-going legal battle to make them public.  Roy Hyatt, 9-1-1 Communications Coordinator for the Dauphin County Emergency Management Agency has taken a very firm stance.  "We play hardball with 9-1-1 tapes," he said.  "Our view is that 9-1-1 tapes belong in criminal court only.  We do not release them for any other purpose.  Most incidents involve a person's greatest tragedy in their lifetime and they don't belong on the radio or television."

Hyatt cited the recent death of the wife of actor William Shatner, who hosted the popular Rescue 9-1-1 television series, as an example of how the release of 9-1-1 tapes to the media can heap pain upon an already tragic situation.  "If William Shatner's wife had died here in our county and we had taken that call, we would not have released that tape," Hyatt said indignantly.  "Why would you want to release something like that on national television?  If he had wanted to, William Shatner could have explained what happened in his own words.  This is a new kind of voyeurism, the voyeurism of personal tragedy, and I do not support it at all."

"The commercial use of 9-1-1 tapes does not fall under the 'right to know' statutes," added Tim Baldwin, Deputy Director of Lancaster County (PA) Communications, "so television production companies cannot demand them.  Before we would release any 9-1-1 tape or radio traffic communication, we would ask permission from the departments involved and the people involved.  Whether it's a police officer, firefighter, or dispatcher on the radio, or a citizen who has placed a 9-1-1 call, people should be given the courtesy to say yes, you can release my part of the call to this television show.  It's the right thing to do."

Beyond the complex legal and moral issues, protecting the integrity of the 9-1-1 system is a major concern.  "There is a fear that if people are subject to having their most private, grief-stricken, emotionally vulneralbe moments made public by the media, they may be less inclined to dial 9-1-1 when they really need it," explained Jennifer Hagstrom, a former law enforcement dispatcher who now works with the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (APCO).  "People need to have faith in the service and trust that they are not going to become victimized a second time through the media."

Setting Boundaries

Many programs that air on the Discovery and Learning Channels and other media outlets are well received both by survivors, who are featured in them, and public safety agency personnel, who frequently draw on them for their training and public relations value.  "There are some shows out there that are very inflammatory and take advantage of people in vulnerable situations," explained Bronagh Mullan, "but that's not what The Learning Channel is about.  We want our programs to be educational, not some kind of expose that goes beyond the realm of human decency."

John Parmann, Training Specialist with the Idaho Department of Law Enforcement agrees that responsibly produced news and documentary programs can "give the public a glimpse of the extremes of law enforcement and other public safety activities, which has some value and merit."  The problem is that the steady flow of sensational, exciting, breathtaking footage "distorts the reality of the profession," Parmann said.  "High speed vehicle pursuits, chasing fleeing suspects down dark alleys, over fences, and across rooftops, pulling injured passengers out of burning vehicles, nabbing a burglar who is exiting out of a back window, sure, I've done it, seen it, or would have loved to have done it.  But after 24-years in law enforcement, based on what's shown on 'real' TV shows, you would think that I've done this on a daily basis."

Although Parmann noted that there are occasional "exciting moments" on the job, day-to-day law enforcement, fire-rescue, and communications operations involve more paperwork and administrative chores than the kind of thrill-rides that are routinely highlighted on television.  "Law enforcement definitely has the kind of moments you see on Cops  and other shows," Parmann added, "and you never know when one of these incidents will fall right into your lap, which is why all the dedication, training, and personal commitment pays off."  When dealing with the media covering "adrenaline rush-hour moments, Parmann recommended that agencies set specific boundaries for the protection of the public and to ensure the integrity of the system.

Anonty Stuart was more blunt, noting that without boundaries, public safety agencies and television producers might find themselves facing costly legal tribulations.  "The media is not entitled to every 9-1-1 telephone call or moment on scene that can be captured by video cameras.  If the media wants to challenge this, as an attorney, I would argue strongly in favor of the municipality that this is private information and should be protected."