9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Domestic Violence in America; How to Handle the Call & Recognize the Effects

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, November 2014
Written by Dorothy Cave, NREMT, EMD Program Manager at the APCO Institute

Our continuing dispatch education article this month is nothing short of a touchy subject.  As telecommunicators, you may know someone who is a victim of domestic violence - that person may even be you and no one else knows, or you don't think they do.  As a telecommunicator, you hear these calls way too often: you hear the screams, the crying children, the punches, the gun shots.  How does this affect you?

We should start this lesson by learning what domestic violence is.  According to the website domesticviolence.org, "Domestic violence and emotional abuse are behaviors used by one person in a relationship to control the other.  Partners may be married or not married; heterosexual, gay or lesbian; living together, separated or dating."  Why do you need to know what domestic violence is?  It's important to know this information when asking questions and getting the answers.  Just because you have a man and woman fighting in the street, that does not always mean you have a domestic violence situation.  You have to be able to differentiate between a domestic violence call and a run-of-the-mill fight.  Is that always possible?  No, it's not; so if you cannot come to an educated conclusion, make sure you follow your policies and procedures.

Who Does Domestic Violence Happen To?
Domestic violence happens to people of every race, gender, economic status, religion, educational background and age.  It does not discriminate.

For example in recent news, Ray Rice, NFL player for the Baltimore Ravens, was initially only suspended for two games.  This came after being filmed dragging his then-fiance, now-wife, from an elevator after knocking her unconscious.  The NFL has since changed its stance on domestic violence following the arrest of another player, the San Francisco 49er's Ray McDonald, who was suspected of domestic violence against his pregnant girlfriend.  The league's disciplinary action against domestic violence offenders now is a six game suspension for the first offense, and the second offense results in being banned for life.  As of Sept. 8, 2014, Ray Rice was cut from the Ravens and banned from the NFL; this came after the entire video from the elevator was released showing the punch that was thrown by Rice.

Celebrities from every type of entertainment have been arrested on domestic violence charges; actors, racecar drivers, even Yanni, the king of elevator music!  Women can also be arrested for domestic violence.  Since just about anyone may be a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence, this leads us to our own back yard: emergency responders.

In 2007, we as an industry watched the disappearance of Georgia telecommunicator Theresa Parker play out in the news, only to find out that she had been murdered by her estranged husband, a sergeant with the same department she dispatched for, who killed her and disposed of her body.  He was ultimately found guilty or murder and sentenced to life in prison.  There were at least three domestic violence reports between the couple before her death.

Why Does Domestic Violence Happen?
After reading the previous paragraph we understand that domestic violence happens, now let's examine why it happens.  According to the National Coalition Agains Domestic Violence (NCADV), there are several reasons.

Statistics show that one of the strongest risk factors for children to continue the pattern of domestic violence is to witness violence between parents, caretakers, grandparents, etc.  Men who witness violence are twice as likely to abuse their partners.  Women who witness violence are more likely to become victims, presumably because this is normal to them.  Once adults, 30-60% of domestic violence offenders will also abuse children in their own household.

Domestic violence is frequently associated with sexual assault.  One in six women have experienced an attempted or completed rape at the hands of a domestic violence offender.  That's nearly 7.8 million women who have been raped by an intimate partner.  Sexual assault and/or forced sexual encounters against women and men happen in 40-45% of domestic violence relationships.

Now let's talk about the men who are the victims in domestic violence relationships.  As telecommunicators, we don't really think of them as being the victim, but one in 33 men have experienced attempted or completed rape.  How do we handle the calls for service when it's a man calling?  You handle all calls the same way, male or female.  Show empathy to the situation, express concern and project a desire to help.

Stalking is another contributing factor to domestic violence.  One in 12 women and one in 45 men have been stalked.  Additionally, 81% of women who are or have been stalked as a result of a domestic violence relationship were also physically assaulted at the hands of the domestic violence offender; 31% of these women were sexually assaulted during the stalking phase.

When domestic violence goes too far, as was the case with Theresa Parker, homicide is often the result and the statistics are astounding.  One-third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.  Yet less than one-fifth of injured victims of domestic violence sought medical assistance.  Why do you think that is?  Fear?  Embarrassment?  Manipulation?

Aside from the physical consequences of domestic violence, there's also a psychological aspect.  In the U.S. alone there are more than 18.5 million mental health care visits due to domestic violence.  This brings us to the monetary impact domestic violence has on society and the economy.  Statistics state that domestic violence victims lost nearly 8 million days of paid work due to injuries, the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs.  Between homicides and treated injuries, the cost annually for domestic violence is $37 billion.  How much higher would that number be if all injuries were reported and treated?

Myth vs. Reality
Now that we have revealed information about who is affected and the cost, we can learn about some myths and facts of domestic violence.

     Myth #1: Anyone can leave if the situation is too bad.  Many telecommunicators, maybe even you, have said, "Just leave."
     Fact: The fact is that leaving is not always easy to do.  There are financial reasons, love, or perhaps the victim has tried before and it went very poorly.
     Myth #2: Domestic violence only happens to poor, uneducated and minority families.
     Fact: As discussed earlier, domestic abusers can be football players, actors, sergeants and so on.
There are so many more myths and truths about domestic violence we could go on for pages, but we need to talk about you, the telecommunicator.  How does domestic violence affect you?

Effects on Telecommunicators
In a medical paper titled Emergency Responder Exhaustion Syndrome, the authors conclude that dispatchers "normalize reactions to acute and chronic stress."  There are several reasons  for this behavior in comm centers across the country, including peer pressure stating you should not get too close to the caller and the daily occurrence of this type of call.

How many times have you heard a communications training officer tell trainees to grow thicker skin?  Most telecommunicators have been trained to not take calls personally, but we all know there are times when this is easier said than done.  Knowing that the telecommunicators' job is stressful and unpredictable, we must develop the emotional resources to help cope with calls and situations.

Those who don't have an adequate coping mechanism can show signs of stress such as emotional detachment, alcohol or drug abuse, ulcers, cynicism, absenteeism, marital problems and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  How do you know if you may be developing PTSD?  Some of the symptoms are nightmares about the incident, difficulty concentrating and emotional instability.  How can you combat this disease?  Talk to someone about the calls that bother you, especially if you feel any of the PTSD symptoms or have feelings of suicide because you no longer feel you can cope or feel you are in some way responsible for the victim's death.  Remember; You are not responsible.

As 9-1-1 telecommunicators, you must abide by your policies and procedures when handling domestic violence calls.  Trainers should specifically teach trainees to handle this type of call.  For example, everyone should know what to do with the call if the victim calls in and the offender picks up the phone.  How do you handle it if they ask who you are?  That all starts at the beginning when you realize what kind of call you have.

This article is written to show telecommunicators what domestic violence is, how it can affect you and how to handle the calls when you receive them.  We spoke about those who call during the domestic violence, but this also goes for you, the telecommunicator.  If you or someone you love is in this type of relationship, please get out and get help.

Handling the Call
We're reviewed statistics and examples of celebrities, first responders and the general public who have been involved with domestic violence.  Now let's dive into what the 9-1-1 calls are like, how to recognize them and how you should handle them.

Take for example the August 2014 suspension of a dispatcher in St. Louis who was suspended without pay after entering a mistaken address into the CAD system - a mistake that led officers blocks away from where two people were shot and killed.  According to police, a woman was with a male friend inside her apartment when her boyfriend arrived.  The boyfriend assaulted the woman, but a groundskeeper for the apartment building intervened, and the boyfriend left.  Someone dialed 9-1-1 and spoke to the telecommunicator, who entered a wrong address.  Officers were dispatched, and while they were investigating at the other location, the boyfriend returned and fatally shot the woman and male friend.  In a statement, the St. Louis police chief later said, "The department expects precision and diligence when answering and dispatching 9-1-1 calls, and any accusations of employee misconduct are taken very seriously."

This incident identifies one key area on any call for service: The need to verify the location of the emergency.  It also brings to the forefront the importance of having specific policies and procedures in place for different types of calls received.

Let's consider another scenario: You are the calltaker on duty and receive a call from a woman who starts with this sentence: "Hey girl, when are we supposed to get together?"  Most calltakers would again state the agency name and inform the caller they are calling 9-1-1.  In return the caller says, "I know that but I think I forgot our lunch date!"

At this point the calltaker should understand that they are now in the midst of role playing with the caller.  First thing's first: You have to ensure you have the correct location to send responders.  Next, find out who you are supposed to be in this scenario.  Why do you need that information?  Because the offender could grab the phone from the victim and ask who you are.  If you say one thing and the victim says another, this could accelerate the violence for the victim.  As the calltaker, you have to continue with the role playing until help arrives for the victim.

One important factor to keep in mind is that even if the victim calls for help, they may not be ready to get out of the abusive relationship.  This can be an especially confusing scenario, so let's clarify further.

As a telecommunicator, you should take it upon yourself to talk to some of your first responders.  Ask about situations when they respond to a frantic victim calling, but then clear up with no report and no arrest.  There will be incidents in which the abuser is the breadwinner in the house.  Most victims are "taught" to believe they are not worthy or smart enough to hold a job; they may be convinced that no one cares if they are abused.  They may be totally dependent on the abuser, or feel they can't leave because they don't have the financial means.

There are several difficult factors to understand when taking these types of calls.  First, always follow your policies and procedures.  Second, if you feel you are having trouble coping with the calls in the comm center, seek help and talk to someone.  PTSD is not just for field responders.  Third, if you or someone you love is in this type of situation, please get help.

If you or a loved one is involved in any type of a domestic violence relationship, contact your local authorities or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-1233, or 1-800-787-3224(TTY)24/7.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Reminder: "The Golden Rule"

Taken from blog by author on LinkedIn, Sept. 16, 2014
Written by Steve VanDyk, 9-1-1 Emergency Communications and Public Safety Expert

I'm often asked if I miss the "action" of the job.  I'm referring to the adrenaline rush you get when your direct involvement makes a difference by helping someone, or saving a life.  Maybe it's the speed in which you ask your questions and enter the call to be dispatched.  Maybe it's the speed in which you co-ordinate your emergency responders.  Whatever the reason is - I know we all agree that the rush of adrenaline is a pretty cool feeling.  That's one thing we all have in common - whether you work for Police, Fire or EMS.

The job of a 9-1-1 dispatcher - for the most part - is comprised of hours of boredom filled with spikes of adrenaline.  Consider for a moment - the person on the other end of the line.  You're not the only one that has that rush of adrenaline.  Most people don't make a habit of calling 9-1-1.  The majority of people that call 9-1-1 do it when they are going through a traumatic life event.  Adrenaline affects everyone differently; it's known to affect your breathing, your vision and most definitely, your memory.

How often do you get frustrated with the public?  Have you ever had a caller report they were held up at gunpoint but unable to give a description?  Have you ever had a caller who was just so hysterical - they were unable to provide their location?

Put yourself in their shoes and consider the stress that they are under.  Someone just pointed a gun in their face.  A family member or other loved one is missing - or maybe injured.  We need to expect that it may take a little longer to get the information we require.

A few years ago - I taught a new hire class: "Call Taking 101."  I was reminding the class about how to speak to the public - but also how to take a proper description.  You know this: gender, race, age, height, weight, followed by description head to toe.  On this particular day I had a co-worker whom the class never met, interrupt my class.  It was staged.  He came into my classroom and handed me a blank note.  I thanked him and proceeded to introduce him to everyone.  We made some brief small talk and he then excused himself and left the room.

I reviewed the information with the class one more time and then told them they were going to do a little exercise.  I asked them all to take a few minutes and to independently write down a description of my friend that had just left - in the format they just learned.  After a few minutes I asked them to put their pens down and handed out a picture that I had taken of my friend earlier in the day and asked them to read back their descriptions one at a time.

The result: Four drastically different descriptions of the same person.

None of them were under any stress at the time.  None of them had a gun or a knife being pulled on them.  The room went quiet.  They gave me the deer-in-the-headlight look.  Point made.

How patient are you with the public?  How would you expect to be treated if you ever had to call 9-1-1?  Do you remember being taught the golden rule as a child?  I do.  A more modern translation today would be something like this: "treat others the way you would want to be treated."  This would apply to every call we answer.

Let me leave you with this:

"It is your job to control the situation - it is your job to be calm for those that can't be."

Take pride in what you do.  Treat others the way you want to be treated.  This isn't a new concept - but you already know that - you just needed a reminder.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Be the Best You Can Be: Preparing to Move Up the Ladder

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2014
Written by Crystal McDuffie, RPL, ENP, Communications Center & 9-1-1 Services Manager for APCO International.  She has more than 18 years of public safety communications experience, in addition to serving as an EMT-Paramedic.

Whoever you are, whatever position you hold, you should always strive to be the best.  As anyone in public safety is aware, there are several different roles within an emergency communications center.  Many roles carry  multiple responsibilities and almost all of them require working together as a team while exceling as an individual.

Let's begin with the role of telecommunicator.  Do you know what the minimum training entails?  What core competencies should you have to be successful?  It really isn't just being able to answer the phone, or dispatching a unit; there's far more to it.

Then there's the role of the communications training officer (CTO).  It's not merely passing along what you know or demonstrating how to complete a task.  There are other questions, especially when it comes to evaluations:  When should you do them?  How often?  How do you ensure you are both fair and consistent?

Does your agency hold initial (basic) training or in-service topics?  Those instructors need to meet specific training requirements to ensure their delivery of the course is successful.  Does the instructor understand the adult learning principles?  What method works the best for training adults?

Moving on to quality assurance evaluators (QAE), that's another set of training and competencies necessary to evaluate a comm center's quality of service.  Does that person understand how to deliver constructive feedback and when necessary?  What about recommending remedial training?

Supervisors and managers are no longer promoted based on the fact that they have been there the longest or are a really good telecommunciator.  While it's great to be strong operationally, there are other facets of the job that need to be mastered.

So how does one find the answers to all these questions?  APCO International provides members of the emergency communications profession with core competencies and  minimum training requirements, along with the skills and knowledge necessary for each of the positions I've mentioned.  Each of the applicable APCO standards specifies in detail the information that each of these roles need to know to successfully perform in their position.

Let's look specifically at the standards for supervisor and manager/director.  Beyond operations, we must ensure that we follow all applicable state and federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Fair Labor Acts, just to name a couple.  What about that budget?  Money really doesn't grow on trees and every dollar spent has to be planned and accounted for.

Another aspect is communicating effectively with other agencies, organizations or resources that are utilized in ensuring you deliver a quality service.  That quality of service must then be maintained and evaluated.  Let's not forget about training: training of new hires, continuing education, remedial training, and on and on.

The leadership qualities and training of supervisors and managers affect many aspects of the communications center.  There are many tasks that must be completed, from budgets to scheduling, from training to resolving conflicts between staff.  Management plays an important role in employee hiring and retention.  If the supervisor or manager does not do a good job as a leader, retention will suffer.

How do you prepare yourself for the responsibility of being a supervisor or manager?  What classes will you take to prepare yourself for these roles?

Standards such as APCO ANS (American National Standard) 3.102.1-2012 Core Competencies and Minimum Training Standards for Public Safety Communications Supervisor, and 3.109.2-2014 Core Competencies and Minimum Training Standards for Public Safety Communications Manager/Director have established specific competencies and skills that are needed for leadership roles in communications.  These standards are intended to provide a consistent foundation of knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to fulfill the critical leadership function.

In the popular leadership book by John C. Maxwell, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, quality number ten is "Initiative."  Similarly, Conrad Hilton, has been quoted as saying, "Success seems to be connected with action.  Successful people keep moving.  They make mistakes, but they don't quit."  To keep moving is the key, whether you're enhancing your readiness for a promotion or simply striving to be the best that you can be in your current position.

The environment of public safety communications is ever-changing and evolving; technology is moving at a speed that makes it difficult to keep up.  It is imperative that, in any role, we maintain and improve our own knowledge and skills.

Moving ahead in your career is an admirable step to consider.  APCO International provides a number of standards and resources to help you prepare.  Becoming familiar with these standards, and learning the requirements and attributes of successful leaders in this profession will help you answer the fundamental question we must all ask ourselves as we advance in our career:  Are you ready?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Negative Retention: Pattern of Complaints Spells Trouble for Comm Center

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2014
Co-Written by Linda "Lin" Ford, APCO Life Member and a member of the North Carolina, Texas and Mid-Eastern Chapters.  She is a retired telecommunicator from Greensboro, N.C. and has been involved in public safety communications for more than 30 years.  She is a member of the Editorial Advisory Committee and a past APCO historian.  Co-written by T.G. Mieure, who is also an APCO Life Member and a member of the Illinois Chapter.  He has been involved in public safety communications for more than 40 years and is a member of the Editorial Advisory Committee.

Our case study this month is actually a combination of several incidents that came together resulting in the loss of life, a disclosure of major problems in a 9-1-1 center and the loss of two jobs.

The initial spark that began the fire-storm was a call for help from complainant Kristine Kirk to Denver Police Department 9-1-1, stating that her husband had eaten marijuana candy, started hallucinating and was asking her to get a gun and shoot him.  The calltaker entered the call for dispatch at 9:31.  The police dispatcher (a different person) then broadcast over the police radio the information:  "332 Adam.  2112 South St. Paul Street on a report of a domestic violence in progress.  RP versus her husband who's been smoking marijuana."

Around the same time, the calltaker who was still speaking with Kristine Kirk wrote: "Weapon in house--handgun."

By now the dispatcher has sent an officer on what was believed to be a routine welfare check.  At first there is no sense of urgency.  "Be advised they do have a handgun in the house, but it's not in anybody's possession," the dispatcher said over the radio.  Five minutes later, at 9:36, the calltaker noted:  "Husband talking about end of world/life."

It's clear from the records that the caller was scared by this time.  The calltaker even noted, "The children in room with door closed."  Then at 9:43, the calltaker wrote that Richard Kirk, the husband and suspect in the shooting, was in the safe getting the gun.  The calltaker also noted that they heard the wife screaming.

A minute later, at 9:44 p.m., there is nothing heard and the phone line is open.

The investigation that followed debated whether proper procedure was followed -- looking at why the dispatcher never aired over the radio what she was reading from the calltaker on the call screen.  On one of the radio reports, you can hear the first officer on-scene at 9:45 learning about what happened by reading the computer screen in his patrol car.

Officer:  "332 Adam."
Dispatcher:  "332 Adam go ahead."
Officer:  "Yeah, according to the notes he grabbed the gun and she's screaming and the line disconnected.  Can you speed up cover?"

By this time the officer was two minutes too late.  Police say Richard Kirk had already shot his wife in the head when they arrived, and that he admitted to pulling the trigger.

The question remains if officers had rushed to the scene as the situation escalated, would they have been able to prevent Kristine Kirk's death?  The dispatcher resigned under threat of being fired for failing to give verbal updates on the serious remarks from the calltaker and instead just letting the notes go to the mobile unit, which had apparently been reported to have a problem.

As a direct result of this tragic incident, the investigation revealed that 60 previous complaints had been filed against the agency on various charges.  The one most germane to this article involved a second dispatcher and not one but two homicides in which critical errors were made and never corrected or punished -- thus resulting in negligent retention of an employee and a massive lawsuit.

On April 1, 2012, Denver 9-1-1 telecommunicator Juan Jesus Rodriquez answered a frantic call from Ran Pal.  He said a group of men driving a Jeep Cherokee threw a beer bottle through the back window of his car and began yelling racial slurs.  Pal also told Rodriquez he thought the men had a gun.

The call transcript details that the victims were scared and in shock, but were able to get to an apartment complex in Wheat Ridge, seven blocks outside of Denver city limits.

"Yeah that's going to be...outside of Denver.  I need you to come back into Denver so we can take a report," Rodriquez told Pal.

Pal asked Rodriquez several times if an officer could come to the apartment because he was trying to recover from the attack, but the calltaker insisted that Pal go back into Denver to file a police report.  The investigation later revealed that Rodriquez could have sent a Denver officer to the apartment location outside of city limits.

The caller followed instructions, returned to Denver and waited at the intersection of West 29th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard with his hazard lights on .  The suspects in the Jeep returned before police could arrive.

After yelling "they're back, they're back," Pal told Rodriquez that his brother, Jimma Reat, was down.  "They hit Jimma," Pal said.

One minute after Reet was shot, Rodriquez dispatched an officer for the first time, more than 12 minutes after Pal called 9-1-1.

Rodriquez's 20-page termination letter said the telecommuicator failed to "decipher the situation" and despite the fact that the "caller stated six separate times that he was injured, in shock and didn't want to drive and needed time to recover," he still insisted the men return to Denver.  Rodriquez "showed a blatant disregard for the caller's health in your quest to have the caller return to the city of Denver," the termination letter states.

His termination also uncovered another complaint against Rodriquez in which he handled a call from a teenager who said he just killed his mother's boyfriend.  That call took place a little more than a month before Reat was shot and killed.

CALL ERROR, FEB. 29, 2012
The 9-1-1 call that spurred the first complaint against Rodriquez started with a juvenile caller admitting to have killed a man.  "He started to get aggressive and he forced my mom on the floor and I choked him out, but I don't know how long I choked him out for; I think I killed him," the caller told Rodriquez.

Instead of sending help, Rodriquez spent more than five minutes trying to get an exact address for the apartment building where the incident happened.  The 9-1-1 call recording shows that within 60 seconds there was enough information to dispatch help to an area indicated by the call screen.

Rodriquez asked the teenager to go outside to find the exact address of the apartment where he was located.  When the teen followed the instructions, the door locked behind him.  "I have to hop the fence because I'm locked out," he clearly says on the call.  After hopping the fence, the caller is asked to perform CPR on the man.

"Can you get close to him?" Rodriquez asked.  "No, I told you I choked him out," the teen responded.

This incident was also detailed in Rodriquez's termination letter from the comm center.  "At no point during the conversation did you actively listen to what the caller had to say or appear to understand that a homicide had ocurred."  It also said he "harangued" the caller with questions and had no appreciation for the caller's environment.

An investigation led by FOX31 Denver found that in the verbal reprimand for this call, Rodriquez's supervisor discussed scene safety, but allowed Rodriquez to return to work without any retraining."

These horror stories are real folks, as sad as it is to say.  It makes one stop and wonder how it happens with all of the training that is available, both for dispatchers and for supervisors.  Is the workload too great, the stress too high, the dedication and basic desire to serve and help people somehow slipping away in our busy world?  Accidents will always happen -- that is the way of the world, but with stories like the ones in this article that are preventable, surely the extra step of caution and attention is worth the effort.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

One In A Thousand Is One Too Many

Taken from post on LinkedIn 8/22/14.  Written by Steve VanDyk, RPL, 9-1-1 Emergency Communications and Public Safety Expert in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Mr. VanDyk has over 18 years of experience in Public Safety.  He is the Owner of Ultimate 9-1-1, a business he started in 2010 that has a primary focus of providing more training opportunities and better training for call takers and dispatchers in public safety.

Check out these websites for more information:  info@ultimate911.ca or www.ultimate911.ca.

How long have you been wearing your headset?  When you look back on your career, what do you remember?  Do you remember your first day?  Do you remember how awkward it felt the first time you put on your headset?

What else do you remember about your first few days, weeks or months?  Do you remember feeling nervous?  Do you remember how dark the room was or how hot/cold it was?  Do you remember how uncomfortable the chairs were?  In light of all the changes with CAD systems, Next Generation 9-1-1, and technology in general, isn't it nice to know that some things will never change!

Now take a moment and think back to a particular call that you took where you had a direct impact on the caller or the outcome of a call.  Pause.  Then pause some more.

What did you feel?

My guess is pride - in a job well done.  Maybe it was a solo effort or maybe a combined one with your fellow dispatchers and officers.  Whatever it was, you should celebrate those good times whenever you are able - and share the stories with as many people as you possibly can.

Same call - think some more.  What was it that made your call so memorable?

Successful calls don't happen on their own.  It involves you, maybe a few others - or maybe an entire team - having the right attitude and outlook.  It involves extreme focus.  It involves intentional choices.

There have been far too many stories in the news recently highlighting dispatcher errors.  The examples that come to mind quickly are ones where vital information was not given to officers, or the location was not verified with the caller, resulting in emergency personnel being sent to wrong locations.

Recently on Facebook I came across a post regarding a story in Colorado.  A dispatcher weighed in and said:

"Dispatchers are human and mistakes happen.  They only get recognized for the 1 in 1000 screw ups they make."

The question begs to be asked:  If that 1 in 1000 was someone close and dear to you, would it still be acceptable?  When did we start rationalizing a margin for error?

You have the awesome responsibility to get it right 100% of the time without blame - no excuses.  It's what the public expects - what they have a right to expect when they call 9-1-1.  It's what you, yourself, would expect if you ever called 9-1-1 for a loved one in an emergency.

You have the awesome ability to make a difference every day - but it will never happen on it's own.  It's a choice.  It's a conscious decision.  You are responsible for your results - regardless of challenges, bad days, or difficult callers.  It's a huge responsibility - but it's a responsibility you took on and knew full well the first day you put on that headset.

Take a moment and consider the following:
  • When you're call taking - before you answer that call - are you prepared for whatever it is you're about to hear on the other end of that line, or are you still thinking about that conversation you were having with your coworkers.
Things happen fast - callers blurt out or yell out things quick and may only be able to provide you with that information once.  Are you ready?  Are you focused?  Missing that small but vital piece of information could be the difference between someone living or dying.

  • When you're dispatching - and you're discussing your weekend with your co-workers and an officer goes on a traffic stop.  Do you acknowledge the officer and their location and then go back to your conversation - or do you still take that extra time to consider the location they are at and which officers you might send should something go wrong?
Things happen fast - the driver of the vehicle pulls a gun and shots are fired - your officer is down.  Are you ready?  Are you focused?  The time it takes for you to re-group after hearing that emerg go off or hearing the officer scream for help, could be the difference between them living or dying.

The list can go on and the scenarios are endless.  No one errs intentionally.  I don't think I'm better than you and I don't write this to judge anyone.  I write this as a reminder.  I want you all to sleep soundly and make it to your retirement with a clear conscience and no regrets.

Are you proud of the job you do?  Do you still love your job?  I didn't ask if you liked it ... or if you grin and bear it.  I asked if you loved it - the way you did years ago when you first started.

Let me leave you with this:

"The difference between who you are and who you want to be - is what you do."

Take pride in what you do.  Choose to care.  This is the best job in the world - but you already know that.  You just needed a reminder.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mourning Our Fallen Comrades With The Black Band

In the span of eight days, the state of Indiana lost three law enforcement officers in the line of duty.

Tipton County Deputy Jacob Calvin was killed in a single vehicle crash on June 28th, Indianapolis Officer Perry Renn was killed during a shootout with a suspet on July 5th, and Gary Police Officer Jeffrey Westerfield was killed during an ambush while he sat in his cruiser on July 6th.

In response to the tragedies, Indianapolis Police Officer Jeff Webb wrote a poem lamenting the loss of his comrades as departments across the state come to grips with the tragic loss of all three men.

Below is the poem in its entirety.

I'm sick of putting this band on my badge
Of seeing another brother fall.
Of seeing another sister laid out
Upon an alter before us all.
Of seeing another family sit,
While they receive a folded flag.
And know of the crushing loss they feel,
As you can see their shoulders sag.
Then I remember what this band means,
Recalling the fallen who've gone before.
Who gave everything they had,
To honor the badges that they wore.
By protecting the public from evil that lurks
In the dark recesses of society's mind,
By being the last bastion of defense.
By being the honored thin blue line.

Written by Officer Jeffrey P. Webb
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department
July 7, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

Officer Down: Dealing with Trauma in Law Enforcement Communications

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, November 2008
Written by Alicia Ihnken, training course instructor for the APCO Institute.

Shots fired! ... He's got an axe! ... I've been hit!

Whenever responders are called to duty, there's a chance they may be injured or killed and not make it home to loved ones.  The effects on family are obvious.  The effects on the telecommunicator may be a little harder to understand, but are equally real.  It doesn't matter what size your agency is or how busy it is, a line-of-duty tragedy is always possible.  And when something happens to one of your own - whether your department is close-knit or you wouldn't recognize your shift on your day off - a floodgate of questions, worry and heartache will open.

A telecommunicator in Florida tells the following story: "Aug. 13, 2005, I went into work feeling like something awful was going to happen.  I could not shake this terrible cold feeling that seemed to have overtaken me...Just before midnight, one of the dispatchers took a call and put it in as a robbery in progress.  I was working the fire channel and watched in horror as a K-9 officer and his partner's tracking device stopped working.  I just stared at the car's icon on the computer map not moving.  Within seconds another dispatcher took a call from a passer-by stating that a pickup truck had pulled in front of a police car and the police car had flipped.  The dispatcher only had to say, "WHAT?!", and I knew it was my friend the K-9 officer, because I was fixated on his vehicle tracking device not moving at all.

"While sending out the fire units and notifying the ambulance service, I felt my head pounding so hard that I could hardly speak.  All of the city's officers were responding with lights and siren to the accident scene along with the fire units and a battalion chief.  I heard the fire chief call over the radio to send out a page to all fire administration regarding the death of an officer.  I could barely type in the page; I thought I had lost one of my best friends in the world.

"One of the lieutenants from the fire truck sent me an instant message asking me if I was doing all right.  She could tell by my voice that I was not handling this situation well.  We heard on the police radio the awful scream from the officer's wife and that's when each and every one of us lost it.

"Everyone was crying and in a state of shock that this could happen on our shift.  All of a sudden, the director and office manager were in the communications center, but they were simply going through the motions, just like the rest of us were trying to do.  The victim advocate was called in and spoke to each of us, and the day shift was called in early to relieve us.  As the day shift came in, one by one all the night dispatchers were sent home early, but only after speaking with the victim advocate.

"I was the last one to see the advocate, one of the most painful experiences I've had in 16 years of dispatching.  I told her about the awful feeling of loss I'd had all day long and that I'd really wanted to call in sick because I just felt so out of sorts.

"After I left the communications center, I stopped at the nearest open convenience store and bought my first pack of cigarettes in 10 years and proceeded to smoke the whole pack.  I bought another on my way to work on Sunday.  Not one of the dispatchers on my squad slept that whole day, and we came in looking like zombies.  When we all sat down you could hear a pin drop.  No one said a word.  It was apparent that all of our lives had changed the night before.

"Aug. 13, 2005, is a day that I will never forget, and I still cannot bring myself to leave the house on that day.  I still do not have closure, and every Aug. 13, I go onto the Officer Down Memorial Page and reflect on my feelings about that wonderful officer, which seems to make me feel a little better.  There is no way that I can explain my feelings.  You always think police officers and firefighters are invincible, and when something like this happens, reality steps in and shakes your whole world."

The telecommunicator who shared this story with Public Safety Communications (PSC) eventually left dispatching.

An officer's story: August 2001, approximately 0130 HRS:  It was a quiet night in a three-square-mile city of 17,000 residents.  The quiet would be shattered by the crash and near death of a rookie police officer with less than six months on the job.  This is my account of that night.

"The city I worked for hired trainees as part-time officers, meaning they could work only 32 hours per week.  When field training officers were assigned a new hire, we kept them with us until they had completed a minimum of 300 hours of training.  That was a long time to have someone riding in your car, and you either liked them a lot or really didn't like them.

"'Scott' was my trainee, and because we were close in age, we became close friends.  August 2001 would challenge our friendship, make me question my ability to serve as a training officer and my techniques and knowledge, and make me realize just how quickly things can go from normal to really bad.

"We were working midnight shift.  A corporal was running our shift, I was the senior officer, and we had two newly released officers, one of whom was my latest trainee and friend, Scott.  Around 0130 HRS, the corporal and I were on the opposite side of the city meeting with each other, when Scott reported that he was trying to stop a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed.  Within what seemed like seconds, the other new officer was in position trying to help Scott get the car stopped.  Mere seconds after that, the other new officer reported a patrol car crash and requested fire rescue.  The corporal and I responded.

"I was the second person on scene, and thinking back now, it seems that despite the horror before my eyes, I simply reacted to the crisis upon arrival.  I observed my friend's patrol car off the roadway, basically destroyed.  I noticed flames coming from the underside of the car, grabbed my fire extinguisher and put the fire our.  When Scott saw me, he immediately began screaming for me to help him.  He couldn't breathe, and he was begging me to get him out of the car.  I tried to comfort him and told him help was on the way.  It took firefighters 45 minutes to extricate him and begin transport to the hospital.

"Standing on scene, the thought crossed my mind that this crash was my fault.  I had failed Scott as a training officer and as his friend.  There had to be something I could have done, could have said, that would have made this different.  How many times had I done the exact same thing, driven at high speed to catch up with someone who was speeding?  How many times could I have ended up just like Scott or worse?  Why didn't I tell him that it just wasn't worth it?  I blamed myself.

"Scott suffered career-ending injuries.  He broke his neck, shattered his left arm and leg, broke his pelvis and punctured a lung.  Over time, he healed as much as could be expected, even more than some expected.  Today, he is mobile, and he can do most things without assistance.  But he constantly feels pain and will never regain the strength or stamina he had before.  He will never be a police officer again, but he is alive, and that's what truly matters.

"After Scott's crash, I sank into a kind of depression.  I couldn't shake my feelings of guilt.  Despite what anyone said to me, I blamed myself.  In some ways, seven years later, I still do.  I received little to no support from my agency, and if not for my family and friends, I might not have been able to cope with the feelings I had from this incident.  Initially, I wanted to stop being a training officer, but I soon realized that I could use this experience as a means to educate other new officers.  I could relate my experiences from what was nearly the only line-of-duty death I had been to and share that.  I could use this to teach new officers that they are not invincible.  None of us are.  The badge and gun we carry do not exempt us from accidents or injuries that can end our lives or careers.  There are some things that we cannot change, and some dangers that are simply a part of the job.  The ability to deal with the stress that we experience, while realizing that we are all human and we all experience horrible things from our chosen field, and being able to deal with negative feelings in a positive manner are keys to success.

"This incident happened before Post Traumatic Stress Management and Debriefings were discussed in law enforcement in my area.  I realize now that this was absolutely a traumatic incident, and I needed to work through this and get my feelings out.  I was lucky.  I was able to work through this and turn a negative into a positive in my future.  Some people aren't that lucky."

The officer who told PSC this story was able to take this tragedy and use it to help others and himself.  Even though it took a while to rebound, he is still working in law enforcement, now with a renewed focus on traffic enforcement and training.

The worst thing to do in any situation like this is to play the "what-if" game.  There is no room for second guessing when dealing with events that cannot be changed.  That should be done only in training scenarios and forward planning.

No one is immune to emotional responses to tragedies they witness.  Rank and experience don't count and can even make one feel more responsible and therefore suffer more deeply.  People who choose careers in emergency services or public safety tend to have much in common, and some of these traits affect how we deal with stressful situations and tragic circumstances.  Do the following characteristics apply to you or someone you know?
  • Obsessive: "It has to be done this way.";
  • Compulsive - every time;
  • Control or action oriented - at work and at home;
  • Easily bored;
  • High need for stimulation;
  • Risk taker;
  • Highly dedicated;
  • Need to be needed;
  • Difficulty saying no;
  • Family oriented;
  • Driven by internal motivations; and
  • Generally high tolerance for stress and ambiguity.
What can you expect to go through after a traumatic event?  Your reaction starts within minutes of the event and will continue months and possibly years afterward, even when you receive help.  You should be aware that you and your co-workers may have several responses to an officer-involved injury or death: heightened sense of danger; anger; nightmares; flashbacks and intrusive thoughts; isolation/withdrawal; numbness; startle responses; alcohol/substance abuse; marital problems; perceptions of going insane; fatigue; crying/depression; guilt; trouble remembering/concentrating; and/or anxiety.

Other stress reactions, such as difficulty sleeping, headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches and high blood pressure, may also occur.

Initial responses may include psychological numbing, fear, denial, nausea, perspiration, guilt and panic.  These symptoms will manifest themselves and most likely get worse over the first 24 hours.  Sleep will be evasive, and concentration will be extremely difficult.  You will find you are "going through the motions" because it is easier than thinking about what you are doing.  When you start to think, you start to think about what happened.

In the next few days, doubts and fears will intensify, and you might feel increasingly vulnerable.  Hopefully, you will have had an opportunity to speak with a victim advocate or counselor immediately, but it is important to continue talking about the event.

Toward the second week, even though you have been experiencing strong emotions, you may start blocking things out with the desire to get back to normal.  Or you might worry to the point of obsession and relive the event over and over in your mind.

It's important to understand that these reactions are normal and should be dealt with.  If symptoms are ignored and go unchecked, the person's mental and emotional status will deteriorate even more.  It's also important to be able to recognize that your co-workers may be experiencing symptoms as well, and no one may be exempt from the effects of loss.

Not everyone's experiences will be the same.  Wayne R. Hill, PhD, clinical psychologist and president of Management and Behavior Consultants PC, says there are at least four possible ways in which symptoms manifest.  Public safety personnel may: 1) exhibit a tough exterior; 2) self-medicate emotional pain with alcohol or other substances; 3) overuse morbid humor, inappropriate jokes and exhibit seeming oblivion to the pain of others; and 4) exhibit isolationism, detachment and intolerance to human frailty.

Because of the characteristics common to those in public safety, we often try to handle things ourselves and keep our feelings -- especially those of vulnerability -- to ourselves.  But this is unhealthy and will make matters much worse.  On the other hand, an active and supportive approach to even the worst tragedy can facilitate successful coping by affected personnel.

Coping with trauma requires peer support.  What can you do to help?  Learn about critical incident trauma.  Be available.  Accept whatever response you get.  Don't judge; it is not appropriate to say, "You should" or use such cliches as "Everything happens for a reason."  Listen to what's being said.  Validate emotional responses.  It's OK to give advice as long as you're not condescending.  Be sensitive to changes in behavior or mood.  Offer to help with specific things, such as making phone calls, driving or running errands.  Personalize what you say.  "I remember how hard it was for me when my brother passed away.  I am so sorry about Jason's death."  Remember, you are not responsible for how others handle a traumatic event.  Know your limits -- and when to recommend professional help.  Don't be afraid to bring up the event weeks or months later.  Touch communicates a great deal.  If you're comfortable with it and if it's appropriate, a hug can mean a lot.

Often, going through a traumatic event and successfully dealing with the aftermath can help you be more effective for those who may be involved in later events.  Use your experience.

Information is available to help telecommunicators cope with tragedy, but the information can be confusing and disheartening.  So take the steps to find out more before a tragedy occurs.

Stress & The Invisible First Responders

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, July 7, 2013
Written by Brooklyn Mundo, former 911 dispatcher who became an advocate for the psychological well-being of 911 calltakers and dispatchers while studying psychology at Rollins College.  She recently presented the results of her research on the psychological effects of working as a 9-1-1 operator to the Seminole County (Fla.) Sheriff's Department and is submitting her research to scientific journals for publication.  Brooklyn recently graduated from Rollins College and started a new job as a career development center specialist at Seminole State College of Florida.

Most people don't consider that behind every shooting, car accident, bank robbery and kidnapping is the story of the 9-1-1 dispatcher who is, in essence, the first responder on the scene.  Considered even less is the psychological impact of this job.

After about two years as a 9-1-1 dispatcher in an emergency communications center in Central Florida, I began to experience weight gain, panic attacks and paranoia.  Even though my mind had adapted to the day-to-day adrenaline rush of vacariously encountering traumatic situations, I couldn't escape the physiological and emotional consequences.  As a psychology major in the Hamilton Holt School at Rollins College, I was learning concepts that described what I was experiencing, and conversations with my coworkers revealed that I wasn't the only 9-1-1 operator suffering the effects of being in a continual state of crisis.

Because of my psychology classes, I was able to apply an introspective analysis of my experience that helped me recognize the impact the job was having on me.  I realized that I was experiencing increased levels of anxiety and even paranoia in my day-to-day life.  Routine tasks started to make me flash back to certain calls.  I could no longer watch movies with action sequences because they would remind me of real events.  I felt fearful in my everyday life.  I finally started calling my experiences what they were: traumatic.

When you do this job, you work in a constant state of crisis and it becomes difficult to leave that behind at the call center.  As a 9-1-1 telecommunicator, we are expected to be there for people.  I had genuine empathy but I also developed coping mechanisms for self-preservation, a form of detached empathy that made it difficult to experience real empathy in my life outside of work.  It definitely affected my relationships.  Most 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers don't realize their own psychological distress because the heightened sense of adrenaline and crisis has become their "new normal" so to speak, but I was aware that this was happening because of what I was learning at Rollins.

An assignment for my communications research course gave me the opportunity to write an analysis of the research on 9-1-1 dispatchers.  After pouring over hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles, I found only three studies directly related to the profession.  Being able to learn about and discuss my experiences at school was enlightening and comforting.  It provided an outlet.

As I headed into my final semester, I proposed an independent research project which gave me the opportunity to do some research on how 9-1-1 dispatchers were coping with the stress of the job and hopefully add some new information about the profession to the scientific community.  There has been a lot of research on police officers, but almost none on emergency communications dispatchers.  I needed somewhere to start.  So I compared data on police officers with data I'd collected on 9-1-1 dispatchers.  My hunch was that the study would reveal that both populations deal with similar stress levels.

My faculty advisor on the project, Rollins Professor and chair of the Psychology department John Houston, was both surprised and intrigued by the ambitious nature of the research.  He believed that my unique background as a 9-1-1 telecommunicator and as a psychology major gave me a special perspective on how a group like this doesn't face physical danger but experiences vicarious stress.  Recognizing the value of this study, the dean of Rollins' evening school provided grant money to cover some of the costs of the surveys.  What began as a personal journey toward understanding what was happening in my own head began to grow into a project that the surrounding community wanted to invest in and learn about.

As part of my research, I asked a group of 9-1-1 dispatchers to take an online survey in their free time.  The survey had four parts, two of which were similar to those given to police officers in previous research studies, one which looked at stress and distress when compared to the normal population, and the final part covered personality factors to see if certain factors were related to coping with the job.  With a response rate of 68 percent (which is pretty good in social research terms), the survey yielded a wealth of data, which a few of my classmates helped me analyze.

We found that there was not a statistically significant difference between the data collected on police officers and the data collected on these 9-1-1 dispatchers.  Both groups experienced similar levels of stress.  Furthermore, call-takers and dispatchers experience a higher number of critical incidents on a daily basis than officers out on the road, but there's no scale that can measure how the stress of handling phone calls of traumatic events compares to the stress of the face-to-face events that officers experience.  This study has opened the door for many other research opportunities, which is exactly what I wanted.  One of my primary goals was to raise awareness outside of the law enforcement community about the importance of the 9-1-1 dispatcher's role in law enforcement and the impact it has on the faithful people doing the job every day.  I also wanted people to recognize that 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers are the first responders to emergencies but no one thinks about them.

More research is needed to gain more understanding about the phenomenon of high turnover and psychological distress in call-takers and dispatchers.  Many dispatchers leave the profession for reasons unrelated to stress, such as going to the police academy or, mostly among female dispatchers, starting a family.  It may be helpful to survey dispatchers who resign from the position to get feedback about what made them leave the job.

My hope is that by demonstrating that 9-1-1 dispatchers face similar levels of stress to that of police officers, they would be considered in high-risk jobs and therefore be eligible for similar benefits, such as access to counseling and time off for psychological reasons.  Counseling is available to call-takers and dispatchers, but it is usually based on optional, external referral only for full-time employees.  Although there is a great need for further research before implementing any program, my hope would be that eventually law enforcement agencies would staff a police psychologist and mandate quarterly counseling appointments for all call-takers and dispatchers.  Who couldn't benefit from an hour with a counselor every few months, especially in this profession?

I am also concerned that call-takers and dispatchers are not utilizing the current counseling available because it is optional and external.  There is a culture in law enforcement that subconsciously says, "It takes a special person to do this job and if you need help, then maybe you aren't tough enough."  That is entirely untrue!  Indeed, law enforcement call-takers and officers are cut from a different cloth, but I believe there are some positive systems that can be implemented to help maintain that cloth and keep it from wearing out faster than its time.  It may be more cost effective for agencies to staff a police psychologist than to hire 12-20 new dispatchers every year and have such a high turnover rate due to those unmanaged negative aspects of the job.

What should call-takers and dispatchers do if they find themselves experiencing similar issues with anxiety, depression and generally high psychological distress?

Well, I'll be working to spread the word about you unsung heroes, but in the meantime, do some honest self-evaluation.  I challenge you to meet with a counselor at least once since most agencies plan for a few free sessions.  Take that first step!

Here's the bottom line:  Before any agency will implement any kind of mandatory program to help its employees cope with the job, it must have proof that such an intervention is necessary.  9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers must have the courage to speak up and acknowledge that their high stress level isn't normal.  Every person is different, but making an effort to utilize the current counseling offered by each agency is a great place to start.  You, as call-takers and dispatchers, are the voice for many people in their time of crisis and now is the time to be the voice for the sake of your own heart and psychological well-being.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Stop Problems Before They Happen: The Importance of an effective quality assurance & improvement program

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, November 2006
Written by Alicia Ihnken, training course instructor for APCO Institute

In a business full of acronyms, the letters QA/QI often send people running for the door.  Quality assurance and quality improvement (QA/QI) can be intimidating, boring, challenging or even frightening.  However, without such a program, a communications center, business or any entity that answers to another can get into deep trouble.  Unless administration is closely monitoring performance through QA/QI, managers may not be aware of performance issues affecting customer service and satisfaction, opening the door for liability concerns.  This article discusses the importance, purpose and common characteristics of an implementation ideas for a QA/QI program.

Do the same problems pop up time and time again in your comm center?  Is each and every calltaker and dispatcher where they need to be in terms of knowledge, skills and abilities?  Will the calltaker's actions hold up against public scrutiny should the call become newsworthy?  Does your agency perform emergency medical dispatch (EMD)?  If so, do you have policies in place to ensure adherence to program guidelines and procedures?  The answers to these questions will determine your need for a QA/QI program and underscore the importance of the program for ensuring the achievement of quality goals and objectives.

Without a formal QA/QI program, there is no system to document checks and balances, and there's no routine way to measure individual performance.  In agencies without a QA/QI program, problems are typically addressed only when someone complains or draws attention to short-comings.  This usually happens after the behavior has become entrenched in the offender.  With a comprehensive program in place, management - from frontline supervisors all the way to upper administration - has a better picture of how the operation is running, and errors and deficiencies in individual employee performance can be detected and corrected before they have a negative impact on agency operations.

The purpose of a QA/QI program is not to spy on the employee, but to enhance performance by identifying weaknesses as well as strengths.  When QA/QI is done properly, it can help the current employee and the trainee.  Good calls can be archived for training purposes and top performers rewarded for their efforts.  Bad calls can provide valuable feedback to the employee, trainers, supervisory staff and administration.

While conducting reviews, the evaluator can pick up on trends of acceptable and flawed methods and even gross deficiencies that may be overlooked because there was no corresponding complaint.  The information obtained can be used to revamp training methods and improve overall awareness.  If the program is successful, it can eliminate such excuses as "nobody told me" or "I didn't know we couldn't do it that way" because the program will emphasize continuing development and improvement.

A successful program is also a lifesaver (i.e., lawsuit-saver) when it comes to liability issues.  This works in favor not just of administration, but also of the line worker.  The line worker will have the tools, information and feedback required to perform at a higher standard.  Administration will have the proof that it's watching out for the success of its employees and the safety of the public.

A QA/QI program should not be used for disciplinary actions.  It is a tool to ensure employees are following the policies and procedures that support the organization's mission.  Disciplinary actions should be left to complaints lodged and supervisor observations.  If the reviewer uncovers a problem, across-the-board remedial training should be the direct result.  If one employee has a problem area, others could very well have similar problems - or a less experienced employee may observe and learn the problem behavior - so no employee should be singled out during these training sessions.

A QA/QI program should be global in nature, while addressing specific policies and procedures on a continual basis.  Just as short-term solutions can lead to bigger long-term problems, long-term programs can prevent the need for short-term solutions.

Centers that follow EMD guidelines commonly conduct quarterly reviews, with parameters generally dictated by the medical director of the agency's program.  EMD guidelines should be followed stringently.

But what about the rest of the activity that goes on in the communications center?  First consider the main functions of the communications center.  Is it for only police, only fire/rescue or only EMS?  Is it a consolidated PSAP?  Is there a separate calltaking center?  What definitive areas exist for which guidelines can be established?  Are policies/procedures in place for each function of the comm center?  The structure and functions of your agency will determine the type of information to include in your QA/QI review.

Your QA/QI categories for review should be based on your policies and procedures.  No part of the QA/QI program should catch anyone by surprise.  It's not intended to "trap" anyone, but to provide an objective picture of what is really happening.  Encourage staff members to look at the whole process as a benefit to them and their professional development.  If there is to be any trapping, it should be focused on catching employees in the act of doing something right!  Categories for review can include fire radio procedure, police radio procedure, nonemergency calltaking, 9-1-1 calls, customer service - or any other area that has a defined policy.  The information for each will have similarities and differences.

A review schedule should include information on the types of calls to be pulled and a schedule of when the reviews will be conducted.  Methods for pulling calls for review can include completely random, only 9-1-1, only nonemergency, only traffic stops, only chest pain calls or combinations of these.

Once the areas to address have been determined and the policies and procdures put in place, the QA/QI reviews should be built around these elements.

The most important element in a QA/QI program is that everyone involved have a clear picture of its purpose and how to proceed.  All QA/QI programs must include proper planning, proper review and proper enforcement.

Proper planning consists of a comprehensive analysis of the organization's goals.  Without this, evaluation guidelines can't be created.  During this analysis, determine the expectations of the administration, responders and the public regarding the employees, the standards to which the employees will be held, the evaluation method (standard of measurement) and the overall review process.

Proper review ensures the overall effectiveness of the program.  Even though all reviews should point back to the overall mission of the center by reflecting the policies and procedures, it's not enough just to ask, "Were the policies and procedures followed?"  The reviews should be comprehensive, but at the same time not so tediously detailed that the reviewer gets bogged down in the form instead of focusing on the information being reviewed.  Consistency is key; therefore, a schedule of reviews must be set.

Proper enforcement is the "payoff."  If the appropriate steps are taken in the review process, the organization should have a clear picture of employee performance.  As a result, strengths and weaknesses will be clearly defined and action plans can be created and implemented.

To assist you in understanding the process, review the sample policy and procedure, compiled from various SOPs, and the sample QA/QI form based on the sample policy.  They both will be at the end of this article.

Practical Application
When creating your review form, carefullly analyze the categories/questions you're including.  Are they quantitative or qualitative?  Will the evaluator understand the questions and how they should be answered?  Is there room to write comments and observations?  There are as many sets of evaluation questions and styles as there are communications centers.  Some comm centers will share information with you in the name of public safety.  The APCO Institute has resources that may help you create the desired format, including Web seminars on how to develop and maintain a successful QA/QI program.  Build in the experience of others, and tap as many resources as you can.

Another important element in QA/QI program is the people and their understanding of the purpose and process.  Who should conduct reviews?  Who should be reviewed?  How should the reviews be conducted?  The answer to these questions depends on the structure of the communications center.  A large center may have an individual designated as the quality assurance officer; a smaller center may assign the task to shift supervisors or trainers.

Don't forget about self-evaluations.  It has been said that we are our own harshest critic.  Let some of that criticism take a positive form with self-evalutaions.  Give employees the appropriate time (i.e., 30 minutes or so) to review their work objectively and according to the guidelines set forth.  If this is presented in addition to supervisors and trainers conducting evaluations, it can soften the blow when mistakes occur.  What cannot be stressed enough is that this process should not be used for disciplinary actions.  Similar to the daily observational report (DOR), the QA/QI review may, however, be used for tracking performance and evaluating opportunities for improvement.  The moment it is used to discipline an employee, is the moment its effectiveness as an evaluation tool is lost.  Performance evaluations, complaints and other types of information should be enough to find problems requiring disciplinary actions without resorting to call reviews.

Implementing a QA/QI Program in Your Agency
This is where the rubber meets the road.  Proper implementation of a program that can save you and your employees from liability and improve the overall performance of public safety telecommunicators is crucial to a successful operation.  First, make sure you have a well-defined mission with clear-set goals.  These goals should be reflected comprehensively in policy and procedure.  Only after you have these important pieces in place can a fair evaluation system be created.  The right people and proper training are also crucial to successful implementation.  Do you have individuals, either supervisors or line personnel, who have the capacity to motivate and support others?  Can they be, or have they been, trained in mentoring techniques?  Take a closer look at current employee potential and follow best practices when hiring.

Develop a tracking system that will hold employees accountable to the program.  Several methods can be used to track call reviews (e.g., paper in a notebook with dividers, paper in a filing cabinet), but by far the most space-saving method is electronic.  Example: Names, dates and case/run numbers can be documented in MS Office Excel for easy reference and tracking.  Results of call reviews can be e-mailed to the appropriate parties.  This process does not have to be cumbersome.

Develop your preferred method of tracking before the first call review is conducted, and make sure the evaluators are very familiar with the system you plan to use.  It helps to have one person assigned to monitor the activity and compile reports for administration.  If everyone knows who is doing what, it makes it easier to hold employees accountable to the program and their duties.  With the right elements in place, including people who understand the process, the program should run smoothly.

Once the program is developed and you have the right people in place, how do you proceed?  If none of the employees were in the planning stage of the program, inform them of the process.  Everyone who works for an organization should be well-versed in its mission and goals.  Let them know who will be doing the evaluating and for what purpose.

Designate training times to familiarize those involved with the entire process.  "Roll call" training is a tool often implemented when the opportunities for classroom or meeting time are scarce.

Inform everyone of how and when the process will be implemented beforehand.  Give them a chance to digest the process and the opportunity to ask questions.  Even if an employee will not be conducting a review, he or she will still be subject to review and should be familiar with the entire process.

Set up a schedule and post it in an accessible area.  If there are no deadlines or the reviews can be conducted whenever the employees desire, the reviews will most likely not be done.  Give the employees the time and the tools to proceed, and hold them accountable.  Monitor the process to ensure timely results.

A quality assurance/quality improvement program should not be scary, daunting or overbearing; instead, it should be enlightening, helpful and beneficial to the organization and its employees.  To ensure your program meets these objectives, be sure you:
  • Establish a clear mission with supporting goals;
  • Have policies and procedures that support the operation;
  • Have quality, well-trained employees; and
  • Hold employees as well as management accountable to your clearly established QA/QI guidelines and methods.
The time you take in advance to build a solid foundation will eliminate the need for quick fixes and short-term solution.

Sample Policy & Procedure:
Nonemergency Calltaking

Policy: The purpose of this policy is to address proper nonemergency call handling within the communications center.  The seven-digit phone number to the communications center is 555-2525.  This number allows local access to the communications center for the public, responders and other area agencies.  Calltakers shall hold to the mission of the communications center and be professional and polite when dealing with all customers including responders, co-workers and callers.  Technical telephone training that addresses the operational aspect of phone use is provided in the initial training phase before the calltaker graduates to the on-the-job training.  This training and its corresponding policy and procedure are addressed separately.

  1. Nonemergency lines shall be answered within three or fewer rings.
  2. All nonemergency calls shall be answered, "Anytown Police, how may I help you?"
  3. If an emergency call comes in on a nonemergency line, it shall be handled following the policy addressing 9-1-1 emergency calls.
  4. Calltakers shall remain alert and ready to handle any incoming call.
  5. Calltakers shall speak clearly and distinctly at all times.
  6. All calls for service within the service area shall be entered into CAD in a timely manner.
  7. The calltaker shall make every effort to enter the correct nature/event code.
  8. The calltaker shall verify the location, cross streets and business name, if applicable.
  9. The calltaker shall attempt to obtain the name and phone number of the caller.
  10. If the call is transferred to another department, no event record is required.
  11. Calls not involving law enforcement or those not within the service area shall be referred to the appropriate agency or transferred, depending on the request.
  12. Although calltakers are not expected to endure abusive callers, the calltaker is not permitted to use abusive language, and courtesy must be maintained.
  13. It is appropriate in cases of abusive callers to refer the call to the supervisor.
  14. Calls shall be handled in a business-like fashion, and the caller shall be advised of what to expect (e.g., a phone call from an officer, a visit, an appointment or whatever the case may require).
  15. All nonemergency calls are subject to review.

Sample QA/QI Call Review Form Information

Nonemergency Calls for Service
Name:                                                  Review Date:
Reviewer:                                             Case/Run/Event#:
Time of Call:                                         Time of CAD entry:               (N/A)
Was the appropriate greeting used? (Y/N) If no, explain:

Was the appropriate nature code entered? (Y/N)

Was the location information verified? (Y/N)

If caller did not have an address or if the locations provided did not register in CAD, how did the calltaker proceed?

Did the calltaker ask for the name and phone number of the caller? (Y/N)

If the call was not within the scope of the service area, was the caller provided with information on how to obtain the requested help?  What was done? (N/A)

If the caller was abusive, how was the call handled? (N/A)

Was the calltaker professional and polite at all times? (Y/N) Explain:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Runaways: Treat Every Missing Child Report as if the Child is in Immediate Danger

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, March 2012
Written by Sheila Hanna-Wiles, RPL, education and training administrator for APCO Institute

SCENARIO 1:  Fourteen-year-old Lisa leaves a note to her parents stating she doesn't like living with them anymore and will find somewhere else to live.  The parents last saw Lisa at 10 p.m. the night before and found the note at 6 a.m.  Lisa's parents call 9-1-1 immediately after discovering the note.  This is the conversation between Lisa's mother and the 9-1-1 calltaker:

Calltaker: 9-1-1, where is your emergency?

Mother:  123 Adams Road.  My daughter has run away.

Calltaker:  Ma'am how do you know your daughter ran away?

Mother:  Because she left a note that said whe didn't like living here anymore and was going to live somewhere else.

Calltaker:  Has she done this before?

Mother:  Yes, a couple of times but she has always come back home in a couple of hours.

Calltaker:  How long has she been gone this time?

Mother:  I don't know.  We saw her at 10 p.m. last night.

Calltaker:  OK, I'm sending an officer to take a report.

Both parties hung up.

The calltaker dispatches an officer to talk to Lisa's mother.  She advises the officer that the subject has a history of running away from home.  Feeling no urgency to get to the house to take the report, the officer decides to drop his radio off at the station for maintenance on his way to the call.

The officer takes the report and requests a BOLO (Be on the Lookout) be sent out to neighboring jurisdictions.  This request came approximately 1 1/2 hours after the original call was received.  The officer advises communications staff to enter the report into NCIC (National Crime Information Center) "when they get time."  The report is never entered into NCIC.

Approximately 30 minutes later, another officer in a neighboring town pulls a car over for speeding.  The officer runs the license of the driver and asks for identification of the passenger.  The passenger produces a school ID badge.  The officer runs both names through NCIC and both are clear.  The officer gives the driver a ticket for speeding and sends them on their way.

The next morning a report comes in of an abandoned vehicle in a local shopping center parking lot.  The officer runs the license plate through NCIC and finds out that this same vehicle was stopped the day before for speeding.  The officer looks in the vehicle and notices blood on the seats.  He forces the trunk open and finds the body of a deceased female.  The female is later identified as Lisa.

SCENARIO 2:  Twelve-year-old Bobby loves the computer that was given to him by his parents for Christmas.  Bobby has befriended several people on different website chat rooms.  One friend in particular, Claire, has become Bobby's favorite friend.  Monday evening, Bobby's parents go to his bedroom to tell him goodnight and find him missing.  Several items of clothing are missing, as well as the money he had saved for an upcoming school trip.  Bobby did not leave a note, nor has he made any references about being unhappy with his life at home.

Bobby's parents immediately called 9-1-1.  The following conversation takes place between Bobby's father and the 9-1-1 calltaker:

Calltaker:  9-1-1, where is your emergency?

Father:  100 Court Dr.  My son is missing.

Calltaker:  Sir, how do you know your son is missing?

Father:  Because some of his clothes are missing and the money he has been saving is also missing, and he should be in his bedroom getting ready for bed.  He was in his bedroom earlier.

Calltaker:  Has he done this before?

Father:  No.

Calltaker:  How long has he been gone?

Father:  I'm not sure, but less than two hours.

Calltaker:  OK, I am sending an officer to take a report.  In the meantime, can you give me a description of your son, what he was wearing?

Father:  (Gives description of son.  Clothing, age, etc.)

Calltaker:  Do you know where he could have run to?  Any close friends or family?

Father:  I can't think of any place in particular but he talked a lot about a girl he met on the Internet.  I believe her name is Claire.

Calltaker:  Do you know where Claire lives or do you have a phone number or last name for her?

Father:  I don't know where she lives, and I don't know her phone number or last name.  I thought I could find it on his computer, but I don't know his passwords to get into his computer.

Calltaker:  OK, do you have a recent picture of your son?  If so, please have it ready for the officer.

The officer arrives on scene.  Both parties hang up.

The officer takes the report and gets the picture of Bobby.  He immediately confirms that the case meets the AMBER Alert criteria and asks the comm center staff to put him into NCIC and issue an AMBER Alert.

For the next hour, the officer and Bobby's parents try to break into Bobby's computer and retrieve any information they can about "Claire."  Within two hours, the police locate a computer technician who can break passwords.  Just as the technician was able to get into Bobby's computer, the phone rings.  It's Bobby.

Bobby asks his parents to come and pick him up from a local convenience store.  After they pick him up, Bobby tells them the story of meeting Claire on the Internet and how she wanted to meet in person and how they could do fun things forever.  He says she told him that his parents would not like where she lived so he shouldn't tell them where he was going.

Claire had picked Bobby up at the same convenience store earlier.  She took him back to her house where they were suppose to "have fun."  Bobby noticed right off that she looked older than 16 years old, like she had told him in the chat room.

Claire began making sexual advances toward Bobby.  Bobby told her he didn't like what she was doing and it made him feel uncomfortable.  All of a sudden, Claire got angry and screamed for Bobby to get out of her house "now and never come back."  This is when he ran out the door and to the convenience store.  Bobby was able to take officers directly to Claire's house.  After officers made the arrest and did a background check on "Claire," they found out that she was a registered sex offender.

These two stories are not Lifetime movie plots; these are real scenarios that haunt our family, friends and community every day.  These are calls that are received in a comm center every day, somewhere.

Understanding the background of runaways and knowing the level of response that is needed "is unquestionable one of the most critical elements in the entire missing-child investigative process" and will assist in bringing these runaways back home safely, according to Steidel.  "Furthermore, it is recommended that law-enforcement agencies respond to every report of a missing child as if the child is in immediate danger."

A runaway is defined as a child who leaves home without permission and stays away overnight; a child 14 years old or younger (or older and mentally incompetent) who is away from home, chooses not to come home when expected to and stays away overnight; or a child 15 years old or older who is away from home, chooses not to come home and stays away two nights.

Another term you need to know is "thrownaways."  Although closely related to "runaways," thrownaways have different criteria.  Thrownaways are children who are asked or told to leave home by a parent or other household adult and no adequate alternative care has been arranged for the child, and the child is out of the household overnight.  Or it is when a child is away from home and is prevented from returning home by a parent or other household adult and adequate alternative care is not arranged.  Although not necessarily reported to authorities as missing, thrownaways frequently come to the attention of law enforcement.

Youth ages 15-17 years old make up two-thirds of the runaways/thrownaways.  According to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) report findings in 1999, an estimated 1,682,900 youth had run away or been "thrown away."  Twenty-one percent were reported to authorities for purposes of locating the youth.  Seventy-one percent could have been endangered during their runaway/thrownaway episode by virtue of such factors as substance dependency, use of hard drugs, sexual or physical abuse, presence in a place where criminal activity was occurring or very young age (13 or younger).

This is not to say that every child runaway/thrownaway will end up in the worst situation.  Some have been found living with family members or close friends and doing well.

Why these children end up as runaway/thrownaways is almost as important as finding them.  Three things are needed in order for a child to run away: ability, willingness and opportunity.  Most kids have the ability and opportunity but need the willingness.  Willingness comes from many different factors or circumstances, such as stress, not wanting to get into trouble for something they did, a power struggle, substance abuse or not wanting to go to school.

Another reason that sparks the willingness to run away is dreaming of a better life outside the home.  The dream consists mostly of "no rules and I'm my own boss."

Some kids run away because of drug and alcohol abuse.  The kids are addicted or using more than their parents know about.  Usually, their goal is to be able to use it freely and not hide it.

Sadly, some kids run away because they are living in a home where they are criticized constantly.

If you take all these reasons and look closely, the bottom line reason is because these kids don't have good problem-solving skills.  Running away is the easiest fix to the problems.  They choose to run from the problem instead of looking for alternate options to fix the problem.

The manner in which the initial call is handled by the public safety telecommunicator forms the foundation and direction of the overall response to the missing child.  The attitude a telecommunicator possesses during the onset of the call will manipulate the handling of the call.  As with any emergency call, a telecommunicator must treat each call as a new call regardless of how many times the person has called to report their child missing.  The telecommunicator is tasked with gathering the facts surrounding the incident and relaying those facts to the responders.  They must not pre-judge the call.

When taking calls for runaway/thrownaway children, one of the most important resources a telecommunicator should use to build a response toolbox is the Standard for Public Safety Telecommunicators when Responding to Calls of Missing, Abducted, and Sexually Exploited Children (APCO ANS 1.101.2-2010).  The response toolbox is a pre-incident planning and resource development project.

The goals for the initial intake of information are stated in the APCO ANS standard as:
  1. Obtain and verify incident location along with callback and contact information.  Maintain control of the call.  Communicate the ability to help the caller.
  2. Methodically and strategically obtain information through systematic inquiry to be captured in the agency's intake format.
  3. Recognize the potential urgency of the missing child incident and immediately begin the proper notifications consistent with agency policy.
  4. Perform all information entries and disseminations, both initial and update.  This includes mandatory entry of information about the missing child into the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) National Crime Information Centers (NCIC) databases accurately, including vehicle if known.
These goals should remain at the forefront when developing a response toolbox.  The intake information must be gathered in a timely fashion and methodical manner.

The following questions are consistent with the APCO ANS 1.101.2-2010 standard.  After obtaining the location to send responders and the caller information, the next step is to narrow down the time frame.  Asking the following questions can assist in getting this information efficiently:
  1. When did this happen?
  2. Where was the child last seen?
  3. Any special regional considerations, such as wildlife, weather or wilderness?
  4. With whom was the child last seen?
  5. Who last saw the child? (If the answers to questions 4 and 5 are the same, ensure this information is conveyed to investigative personnel.  Complete the background checks for investigative personnel as authorized.)
  6. What mode of travel was the child using?
  7. What was the direction of travel?
  8. What suspicious circumstances, if any, were there?
  9. What steps have been taken to locate the child?
  10. Has this happened before?
  11. What is the caller's relationship to the child?
  12. What ideas or suspicions exist about where the child may have gone?
  13. What notes, letters, or threats, if any, were located pertaining to this incident?
Once this information is obtained and relayed to the responders, the next part of questioning will center on the child.  Examples of questions to ask are: the child's name, sex, race, age, height, weight, hair color, etc.  The child's clothing description is also gathered at this time.

Finding out about the child's medical condition is another very important element.  Ask the caller if the child has any medical conditions or if the child is taking any medications, and if they are, when the next dose is needed.

The next part of questioning should focus on the suspect/companion.  The preliminary questions are similar to those asked about the child: name, sex, race, age, medical status, etc.  Another important piece of information to gather is the relationship between the child and this person.  Do they know each other?  Are they related?

If the child's mode of travel was in a vehicle, then you should obtain the vehicle's description.  The easiest way to get a vehicle description is to use the acronym CYMBALS: color; year; make/model; body style; additional description (dents, rust, damage); license plate; and state.

SCENARIO 1 RECAP:  The officer arrives at Lisa's parents' home to deliver the news.  "I'm very sorry.  We did all that we could," says the officer.  The hurt and grief Lisa's parents feel at the news of their daughter is indescribable.

Could the telecommunicator and/or officer have made a difference in the outcome?  Yes.

One very important element that was missed in the process was getting the information into NCIC immediately.  Had the information been put into NCIC, then the traffic stop officer would have received a "hit" on Lisa's name.  The telecommunicator and officer pre-judged the call based on the history.  The prejudgment prevailed when the telecommunicator advised the officer of the history, although the history was not relevant to this episode.  And the officer prejudged by making a stop on his way to the call as though time was not an issue.

We know the telecommunicator did not ask enough pertinent questions to help locate Lisa.  She didn't get a description of Lisa, did not ask if she could be accompanied by anyone or obtain her mode of travel.  All of these are examples of information that could have been put in a BOLO immediately.

SCENARIO 2 RECAP:  After the investigator questions Bobby and as he released him to his parents, he said, "We're done questioning Bobby.  You may take him home.  We did everything we could to make sure this moment happened."

Now, it's time for the investigator to question Claire.  "We know your intent was to sexually assault Bobby.  So why did you let him leave?" asks the investigator. 

Claire responds, "The television had an AMBER Alert scroll at the bottom of the screen, and it stated that Bobby could possibly be with me.  I knew it was only a matter of time before you guys would find me.  So I let him go.  We could have had a good time if you would have stayed out of it, and Bobby would have cooperated."

The NCIC entry and the AMBER Alert notification were the key differences in sparing Bobby's life.  The telecommunicator asked several pertinent questions prior to the arrival of the officer, including the possibility of a suspect/companion.  This allowed the information to be gathered and broadcast faster to other responders.  The telecommunicator advised the caller what to do prior to the officer's arrival because she knew the process.  When the officer requested the entry into NCIC and that an AMBER Alert be issued, the telecommunicator knew exactly what had to be done.

One part of this story that can make a difference between life and death is to educate the community about NetSmartz (www.netsmartz.org).  This is an Internet safety resource from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America that uses the latest technology to create high-impace educational activities for kids of any age group.  The goal of NetSmartz is to extend the safety awareness of children and empower them to make responsible decisions online and in real life.

A missing child is a paren't worst nightmare.  When their child is missing, they expect public safety responders to do everything they can to locate their child.  Are you and your agency prepared to do everything you can to help that parent find their missing child?

Every 9-1-1 center should have policies and procedures in place on how to handle these types of calls.  In addition, every staff member should be trained on these policies and procedures.  Every call that is received about a missing child should be checked for quality assurance.  Contact information should be readily available to every telecommunicator.

Adopting APCO ANS 1.101.2-2010 as the minimum standard for your agency in handling these types of calls is a good start to implementing and creating a response toolbox.