9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Climbing the Ladder: Making the Choice to Further Your Career

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2013
Written by Fonda M. Dixon, retired from Pa. State Police. She served more than 33 years in public safety communications, including her time as a Police Communications Operator (PCO), PCO Instructor and supervisor of Employee Training Section.

Are you looking for just a job, or do you want a career?  Does what you are looking for reflect your talent, interests, capacities and skills?  Are you committed to the goals of your employer?  These are potential questions to consider in deciding whether "the climb" is on your agenda.

When you accept a job, it's important to know what the organizational goals (vision and mission) of the employer are.  Why?  Because when everyone is focused on those goals, the agency has the greatest chance to succeed, and employees will, in turn, be successful too.  Sometimes, the longer we work for one employer, the more likely we are to forget the organizational goals and why we have them.  When this happens, we tend to put ourselves first and forget whom we work for: the public.

When we embark on a new career, we begin as followers.  How well our values and beliefs mirror those of the organization plays a part in our commitment to that organization.  In his book, The Courageous Follower, Ira Chaleff offers a new model for the follower role.  This role provides dynamic support for leaders, but does not hesitate to constructively speak truth to power.  "Courageou followership" recognizes that to be effective at almost any level of an agency, individuals need to play both the leader and follower role adeptly.

Chaleff writes about the five dimensions of courageous followership.  The first dimension addresses the courage to assume responsibility for yourself and the organization.  Employees initiate value-based actions and their authority comes from their understanding and ownership of the common purpose.  The second dimension relates to the courage to work hard to serve the organization.  The follower assumes additional responsibilities to unburden the leader.  They stand up for the leader and the tough decisions they must make.  The third dimension is the courage to challenge your leader when your sense of right is being challenged.  The fourth dimension is the courage to participate in transformation and stay with the group and the leader.  The fifth and final dimension is the courage to leave, either by questioning the order of the leader or tendering  your resignation.  This may involve personal risk, but service to the common purpose justifies and sometimes demands such action.  Are you prepared to be a courageous follower?  Are you ready to take on this responsibility?  As Winston Churchill famously stated, "The price of greatness is responsibility."

On the law enforcement side of our profession, graduating and working to be the best officer possible is success enough for some; others will strive to become corporals, sergeants, detectives and so on.  In the communications center, passing various certificates and becoming a calltaker is the height of success for some; others may choose to become dispatchers, supervisors or managers.

How do you measure success?  Many factors make up a person's succss: happiness at work, quality of life, interests outside of work and relationships with family and friends.  Do you measure success by the type of car you drive?  The clothes you wear?  The house you live in?  By the number of possessions you have?  Success means different things to each of us.

We spend a lot of our time at work, therefore we usually measure success by the position we hold or how much money we make.  But the title you hold does not define who you are - it's what you do.

Once we have identified what success means to us, we can create a strategy and develop a plan to get there.  What's your vision?  What's your mission?

Making the decision to step out of your comfort zone and go for a promotion is not always an easy choice.  It takes a lot of hard work and determination.  Once you  make that decision, find someone credible to support you and mentor you through the process.  Attending additional training requires extra effort, but you should be willing to give more than what is asked for, and be ready to take on new challenges.

By now you are probably asking yourself, "Why do I have to do all of that when I am starting in a new position?"  The promotion path begins very early in our career.  We are responsible for making ourselves promotable.

Once a promotion is available, those making the decision to fill that position will review your past performance.  Recognize that taking too much time off can lesson your chances for promotion.  Would you want to work for someone what was constatnly absent?  Think about sick time and paid time off as money in a checking account.  Those days are yours, but you should make sure you have some days leftover in your account.

It is a personal decision whether we want to put forth the effort to accomplish great things in our career.  It is certainly not a path for everyone.  Personally, I have found it is a journey worth taking.

According to Mike Sisco, founder of IT Business Manager Certification (ITBMC), finding a mentor is the best place to start once you've made up your mind to pursue a promotion.  "Find a mentor or someone with experience you trust to help you think about your situation - to openly and honestly discuss a realistic plan to achieve more success."

Sisco writes that having a plan that's within your control comes down to:
  • Knowing what to do to be successful
  • Understanding how to go about it
  • Having the tools and examples to help you succeed.
Remember: Success is a choice.  We can choose to stay on the bottom rung of the ladder, or see if we can make it to the top.  The point is, success is in the mind of the individual and it's a bit different for each of us.

Your attitude determines your altitude (cliche statement, yet remarkably true).  Have you done an attitude check lately?  How are your actions (or inactions) perceived by others?

We often hear people in our communications centers say, "If I were the supervisor, I would do things differently."  Why not make that statement a reality and strive to reach that possibility?  What are you doing, in the position that you hold, to make positive changes?

If you make the choice to climb the ladder, you need to decide what you want to achieve and create a plan that will get you there.  Your vision and mission will play a part in helping you climb those rungs.  Let them guide you purposefully as you approach your destination.

When you make the decision to further your career, start by asking yourself "Where do I want to be in two years?  In five years?"  Then set some goals to get you where you want to be in the time you have allotted.  Would you travel the world without an itinerary or directions to your destination?  No; thus in life, we should have a career plan.  What level do you want to reach in your career?  What do you want to achieve?

I had the good fortune to work for someone who required his employees to write down their vision and mission statements.  He encouraged us to display them where we, and others, could read them.  The idea was that if others read it, we would be held accountable for what we wrote.  Goal setting is a powerful process of thinking about your ideal future, and motivating yourself to turn this vision of your future into reality.  Are you deciding to climb the ladder or stay on the first run?

As you climb the ladder to greater professional responsibility, keep in mind that money will not make you as happy as making a difference will.  In a 2006 article for Public Safety Communications, Angela Bowen, communications training coordinator for Georgia Public Safety Training Center, said, "Happiness in your job is more important than a lot of us realize.  It affects every other aspect of our lives, including the morale of
our families, our health and our performance.  Do yourself a favor and embrace your calling.  You do make a difference.  Allow yourself to be happy in our career and everything else will follow."

As someone who has chosen to work in our profession, we should constantly strive to be a valued contributor - to be all we can be!  When it comes to professional development, APCO International is the largest education provider in the public safety communications industry.  Professional development opportunities are available either online or in the classroom starting with Telecommunicator 1.  This certification starts you on your career path in the public safety arena.

Here are some additional runs on the APCO ladder:
  • Public Safety Telecommunicator Instructor
  • Communications Training Officer/Instructor
  • Communications Center Supervisor
  • Leadership Certificate Program
In his book Courageous Follower, Chaleff discusses courageous leadership.  He states that a "courageous leader creates the conditions in which it is easier for followers to speak the truth as they see it and for leaders to give appropriate consideration to what they are being told.  It offers a developmental path to true partnership between leaders and followers in the service of the organization's mission."  Studies have shown that employees leave an organization because of perceived poor leadership.  Keep in mind, once we achieve our goal and become a leader, we should continually be cognizant of what our followers need to be successful.

If you are reading this article, and you have already climbed the ladder of success, what are you doing to help other employees who have also made that choice?  Are you developing your employees to take over when you transfer, promote or retire?  As a leader, this is your responsibility.  Are you affording your employees the opportunities to attend training for future development?  The same gratification of climbing the ladder of success can be obtained when you watch those who work for you climbing too.

When we make the decision to work in the public safety profession, we never know where that journey will take us.  One thing we do know is that we can strive to be a calltaker, dispatcher, trainer, supervisor, manager or director.  No matter the position you choose, you can make a difference in peoples' lives internally and externally.  In whatever position you decide to own, taking pride in your work, being professional and serving your "customers"should be first priority.

Regardless of the ladder's height, we all start at the bottom rung.  We can climb as high as we want.

Before the Call: A Step-By-Step Guide to Educating the Public

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2013
Written by Bryan E. Wolfe who began his public service career as a dispatcher in 1996.  He has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and has served the Central Indiana public safety community is many capacities, including dispatcher, police officer, deputy sheriff, fire dispatcher, field training officer, detective, sergeant and director of communications.  He has worked as a watch officer for the Indiana Intelligence Fusion Center, and as a member of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. 

A quick search engine query suggests that the average citizen calls 9-1-1 once or twice during their lifetime.  Unfortunately, most emergencies do not make advance appointments or delay their untimely occurrence based on human convenience.  Therefore, it is advantageous for all citizens to preplan and become familiar with best practices regarding the utilization of 9-1-1 emergency services.

What does this have to do with those who work in the call center?  In the last several years, public safety communications professionals have begun to value the importance of educating the public we serve.  Programs that speak to varying segments of society serve to provide a better understanding of how 9-1-1 and emergency services in general work.

In this article, I suggest some critical points that those involved in these education efforts should relay to their audiences.  Readers can use this article as a template for public education engagement to ensure a uniform and consistent message, providing a comprehensive, yet easily understandable, overview of the system.  Note: For this reason, the article speaks directly to the citizen, not the communications professional.

The public safety communications community is hungry for new and better materials to support their programs.  This article can help provide just that.


Make sure your address numbers are clearly displayed on the front of your home and mailbox.  The numbers should be made from a reflective material and visible from the street - not just on a sunny day, but during inclement weather and at night.  If responders cannot quickly and clearly see your address, help will likely be delayed.

Determine your dispatch center's non-emergency telephone number and post it on your refrigerator or in another prominent location near your phone.

Do not program the number 9-1-1 into a speed-dial button on your cellular or home phone.  Thousands of inadvertent 9-1-1 calls are placed when phones with 9-1-1 programmed into a speed-dial button are jostled around in pockets or purses.  When the pre-programmed button is inadvertently depressed and a call is placed, emergency dispatchers have an obligation to listen to private conversations, karaoke, lawn mowing or other activities occurring in the background of the unintentional 9-1-1 call in an effort to investigate whether an emergency is occurring.  This is a substantial problem for 9-1-1 dispatchers.

Know when to utilize 9-1-1 and when to utilize the non-emergency seven-digit number to your dispatch center:
  •  If you're reporting a crime in progress, a crime that just occurred or if you need a fire or emergency medical service response, you should call 9-1-1.
  • If you're reporting a non-emergency incident, such as an incident where the suspects have already departed a scene and there's nothing life-threatening occurring, call the non-emergency number for your dispatch center.
Example: If you arrive home and observe a man you don't recognize running out your front door with your television set, you need to dial 9-1-1 immediately.  However, if you want to report that your cousin stole your flat screen television last week and won't return it, use the seven-digit non-emergency number.


When you dial 9-1-1, stay on the line and do not hang up.  You might notice a longer-than-normal silence before the phone starts ringing because 9-1-1 calls are routed differently than any other call you make.  Do not hang up; the call will ring through.  Remain on the line until you are told by the 9-1-1 dispatcher that it is OK to hang up.

Emergencies don't occur to most people every day, so your adrenalin will be pumping.  Take a deep breath and listen very carefully.  If you focus intently on listening, you will be less likely to become excited and shout.  Because many dispatchers wear headsets, shouting is unpleasant for them.  Do the best you can to speak at a normal speed and volume.

The dispatcher is going to ask you questions that they need answers for and will input that information in a particular order into a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system.  Answer only the questions asked, then stop talking and be quiet.  Do not speak unless you are spoken to; this is critical because what seems like silence to you may not in fact be silence at all.  The dispatcher may be speaking on a radio to responding police, fire or EMS to get help directed to your location.  It's important to understand that many times their voices will be muted to the caller on the 9-1-1 line during these radio transmissions, so while the caller only hears silence, the dispatcher may be listening to multiple users of a complex multi-channel radio system.  If you begin talking, it could force the dispatcher to stop talking or stop listening to emergency responders, which in turn will delay help getting to your emergency.


By avoiding some common mistakes, you can help make life a lot easier for 9-1-1 dispatchers.

First, never provide a phone to a child to use as a toy - even if the phone is no longer subscribed to an active cellular account.  Unfortunately, many people give their old cellphones to small children to play with, not realizing that even though the phone can no longer make standard phone calls, the phone will never lose the ability to place a 9-1-1 call.  Some parents opt to simply remove the battery from a phone, but even so, providing phones as toys is not recommended.

Second, if you're in a public place when an emergency occurs, take a moment to survey the scene around you.  Are others already dialing 9-1-1 for help?  Communicate with those around you.  It's not necessary for more than one person to call for help for any particular situation.  More 9-1-1 calls about an incident will not make help appear faster; in fact, more phone calls will only make the handful of 9-1-1 dispatchers answering those incoming calls busier, and could quite possibly delay their ability to send apparatus and emergency personnel to the incident.  An incident such as a motor vehicle crash or vehicle fire on a highly traveled roadway will often result in many dozens of 9-1-1 calls to dispatchers reporting the same details.  Look around and attempt to determine if someone has already called 9-1-1.

Third, many times an individual will be hesitant to call 9-1-1 for assistance and will instead call a trusted friend or family member to report a problem.  The friend or family member will then recognize that the situation calls for an emergency response, and call 9-1-1 to request that emergency responders be sent to their friend or loved one's address.  Instead, you should instruct the person in need to hang up and immediately dial 9-1-1 themselves.  Whether it's a medical emergency or a police response, the 9-1-1 dispatcher needs to ask questions that often only the individual in the midst of the situation will be able to effectively answer.


Periodically, information will surface on social media suggesting that callers can dial certain other three-digit numbers to reach particular emergency dispatch centers.  Many of these numbers are international emergency numbers used in other countries.  Many telephone companies in the United States try to accommodate routing these same numbers just as 9-1-1 calls are routed, but these alternative numbers were never intended to be utilized in the U.S. and using them is highly discouraged.  If you're in the U.S. and you need emergency assistance, dial 9-1-1.


Know how to dial 9-1-1 from your workplace phone.  Do you need to dial a particular number to obtain an outside line before you dial 9-1-1 for emergency assistance?  Some workplaces, such as certain large corporations, post-secondary educational institutions or military installations, may want those requesting emergency assistance to dial a local "on-campus" number instead of calling 9-1-1 directly.  Although it's best that a 9-1-1 caller can see an emergency so they can answer detailed questions about the situation, check with your employer or location to determine how they prefer you to obtain emergency assistance.


If you accidentally dial 9-1-1, do not hang up the phone.  Simply stay on the line and explain to the dispatcher that you accidentally dialed 9-1-1 and that there's no problem at your location.  Depending on the agency's policy concerning misdialed 9-1-1 calls, you may or may not still have a law enforcement officer show up to ensure that no one is in need of assistance, but it's important to let the dispatcher know that it was an accident and that there is no emergency at your location.  This simple action could prevent the needless injury of a first responder racing to make sure your incomplete call is not an actual emergency.


If you have a loved one who has a chronic medical problem or special needs or disabilities (severe diabetic, severe epileptic, autistic, deaf, blind, wheelchair-bound, etc.) it is a good idea to call your local emergency communication center and ask them if they want to place information in their CAD system about your loved one so that it's available in a time of need.  It's important to note that a caller should never assume that the dispatcher is looking at or has access to this pre-provided information, because even emergency dispatch centers are not immune from computer or human failures.  But it cannot hurt to offer to provide the information before an emergency occurs.


As a standard practice, most alarm companies offer subscribers "panic buttons" on their alarm panels, which afford them the opportunity and ability to simply hit buttons for police, fire or medical services and then await a response.  Generally, these buttons are a dangerous nuisance.  They are often poorly placed in locations on the keypad where residents accidentally hit them when attempting to activate or disable their alarm upon their arrival or departure from their home or business.  Accidents like these cause unnecessary false alarms and could result in the needless automobile crash and injury of a first responder responding to the false alarm.  In addition, children often enjoy pushing the colorfully labeled blue, red and green buttons, not realizing their actions set into motion an emergency response of many variations.

Although these silent panic buttons are valuable if a subscriber needs to summon assistance and is unable to speak, it's always recommended that when someone needs emergency assistance, they actually pick up a phone and dial 9-1-1 to speak with a dispatcher rather than simply hitting a button on an alarm panel.


Many different brands and styles of medical alert devices are available to consumers.  Some are monitored by an alarm company, some ring into registered nurses while others simply dial 9-1-1.  Sometimes these devices are worn on necklaces while other times the devices are a box that sits near a phone connection.

Unfortunately, there are very few regulations governing the industry that operates and programs these devices, and the results are dangerous.  Some of these devices utilize cellular technology, similar to cellphones that are no longer active but can still dial 9-1-1.  Although this type of device is convenient since there's often no monthly monitoring or subscriber fees, they don't allow the emergency dispatcher to call back the individual needing assistance if their call becomes disconnected.  Citizens who desire to use a medical alert device of this nature should make sure 9-1-1 dispatchers can call back the monitor and re-connect with the individual needing help before they purchase the device.  Units that aren't monitored by an alarm company or registered nurse, or that cannot be directly called back by a 9-1-1 dispatcher are not recommended.


In today's tech-savvy and gadget-filled society, texting has become a common method of communicating.  Public safety dispatch centers are slowly adding this capability, but they're doing so with very restrictive budgets.  As a result, only limited jurisdictions throughout the country have systems in place that allow users to text and/or send pictures or video to 9-1-1.  As 9-1-1 centers across the country replace their older technology with newer equipment, these capabilities will become more commonplace; however, at this time, it's recommended that if you need emergency police, fire or medical assistance from your local first responders, you simply call 9-1-1.


Citizens have clear expectations of the dispatchers who take their call at a 9-1-1 center: They want assistance as quickly as possible.  However, many citizens have never considered that dispatchers also have certain expectations of the callers requesting assistance.  Taking a moment to familiarize yourself with the best practices of the 9-1-1 system outlined above will allow you to meet these expectations and make you and your loved ones better prepared to face an emergency.  In fact, it may just save your life.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Social Media During Evolving Incidents: 5 Tips for Emergency Managers

Taken from EMS1.com, 7/30/13
Written by Joshua Shanley, Adjunct Faculty at Kaplan University in the School of Public Safety .  Has also been a Firefighter-Paramedic for more than 20 years. He participated in the response to the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and again in 2003.  He is currently the Emergency Management Coordinator in Northampton, Massachusetts.

As social media sites have become ubiquitous and the primary news source for many, this major paradigm shift has had serious implications for emergency managers.  Like it or not, emergency management directors must not only buy into a dedicated social media presence, but continue to embrace it as an important tool to efficiently reach and listen to a mass audience especially during emergency situations.

Social media was credited with playing a huge role in the developing stories surrounding the recent tragedies in Boston and Texas, both incidents just days apart from each other.  Information was shared by public safety officials, journalists and the general public by posting and disseminating photos, videos and news updates on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Vine.

Emergency managers can take lessons from these horrific events to better prepare themselves for the next emergency:

1. Luck favors the prepared: Prior to the arrival of any incident, emergency departments should set up social media accounts on all relevant networks and use the tools initially to distribute preventative messages.  This approach allows departments to master communication via the platform without pressure and establish the channel as a reliable source of information during an emergency.  Also, understand the capabilities (and limitations) of social media before they may be needed.

2. Drinking from the firehose: Once social media accounts are set up, remember these tools are for two-way communication.  Social media can be used to listen to ongoing conversation to identify and assess emergency situations, as well as addressing community questions and concerns.

Depending on the size of the audience, interactions during an incident can be overwhelming.  Be prepared to have dedicated staff available to focus on social media presence during an event.  Create a social media officer position, who in many ways will act like a public information officer.  This person should be informed, a great communicator and has the ability to think on their feet.

3. Brevity is the soul of wit: Cell phone  networks are not reliable during emergencies.  Text messages are often transmitted more effectively than voice when the network is crowded (or "jammed" to protect the general public as was the case in Boston).  Emergency managers should post short bites that are easy to pass along, especially by text.  Crafting a message that is short enough to pass along via text or IM may be vital in these situations.

4. Worth a thousand words: Remember social media sites allow for real-time dialog with a community but can also be an excellent way to share pictures.  Photos can not only be distributed by public safety officials, but also images can be received by the emergency management officials to create a virtual damage assessment of neighborhoods that have been impacted, or identify suspects and vehicles.

5. Slow is smooth, slow is fast: Getting information out quickly is important, but don't sacrifice accuracy for speed.  Disseminating inaccurate information may be worse than not any information at all.  It is vital for a public safety agency to maintain credibility and nothing can undermine that more than unclear, inconsistent or wrong statements in a breaking situation.

When communicating with the general public, provide context and interpretation of a situation - not just what is going on, but what it means to them.  Beware however that communicating risk and threats in a dynamic environment can be complicated and if not done properly can create unintended consequences.

The bottom line is that the focus of a social media campaign during an emergency should be on increasing situational awareness for the public and reducing further damage, harm or injury during ongoing events.

You Can't Just Do My (Dispatcher) Job

Taken from Officer.com, 6/11/13
Written by Michelle Perin

Recently I finished an amazing novel, Baking Cakes in Kingali by Gaile Parkin.  It tells the story of Angel Tungaraza who lives in Rwanda and runs her own cake bakery (as well as being the town's voice of reason).  My favorite thing about Parkin's main character is that Angel feels deeply devoted to her craft and the tasks she must perform to produce the product and the service she feels is important.  She refuses to devalue her work and constantly reminds herself as well as others that she is a "professional somebody."

This is how I feel about being a 9-1-1 Operator/Dispatcher.  Many of us believe it is a calling and it takes a special person to be able to handle the stresses of the job while at the same time being really, really good at it.  I agree.  The belief that those of us who work the phones and radio are professionals leads me to great annoyance when I hear people say that someone can just fill in.  I've heard that understaffing can be solved by just putting some officers in there.  I find this as ridiculous as saying that you could take a dispatcher and have him or her work in patrol because the beat officer took a vacation.  Although there are numerous reasons why public safety telecommunications operators are uniquely trained and qualified (as well as having nuanced personalities), here are four main reasons I think it's ridiculous that someone can just "step in".

All those Computers and Software and Stuff

If you haven't been to the 9-1-1/dispatch floor lately, I highly recomment you head down there.  The days of writing and reading off of cards are over.  Even the days of having one computer screen and a telephone are long gone.  Now a telecommunications operators console looks like someone played Tetris with technology.  At my former agency, 9-1-1 operators have three screens: Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD), telephone and 9-1-1 Map.  In radio, there are 7: phone, 9-1-1 map, Calls Holding/Available Units List, Working Screen (which shows call details, hits, messages from officers and 9-1-1), Status List, AVL map (GPS for units) and a radio board (all the talk groups you could imagine).  All of this at our hot little fingertips.

Along with all the screens are all the programs that those screens allow you to access such as criminal history checks (both local and national), internet, MDTs, SMART911, ANI/ALI information, etc., etc.  Not having a clue about the technology or where to look when would be a show stopper for most who think they could walk into 9-1-1 or dispatch, sit down and just start answering a phone or talking on the radio.  Guess there's a bit of training that has to happen first.

Octopus Queens (and Kings): Multi-Tasking

No one quite appreciates a dispatcher's ability to do seven things at once until they really need him or her.  During a pursuit or an officer-involved shooting the controlled chaos that occurs at the console is a sight to behold.  The dispatcher is listening to all the units on the air, getting a supervisor or the fire department or another agency on the phone, patching in other frequencies, answering questions thrown at her by her own supervisor and the dispatchers around her with adjoining interests while at the same time typing everything everyone says and keeping an eye on the location of all her officers.

You have to be able to retain information in your head.  You have to be able to decipher what someone is saying to you.  You have to be able to talk and listen at the same time.  All while craziness is occurring around you.  You don't have time to stop and say, "I need time to process."  You have to just keep plugging away and this is a true talent.  Watching a really good multi-tasking dispatcher at work is an amazing thing.  He or she will look like it's the easiest thing in the world.  They won't even break a sweat.  I don't think we could say that about someone stepping in from the outside.

Keep your Butt in the Seat

This is a tough one even for those who have worked the floor for a long time but we continue to do it.  We are solution driven.  We want to figure out what the problem is quickly and find an answer for it.  Ultimately, most of the time our answer is to send an officer out to sort through the mess.  But, we must remain attached to our desks.  We have to be able to find solutions while being physically removed from the action.  We cannot get up and walk away.  We can't go get a soda or take a bathroom break without someone relieving us.  We can't make ourselves busy or stay on a traffic stop just a little bit longer after the driver has left so we can take a breather or even finish our paperwork.

You become completely immersed in your 9-1-1/radio world.  Often hours will pass and you won't even notice especially on a busy night or during an emergency.  You have to be able to stay in a fixed position while providing essential services.  Most officers would run from the room heading straight to the scene.  We have to protect in place.

Controlling the Scene - With Just your Voice

This one is a lot like keeping your butt in the seat but it speaks to what a dispatcher/9-1-1 operator does while in the seat.  A public safety telecommunications operator must control a scene with just his or her voice.  We cannot use our physical presence or handcuff one party and make them sit on the curb.  We cannot separate people physically.  What we can do is control the tone of our voice, the way we talk to both 9-1-1 callers and officers and what we say.  Like that look that all mothers seem to have down perfectly (you know that one that still makes you cringe and feel like you want to hide under a rock even now as an adult), public safety telecommunicators can control most scenes with just a tone.  We know when to be hard, when to be soft and when to have someone else get on the phone.  This part of the job is both nature and nurture.  It's an instinct that is groomed with experience and training.

I'm not saying that some of the tasks of being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher couldn't be handled by others.  I'm sure some people (especially officers who know how things work and understand how to give customer service) could come and do an adequate job with portions of our job.  What I am saying is that public safety telecommunicators have unique qualities, training and abilities.  We are definitely professional somebodies.

The Power of Recognition and Praise

Taken from Officer.com, 4/9/13
Written by Michelle Perin

"Mr. Speaker, every day, in all of our communities, dedicated public safety telecommunicators answer our calls for assistance.  They dispatch our calls for help to local police and fire departments, facilitating the execution of emergency rescue and law-enforcement operations in all of our districts.  These public safety personnel serve as the vital links within our cities and towns, although rarely appreciated because they are not physically at the scene.

It is time that we show our appreciation for these people who make our Nation's police and fire departments professional and responsive.  In order to recognize the high-quality communications services provided by police and fire dispatchers, 911 operators, and emergency medical technicians, I have sponsored House Joint Resolution 284, to designate the week beginning April 12,1992, as 'National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week."

These are the words spoken by Mr. Sawyer to Congress out of respect for the over half-million men and women wokring in emergency response in 1991.  This joint resolution was passed that year, and then in 1993 and then in 1994.  After that, it became permanent without the need for a yearly introduction.

National Public Safety Telecommunicators or Telecommunications Week (NPSTW) is designated as a time when citizens can thank public safety men and women who respond to emergency calls and dispatch emergency professionals and equipment during times of crisis.  Each year when NPSTW comes around, many departments celebrate and praise their telecommunication employees.  This made me stop and think about being thanked and what kind of praise/recognition made a difference to me during my time as a police dispatcher/911.  I din't have to think long.

The Letter

It had been about a week and a half since I had worked that particularly stressful shift.  That night had been busy, even for a metro-area like Phoenix.  It felt like I had responsibility for over a hundred officers and all of them wanted to find trouble at the same time.  I banged away at that keyboard, looked things up, dispatched calls and kept my frequency under control (at times it felt by the skin of my teeth).  It was one of those nights where once I was relieved I finally dropped my shoulders down from beside my ears, looked  up at the clock and couldn't figure out where the last three hours had slipped away to.  I barely was able to manage a mumble to my co-worker as I slipped off my head-set and shoved it into my bag.  I had just spend 10 hours talking (felt like non-stop) and parting my lips to form a coherent sentence wasn't going to happen any more that night.  I was exhausted but satisfied things had gone well.

Then, I got the call into my supervisor's office.  I walked in and she handed me a piece of paper.  Trying to calm the, "Oh, crap what have I done now?" voice in my head, I flipped the paper over and read it.  It was a Letter of Appreciation from one of the sergeants who had been working that crazy night a week or so ago.  She specifically detailed how I had assisted several officers and expressed her appreciation for my calm, professional demeanor.  I had gone into my supervisor's office with my heart in my stomach but I left with it fluttering in my head.

I still have that letter and I pull it out once in awhile to read it.  That written expression of how my actions had made the shift better for others was a powerful tool.  It made me feel wanted, appreciated and purposeful.  The fact that she sent it to my supervisor was icing on the cake.  Twelve years later it still makes me feel good.  It probably took her five minutes to write.

Negatives Scream; Positives Whisper

As a public safety telecommunications operator, it often feels the only time you are recognized is when you mess up.  When you do something wrong ( or even if it is only perceived as wrong), it seems everyone knows about it and everyone is talking about it.  When you do your job well, often it goes unrecognized.  Just a day in the life of a good dispatcher who cares about doing his or her job well.  It shouldn't be like this.  Recognition of doing our jobs well should be carried across the dispatch floor as loudly and quickly as the negative.  We can help with this by repeating praise if we hear it.  If someone compliments another operator, let them and their supervisor know.

The Little Things

Being recognized means you make a difference and often in our line of work there are times that we just don't feel like we did.  Every call that came over 9-1-1 was the same old thing.  All I could do was sit there, ask questions and hope the officers arrived on time.  I could handle my radio to the best of my ability and sometimes it just erupted into chaos.  I would just keep slapping band-aids on all the problems and hope nobody bled to death.  Sometimes it just felt like all the hours of shift work I put in and all the family time I gave up just wasn't worth it.  It didn't matter.  Then, I would get a call from an officer who would say thanks for helping me with this or my supervisor, or better yet, a co-worker would stop by the console and tell me, "Good job."  That was all it took to make me keep sloshing through the calls and the dispatches.

Write it Out; Shout it Out

Although giving verbal praise is important and adds to job satisfaction (and motivation), putting it in writing takes it a step further.  Like the letter I received, it is something tangible.  Something that goes into your employee file.  You can put it in a scrap book or tack it on your I Love Me wall.  Research shows that when we hear something we like our brains send out a burst of dopamine.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of joy, pride, satisfaction and well-being.  Just think about how much feel good juice the recognition you wrote will produce over the years (especially if they are still looking at it and smiling over a decade later).

Feeling appreciated is an important aspect in the work environment especially when you work in a stressful one like public safety communications.  Supervisors and supervisees can increase the praise by recognizing the hard work so many dispatcher/9-1-1 operators put in every day.  Congress gave us a week of praise.  Let's recognize each other 365 days a year.  Look for ways to recognize your co-workers, supervisors and supervisees, as well as, those out in the field.  Together we can spread the appreciation.

So You Want to be a Dispatcher...

Taken from psc.apcointl.org, 3/21/13
Written by Cindra Dunaway, 9-1-1 dispatcher for the Lee County (FL) Sheriff's Office.  You can contact her via email at cdunaway@sheriffleefl.org

So you want to be a dispatcher?

Have you thought about what goes on in a communications center?  Or better yet, have you thought about what goes on out in the field?  People often have a preconceived notion about what it's like to work in the public safety field.  I think we have movies and TV shows to blame.  As much as I love to watch crime shows and action movies, they sure don't do us public safety folks any favors when Mrs. Smith wants us to take tire track impressions from her yard after her trash cans get knocked over.  I once watched an episode of CSI Miami where they calculated how long it would take a vehicle to run out of gas after the fuel tank was hit with a bullet at a shootout.  I have never worked in, or even seen a comm center where the equipment and computers are as sophisticated as the ones they carry in their vehicles.  The response and images they get in an instant always make me laugh.  I would love to work in the center that has access to these computers!  Maybe NASA or the NSA, but not here in little ol' Florida.

Do you know what it takes to be a public safety telecommunicator?

First the logistics of the profession are enough to send most sane people running for the hills.  So let me get this straight.  I will be working under moments of extreme stress that may turn into hours or even an entire shift?  I may be mandated to work overtime, even after I just finished a 12-hour shift and haven't had a day off in a week?  I am responsible for every call I take, dispatch or transfer?  Every mode of communication in my center is recorded and may be pulled by the media, supervisors and members of the general public?  I will be scrutinized for any mistakes I may make, and those mistakes have the potential to harm someone and may prove to be fatal?  I am expected to be professional and polite to every member of the public that I come into contact with no matter how they treat me?  I get to work nights, weekends, holidays and my daughter's birthday?  I will probably not get a raise, and may even face working short staffed due to budget constraints?  I will be expected to be able to multi-task under the most demanding situations ever and be expected to do all of this with absolute accuracy?  I will be exposed to some of the most horrible situations, see and hear the worst of the worst - so much so that I will need to be aware of things like crisis situations, critical incident stress and accumulative stress?  And I can have all this for under $25,000 per year, with little to no recognition?  Where do I sign?

And that is just the beginning.  We are ever evolving in our profession.  Technology is changing at lightning speed, introducing Next-Gen 9-1-1, interoperability networks, VoIP, FirstNet, and much more.  We are expected to know and stay up to date on new trends and policies in our field.  Some of us are now required to be certified by the state, which requires hours and hours of classroom and hands-on training, and in addition to our on-the-job training.  Training is moving toward standardization and, hopefully, someday soon we will see a national training standard for all 9-1-1 public safety workers.  We have multiple screens in front of us every day and are required to know how to operate and monitor all of them.  Our phones are now computerized, and you have to be logged in before you can even answer a call.  Continuing education is crucial now.

Sometimes our work environment can be as trying as the job itself.  Some of us work in cramped spaces, with little time for breaks -- if we are lucky enough to get one at all.  Eating at our work stations, our food usually goes cold because we have discovered that there is a direct correlation between a foot chase and the bell on the microwave.  Personality can be a big problem for some of us.  Stuck in close quarters with a roomful of type A personalities can make for a long shift.  Cranky field units, even crankier members of the community calling in to complain to us, and about us.  They like to tell us how to do our jobs and want everything immediately.  Calls for service that don't really fall in our line of work, like parenting or civil issues or my personal favorites, electric or plumbing problems.  When does the parade start?  When can we take our kids trick or treating?  When is daylight savings time?  What time does school start?  Did they cancel the fireworks?  The school bus didn't pick up my kids.  Wow, I could really go on and on with this but I think you get the idea.

So, you still want to be a dispatcher?

If you can take on all the things that I just mentioned and many more that I am sure I missed, then you my friend are in for the most demanding and challenging job you will ever love.  If you can overcome and adapt, if you can perform on a team and be a forward thinker, if you can prepare for the worst day in and day out, then you just might find yourself in the most rewarding career there is (in my humble opinion): public safety.  If you can handle all the cons, let me tell you about the pros:

You will find the most awesome people in public safety.  It is so true when we say "family."  We have that love-hate relationship that you find so common with siblings.  You might hate your co-workers one minute, but the next, when the chips are down, they will be the first ones to back you up or if needed, pick you up.  We all feel the pain when one of us falls or makes the ultimate sacrifice.  We are the first ones to have that bake sale or car wash to raise funds for someone in the family in need.

Along with the bad, there is good.  Helping bring a baby into the world that didn't want to wait for mom and dad to get to the hospital, assisting in locating a lost child, helping calm someone who has just been victimized, getting that officer his backup when he can't speak for himself, organizing all your resources for your command staff on scene at a huge multi-jurisdictional incident and giving pre-arrival instructions until help arrives can be the most gratifying moment of your busy day.  Of course, getting that call from someone in the field to say thank you for doing a good job on a particularly challenging incident is always wonderful.  We adrenaline junkies live for that high or catching the bad guy or that rescue just as much as the field units do.  Hearing them say "one in custody" after a rough foot chase, "scene secure" on a search warrant, or "no injuries" will start you breathing again.  Just yesterday, the whole comm center could be heard cheering when our K9 finally caught an armed bank robber that had hit his 3rd bank in five days.  We love when our K9s get their man.

There is always going to be the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to the public safety industry.  But if you are strong enough to get through the bad and the ugly, the good can be pretty great.  If you think you have what it takes to be on our team of gold, I would suggest you go to your local communications center and sit in.  Get an idea for the real deal and meet your hidden heroes.  We all have our highs and lows, but if you are part of this family, we will celebrate your highs with you and be there to comfort you during your lows.  And to the rest of you:

Be safe my family.

The Powers of a Police Dispatcher

Taken from Officer.com, 2/15/13
Written by Michelle Perin

"What's it like?"  I field this question over and over as friends, relatives and people I've just met hear about my background as a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher.  It's a fascinating occupation.  We're always just on the periphery of police work.  Just look at cop shows from old to new.  In the mix, there is a police telecommunications operator doing his or her job just on the outskirts of the main event.  Talking to and reading works about answering 9-1-1 lines and dispatching shows there is a common experience.  When I asked people what they wish officers and citizens knew about what we do (along with reading the snarky, but fun cartoons that float around Facebook), I came up with some common themes.

1. I can do 10 things at once. I'm a master at multi-tasking but that doesn't mean I can drop what I am doing to assist you right this second.  It also doesn't mean that if you hear me talking to someone else (on the floor, on the phone) that I am not hearing and comprehending what you are saying as well.  I will help you as soon as I am able.  I will probably do this while helping two of your fellow officers, a citizen and my supervisor.

2. I do have a sense of humor. Just not when the joke is aimed at me.  I live and thrive in the same dark, cynical world that officers dwell in.  My coping mechanisms are much the same and I often crack jokes about things that most people do not think are funny.  On the other hand, when I overhear your partner tell me to, "Get the penis out of my ear," I suddenly lose my funny bone.  And, when this happens a strange ailment occurs that requires me to send you every boring paper call for the next month.  It's uncanny how that happens.

3. I'm not a dating service. Historically, dispatch has had a bad name in the hook-up department.  Most of which was founded.  Regardless, we are professionals and many of us attempt to act as such.  Therefore, please do not ask me is so and so is single when you visit the floor and definitely do not call me to ask if the new girl with the soft voice is as hot as she sounds.  As for my citizens, no you cannot call and ask me for the personal information of the super cute officer that just came out to take your criminal damage call (I call dibs. See the beginning of this paragraph. JK).

4. I am not a secretary. Please do not ask me to call your girlfriend and tell her you are stuck on a call and will be late for dinner nor will I tell your wife that you are stuck on a call when you are having dinner with your girlfriend.  I may be able to do 10 things at once (see #1) but that does not mean that I am free to make personal phone calls for you.  I am a public safety professional.  I have a very specific job that includes some customer service, but not that kind of customer service.  Tele-types, yes.  Memos, no.

5. I'm a control freak. Of course, I say this in the nicest possible way.  I like to know where my officers are at all moments.  I like phone calls to go in the most structured way possible.  It is because I am a control freak that I can do my job well.  If I wasn't, I wouldn't have the neurotic ability to read calls, dispatch, talk on the phone, look up a number and still notice within seconds that you made yourself available and assign you the theft from vehicle that's been holding for five hours (especially if I'm without a funny bone at that moment. (See #2).

6. I am not a switchboard operator. I cannot connect you to another person even if that person works at the police department in another jurisdiction.  And, no I cannot transfer you to the non-emergency line when you call 9-1-1.  On the other hand, having that giant board and all those plug in lines could be kind of fun. (Not to mention, the eavesdropping which helps with #5).

7. I ask the questions I ask in order that I ask in the way that I ask for a reason. Not only am I following policy and procedures (which can change at any moment at the whims of management which seriously disturbs my #5), but I have learned that finding out certain information in a certain order works to keep both  my officers safe and gives citizens the best possible service.

8. When the computer is down, the computer is down. I do not have a magic network which allows me to make you a card, dispo a call or run someone when your computer is not able to.  I cannot do it either.  I am not being difficult or lazy.  I simply cannot create technological miracles at this time (I am trying.  Again, see #5).

9. I probably do not know your friend. Although for some small agencies this might not be true, for me, my agency has over 300 officers.  New York PD has some 10,000.  So, just because I do not know your neighbor's brother who works somewhere in my department on some unit or another does not mean that I don't have awareness.  It just means I don't know every single person that I work with.  I attempt to (see #5) but haven't managed it yet.

10. I do care. I may not sound like it.  I am trained to maintain my composure to help you.  This often comes across as a dry, inflectionless monotone.  After all, would you really like it if I broke down into tears or hysterics right alongside you?  I began this profession because I wanted to help people, both citizens and officers.  The hours of boredom, or tedious crazy dispatching of call after call after call, alongside the calls where I listen to screaming, crying, shouting, violence, hysterics and dying and essentially cannot do a thing except for wait for officers to get there, has created who I am.  I love my job and the people I do it for.

I hope this is helpful for anyone who wanted to know a bit more about what I and the thousands of other 9-1-1 operator/dispatchers do all day and night sitting at our little computer stations...controlling the world.

Training a Dispatcher

Taken from Officer.com, 1/9/2013
Written by Michelle Perin

So often it seems like we want to flush out the new hires.  We feel elite.  We are elite.  But if we don't take the time to focus on the strengths, minimize the weaknesses, encourage and train good 9-1-1 operators/dispatchers we'll be elite AND overworked.

If there is one thing that is harder than being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher, it's training someone to be one.  Not everyone chooses to be a trainer.  Not everyone who chooses to be one is a good one.  Everyone who does choose to take on the task of molding future operators has a tough job ahead of them.  It's a delicate balance of letting go of control while still maintaining safety.  It's a job requiring finess and tolerance and patience.  Trainees come to us mostly as blank slates (those who have the challenge of re-training operators who have come from another department have unique issues to deal with).  Most new operators want to do well.  They just have no idea what they are doing.  Even with several weeks of classroom training under their belt nothing can prepare them for the delicate dance each of us does on a daily basis.  There is no template for how a call is going to go.  There is no script for an officer's traffic stop or fire or even running a DUI check-point.  We learn constantly as each second passes.  So, how do you train that?  With a few things in mind, we can train and in the process produce operators that can handle the job.

In the Beginning

When that fresh face hits the floor, amidst the eye rolling and the bets they won't make it, we, as trainers need to keep in mind that it is our job to invest in the investment our department has already made.  Too often, during my time on the floor, both as a trainee and a trainer, I heard comment after comment and saw so many behaviors that were designed to flush out new hires.  I understand that we who make it in this job feel elite.  We are elite.  Not everyone can do our job.  I also believe that we shouldn't try to build ourselves up by scaring off those who want to do what we do.  There were probably a few people that left our department that would have made it with a little more encouragement and maybe a smile or two from co-workers.  As operators, and especially as trainers, we should be kind, remember what it was like to be new and focus on the strengths each new individual brings to dispatch rather than the weaknesses (especially since most of the weaknesses are imaginary or blown way out of proportion).

Little Bites

Being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher is overwhelming.  There are half a dozen screens, immense amounts of information, beeps and chirps and whatnot in our ears that all mean different things, codes to remember, directions and locations, names, call-signs, jurisdictional lines, policies and procedures, etc., etc., etc.  It's a mad world of information and a new operator is required to acclimate and retain all of this while working in it.  There is no such thing as a training call when you are in this business.  Every call is live and every call matters.  Due to this, try to feed your trainee little bites of their job at a time.  It might seem funny to some to see how overwhelmed and frustrated a new person can get especially if it allows us to say, "I told you he or she wasn't cut out for this," but as a trainer it is our responsibility to direct the training.  Let them learn at a comfortable pace even if it feels too slow.  Keep track of how things are going.  That way you can let the training supervisor determine if their pace is too slow.  Often our expectations as trainers are not realistic and not conducive to encouraging a person to stick with it and be successful.

Dead Air

Not every moment of training is filled with a screaming domestic or a car chase.  Often there is dead air.  Use this time to explain some of that technology we use.  Show him or her how to move around the screens or how to find information utilizing our databases.  Encourage them to ask questions and answer those questions honestly.  If you don't know the answer, let them know that you will find out and get back to them.  Don't waste this valuable connection time filing your nails or reading a book.  Many departments have policies against trainers doing anything other than taking calls or dispatching while they are actively training.  If so, don't spend the dead air time just talking to other dispatchers.  You're getting paid to train, so train.

Letting out just Enough of the Apron Strings

One of the toughest things about being a trainer is letting go of that control.  Once  your trainee shows enough aptitude to do some things on his or her own, we have to let them take more and more control of their own call taking.  This is tough to do.  It's hard to bite back on the urge to take over.  After all, we can determine the nature of the call, get it into the computer and direct the call to a conclusion so much faster than they can.  But, that's not the point.  Unless they are seriously messing up or they are putting someone's life in danger, as a trainer, we have to just let them do it.  If we train them well, they will eventually be just as astute and efficient as we are.

Cutting the Strings

Eventually this has to be done.  I don't know who was more nervous each time one of my trainees went on their own.  For me, I believe the only thing more stressful than the first day one of my trainees was on her own was the day I went on my own.

Training new 9-1-1 operator/dispatchers takes a special person.  I've seen trainers who were the epitome of patience.  They were zen-like.  I've also seen trainers who reminded me of slave drivers.  As a trainer, I had my strengths and my weaknesses.  I was lucky to have a strong training department to keep me on task when I went askew.  I even had a trainee taken away from me once because I was sure she never was going to make it and she just wasn't performing up to my standards.  I found out my standards were a bit high and the department wanted a second opinion.  Although I was miffed at the time, I understand now that putting her with another trainer just to see was a good way to protect their investment.  I tried to keep in mind all the overtime and stand-bys I had to work due to being understaffed when I was feeling high and mighty and like it might be fun to jump on the bandwagon and flush someone out.  We want to make sure our officers, fire fighters and citizens are safe.  We won't be there forever and would actually like to not have to be there all the time during our careers.  With that in mind, be kind to your trainees and help them succeed.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Tales of 9-1-1 From A Veteran Dispatcher

Taken from Officer.com, 12/11/12
Written by Michelle Perin

9-1-1 operators/dispatchers have many things in common including their experiences under the headset.  We laugh, cry and get angry with each other.  Who else could understand our wild, wonderful world?

Being a writer and a former police telecommunications operator, I'm always interested in hearing about other 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher's experiences on the job.  The more I research, the more I find we have so many things in common.  From our initial desire to help people (it's still there even many years later although it's often covered with a veil of sarcasm) to our nerves that first day on our own to questioning if we're even making a difference and if we are appreciated to the heart ache of our final radio transmission.  Recently I picked a copy of Answering 9-1-1: Life in the Hot Seat by Caroline Burau.  She tells of her experience as a telecommunications operator in Minnesota.  At many points in her book, I laughed, rolled my eyes, felt sadness and most of all shook my head in agreement.  I want to share a few points she touched on which I think many of us can relate to.

Thick Skin

It takes a while to feel like you really know what you're doing in the communications center.  In the beginning (actually for quite some time past the beginning), I felt like I didn't know anything.  This was hard for me because I was a confident, independent woman who knew a lot of things.  But, when it came to knowing what to say or how to answer things or who to send to a call, I was clueless.  The fun thing about the job was that there were plenty of people around me willing to remind me on a daily basis just how clueless I was.  Working in this kind of environment, you have to get a thick skin.  You're going to make mistakes.  You're going to be green, especially in the beginning.  You will continuously be faced with situations you've not faced in the past.  Nothing is routine - even when it's routine.  Although it's tough, you have to learn to not take things personally.  A snide comment from a co-worker.  A supervisor calling out your mistake across the room.  An officer's voice dripping with sarcasm when you dispatch him to a call outside his area.  All these things happen.  Brush it off and move on.

Low-level Crime Victims are the Worst

These people are more irritable than those that have been victims of high-level or violent crimes.  They have had time to ruminate on the wrongs that have befallen them.  Nobody validates them.  We, as 9-1-1 operators, can be testy and impatient.  Officers don't come rushing to their aid.  Often, they are accomplices in their own victimization.  They passed out leaving strangers partying in their living room...with their expensive stereo...and laptop...and car keys, for example.  They call over and over again, every ten minutes it seems to ask if an officer is going to be there soon.  They refuse to have an officer take the report over the phone.  They insist on us coming out and taking fingerprints and statements from every neighbor in a three block radius.  They get more and more irate each time they call.  They won't let you get a word of explanation in, regardless of the fact you have already explained the process numerous times.  With these, by call six or seven, I just let them vent.  I click off, knowing I won't get to talk until the very end anyway and I file my nails.

That One Person you just can't Please

No matter how well you do your job.  No matter how long you've been holding down a seat in the communications center.  No matter how many emergency calls you have taken or how many pursuits you have worked.  It doesn't matter.  There always seems to be that one co-worker who always criticizes you, never seems satisfied with the way you handled the call and just seems plain miserable with the intent of bringing you down with her.  You can try and crack jokes with her.  You can try to be humble.  You can try and be confident and loud.  It just doens't matter.  He or she will roll his or her eyes at you.  Make snide comments under their breath.  You have to just stop second guessing  yourself based on their perception of you and realize you are doing your very best and they are just not a nice person.  Period.

Sometimes you feel like a Secretary

When I started working as a police telecommunications operator I was positive that every call I took and every time I dispatched was going to be super exciting and important.  I envisioned my career as one where I would be part of a super-hero crime fighting team.  What I discovered is that a lot of my time was spent looking things up - an address, information in a previous report, registration information, the time the sun set, etc.  I was the queen of the information that allowed officers to complete all the paperwork they have to do (In my police work fantasies, there was never any report writing).  At first, all the menial tasks I was asked to do, felt just that - menial.  In fact, I often felt down-right irritated.  Why couldn't my officer just run the person himself and read the results (especially when they were running a name like Jose Rodriquez)?  After a while, I realized this part of my job was just as important.  I stopped feeling like a secretary and started feeling like a personal assistant with a head-set.

Being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher has its ups and downs.  It is incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating.  Some days I didn't know which way was which and many times I just prayed I could keep winging it long enough not to get someone killed.  In talking to others who have done this work and also reading their stories, I know I'm not alone.  We share similar experiences in this occupation and it's fun to share them.  Thank you readers for continuing to allow me to share mine.

P.S. If you're looking for a great holiday gift with more tales, consider Women Warriors: Stories from the Thin Blue Line.  I have another dispatcher story in there and all proceeds benefit the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).

Hazards of Being a 9-1-1 Dispatcher

Taken from Officer.com, 11/16/12
Written by Michelle Perin

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this article.  I found myself looking at my computer, knowing I had the information I needed to put my experience and research onto paper, having a deadline looming (I usually work best under stress.  Must be the first responder in me) and all I could do was just stare blankly into space.  I was exhausted.  Not physically.  In fact, I could have gone to the gym and my muscles would have performed with all the vigor they usually do.  It was a massive mental and emotional exhaustion brought on by days and days of continuous care of others.  Ironically, I sat staring at the blank page trying to talk myself through the apathy and finish the article I wanted to write about first responders, particularly emergency communications operators and the effects of being carers.


Emergency communication operators are carers.  This term isn't as common in American English as it is across the pond and down under.  In fact, I first came upon the term carer in an article written by an Australian psychologist who I had the fun privilege of showing around town when he came to visist a close friend and our agency founder.  It means exactly how it sounds.  Carers are people who work in occupations where they care for other people.  I doubt anyone could argue that those of us who answer 9-1-1 calls and work police, fire and EMS radios do so because we care.  If it was just about the physical tasks of the work, we would be tow truck dispatchers or switchboard operators for the phone company.  We choose to work helping others.  We care about our communities and the citizens and officers we assist.  Most of us are invested and care deeply about doing the best job we can every time we put on our head-set.  Although we are trained to be dispassionate and calm while handling other people's emergencies, this doesn't mean that we are unfeeling or that we are unaffected by the trauma we hear on a daily basis.  We are not cold, uncaring auto-matrons pushing buttons.  We often relate to our callers.  We feel sympathy for what they are going through.  Sometimes we want to cry or scream with them.  We don't because we are professionals, but we want to.  It is precisely because of our roles as carers that we get emotionally, physically and mentally affected by our work.

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue has been described as "the cost of caring".  Individuals who work in occupations where they care for others run the risk of being profoundly affected.  This can be due to direct exposure to traumatic events, such as that experienced by police officers, fire fighters and EMTs or secondary exposure which occurs when a person hears another talk about the trauma they have experienced.  In my opinion, emergency communications operators experience a hybrid of exposure.  True, we are not on-scene seeing the tragedy first-hand.  The 9-1-1 operator is linked to the scene through hearing.  We often hear horrific things happening, such as a shooting victim taking their last breath and succumbing to a sucking chest wound with their children screaming in the background.  We have heard suicidal subjects give up and take their lives after we have been unable to convince them of another option or to even just wait until the officer gets there.  Operators have heard people burn to death, sob hysterically in terror while locked in a closet during a burglary or blood-curdling screams from a person trapped in their crumpled vehicle after an accident.  We are there and not there all at the same time.  And believe me, an imagination can be a horrible thing to have in most traumatic situations.  We are part of the scene yet unable to do anything physically to change anything.  All we have are our words and our imaginations.  On the other hand, when we are not dealing with direct trauma, we are listening to people tell us how they were victimized.  It's truly the best of both worlds when you're an emergency communications operator.

Compassion fatigue occurs when there is profound emotional and physical erosion when carers are unable to refuel and regenerate.  In compassion fatigue, emergency communications operators begin to indirectly experience the same trauma as their callers.  They might experience depression, anxiety, anger or fear.  The effect of this can result in feelings of apathy, ineffectiveness, headaches, gastro-intestinal distress and exhaustion.

Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious Trauma (VT) or secondary trauma also affects emergency communications operators.  Vicarious trauma creates a profound shift in world view for the carer.  I've written before about how becoming a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher changed the way I look at the world around me.  My experiences under the head-set colored how I saw people, places and things in a whole new hue.  Most of it negative colors.  The vicarious trauma I experienced at work began to change my beliefs.  Like many who work in law enforcement I began to filter everything through suspicious.  Every coach or minister had to prove they weren't a child molester.  Every person walking by my house had to prove he or she wasn't a burglar.  Ad infinitum.  I truly picked up the feeling that everyone and everything was a threat.


The final effect of being a carer is burn-out.  In my career, I've heard more about burn-out than either of the other two effects.  The interesting thing about burn-out is that although it is common in public safety agencies, it is not isolated to people who care.  Burn-out is created by having working in an environment with low-job satisfaction, powerlessness and the feeling of being overwhelmed.  These are often described as toxic work environments and can exist in any career or occupation.  Often, burn-out is experienced in emergency communications based on the internal stressors that occur, including shift-work, feeling like second-class citizens both to citizens and within the department, mandatory staffing, enormous amounts of policies and procedures and what often feels like arbitrary and unfair discipline.  Many 9-1-1 operators/dispatchers love what they do but dislike where they work.  Due to this, burn-out occurs.  Also due to this being environmental, burn-out can be easily resolved unlike vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue which can be cumulative over time and require awareness and strategies to mitigate.

Emergency communication operators do what they do because they want to help people.  Whether it's the child on the phone or an officer on the radio, we want to use our skills to make a difference in the lives of others.  Because of the unique characteristics of our involvement in traumatic events, we are often affected yet frequently forgotten about in trauma reduction efforts.  We often never hear the outcome of a situation we handle let alone get to work through the symptoms of being directly affected by it.  We must learn to recognize that we are affected by what we do.  It is a natural part of our job.  We must also learn to take care of ourselves and each other.  Maintaining our physical, mental and emotional health is key.  Give yourself permission to go for that run, take 30 minutes to meditate or get that massage.  You can just say, "It's work related."

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Next Generation of Emergency Communication

Taken from Officer.com, 10/11/12
Written by Michelle Perin

Next generation communications, especially NG9-1-1 is a good thing.  Evolving as public safety professionals will improve our ability to serve our public.  But, what about the effect of this innovation on our public safety telecommunicators?

Terms like Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), next generation communications, D block and interoperability have entered even the darkest corners of public safety communications.  Operators for the last few years have been dealing with the changes switching from analog to digital and many to whole new radio systems.  Now these new terms have entered into our vernacular.  But what do they mean?  Especially what do they mean to those public safety telecommunications operators who are in the trenches working the floor?

Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1)

NG9-1-1 is essentially an upgrade of the 9-1-1 infrastructure that allows communications between individuals and 9-1-1 operators.  Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) will have the ability to be on a wireless mobile network allowing communication beyond the voice over a telephone landline that defined 9-1-1 in the past.  NG9-1-1 is more in line with what commercial entities have been offering and upgrading for quite some time.  Callers will have the ability to transmit images, text messages, video and other data through a wireless server straight to the PSAP.  In this transition some see this as futuristic public safety telecommunications, while some of the younger 9-1-1/dispatchers see this as public safety finally catching up with technology that has always been a part of their lives.

Numerous public safety organizations, such as APCO and NENA have been involved in legislation and incorporating best practices so that public safety gets the broadband spectrum it needs to support NG9-1-1 and next generation communications, but also assisting in determining funding and governance as well.  In looking at the changes, a few concerns crop up.

Call access, transfer and back-up between PSAPs

One of the issues that has plagues 9-1-1 over the years is what to do when a PSAP is overwhelmed with calls.  Most systems currently do not have the capability to roll-over those calls to another PSAP without much technical difficulty.  Some systems do not have this capability at all.  If a caller rings 9-1-1 during a time of heavy call volume they will get a busy signal.  Often heavy call volume can happen because a vehicle accident occurs on the freeway during rush hour or at midnight on New Year's Eve when residents decide it is a good idea to fire into the air.  If these small scale events trigger a busy signal, this does not increase the public's confidence in our ability to handle a large scale event, such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

With NG9-1-1, PSAPs will have the ability to have call access, transfer and back-up with other PSAPs.  Although the benefits of this are huge especially in small, rural areas where only one operator may be on shift, there are also some protocols that must be in place for this to work smoothly.  For example, what training will operators have to work together?  How will each agency have the ability to determine locations within jurisdictions they are unfamiliar with?  Will agencies have similar standards for their public safety operators increasing our confidence in another agency's operators?  How will the notification work?  Will operators in a PSAP be alerted that a roll-over has occurred and how will this be handled?  If a call is allegedly  mishandled, which agency will fund the defense?

Although many of these questions make it seem public safety operators cannot work together across jurisdictional lines that is not the intent.  Instead they offer a look at the often lack of training and understanding agencies have at the floor level when they are forced into situations where they have to work together without a good understanding of the rules and guidelines which help individuals with a common goal but different policies and procedures work together smoothly, efficiently and effectively.


Look around and you are almost certain to see someone involved in text messaging.  This has become a common way of communicating for many people, especially as young adults.  In fact for some individuals, for example those in the deaf community, texting has opened a whole new way to communicate with the hearing world.  NG9-1-1 includes the ability for PSAPs to receive text messages.  One vision is that text messages would come through the ANI/ALI.

Again, this sounds like a great innovation.  Again, many questions would need to be addressed for it to be successful on the floor.  Although many operators, young and old, are intimately familiar with texting and the language of texting, some are not.  All of the LOLs, ROFL and BRBs that come up would have to be explained to some operators.  In essence, a translation guide would be needed so that everyone is speaking the same language.  With text abbreviations, some people can message faster than even some dispatchers can type.  That's fast.  Without the ability to speak the same language, text messaging through NG9-1-1 could end up with misunderstandings.  These should be addressed, again, in best practices and training.  The fact that not everyone speaks the language associated with modern technology cannot be overlooked in public safety innovation.


Of all the changes coming out of NG9-1-1, this is the one that I have the most concerns about.  Citizens will be able to send not only text messages to 9-1-1 but also picture images and video.  Again, this sounds like a great advance and one that will be helpful in many situations.  After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.  What if you no longer have to rely only on what you are hearing and the answers to the questions you are asking?  You could see a picture or a video of what is occurring in real time on the other end of that mobile device.

Here's where my concerns crop up.  We, as operators, are already often left feeling helpless in crisis situations in which we can only offer support through our voices.  We hear many horrific things.  Many of us can still hear screams of suffering or the sounds of shots fired on a suicidal subject call.  These are mental images attached to our hearing that we will never un-hear.  Now imagine being able to see the chaos and not being able to do anything physically about it.  An officer on scene can at least utilize his or her training and presence to do something.  An operator can essentially do nothing but watch.  How will this trauma be mitigated by the department?  An APCO representative advised me that this is something that is being looked into.  I am relieved to hear this because so many 9-1-1 operators/dispatchers suffer symptoms of the trauma they experience day in and day out without the added visual imagery.

Another issue that comes to mind is liability.  Hindsight and Monday morning quarterbacks will always be able to see the glint of a gun in the background on a video image.  But, what if you didn't?  What if you were so busy doing your job, typing, listening, and having situational awareness in reference to the phone but also the radio room around you that you missed something?  Again, so many of us have those "I should have seen, heard, known..." moments locked in our minds for perpetuity.  NG9-1-1 will exponentially add to that.  We need to address those on the front end to help mitigate our liability and protect ourselves and each other.

NG9-1-1 and next generation communications, in my mind, is a wonderful thing.  Interoperability between departments, disciplines and all the partner agencies that assist with public safety events both big and small will be a benefit to us all.  What I would like to see is questions of how this new technology will affect those public safety communications operator who work with the systems asked and answered from the very beginning.  Too often, new technology and advancements in public safety that are inherently a good thing are dropped in our laps and with all the good comes the bad as well.  We need to address how next generation communications will affect us all and make sure we support our 9-1-1 operators/dispatchers through best practices, training and policies and procedures that protect them while they protect the public.