9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, January 31, 2014

Does Your Agency Know About "A Child Is Missing Inc."?

A Child Is Missing, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida based non-profit organization founded in 1997, was created because no community based program existed nationwide for locating missing children, the elderly (Alzheimer's), or the disabled (often unconscious).  Taking action during the first hours of a person's disappearance is very critical in helping to save their life.

ACIM, a public/private partnership, is devoted to assisting law enforcement in search/early recovery efforts during the initial hours of a child/elderly person's disappearance via a rapid-response neighborhood notification system utilizing a high-tech telephony program.  ACIM uses a three-prong program; a telephone database, a geo-mapping system and a satellite imagery system.  ACIM has training sessions for officers to understand the ACIM program.  Their trainers go to every state involved in the ACIM program.  They are endorsed by law enforcement.

ACIM will conduct informational community meetings in various areas to make teachers, parents and students aware of ACIM and other programs that affect their family's lives.  These programs involve local law enforcement and the schools.

When a person has been reported missing to a law enforcement agency, the officer calls ACIM and provides pertinent information about the individual such as description, clothes worn and time and location last seen.  Results are best when alerts go out within the first 2 to 3 hours after a disappearance, but can be successful if elapsed time is longer. The ACIM technician pulls up the location provided with the computerized mapping systems.  An imagery/satellite program is also used to increase the map-tracking accuracy and to help visualize "hot spots" that may harbor the missing child or attract a "wandering" individual.  A target area is chosen based on where the person was last seen, using the address and the zip code.  Phone numbers are selected any where from 100 to 5,000 depending on the area and the intensity of the search. Then a personalized alert message is recorded and phoned out to the area where the person was last seen.

The alert message asks residents to check their property for the missing person and to call their local law enforcement agency should they have any information.  If a lead is obtained, the search can be expanded to that area.  The technician will check with the officer on the scene until the child is found or the search has been called off in that area.  They are there to serve and assist law enforcement agencies in the search and recovery of missing children, elderly (often with Alzheimer's), or mentally or physically challenged person.

With its high-tech telephony, A Child Is Missing can place up to 1,000 calls in 60 seconds.  There is a 98 percent listen rate by residents/businesses answering phones.  Call recipients are asked to call police with any information they have about the missing person.  Answering machines will record ACIM calls so that residents will receive the alert when they return.  The program is available 24/7, 365.

Since its inception, A Child Is Missing has responded to over 8,000 calls for assistance from law enforcement, generating nearly 7 million phone calls to residents alerting them to an endangered missing person.  The cases where ACIM has mobilized communities to help look for a missing child, elderly (often with Alzheimer's) or mentally/physically disabled person are too numerous to list.

A Child Is Missing is devoted to helping save lives. ACIM program is given to all law enforcement agencies at no cost.  ACIM gives them access to immediate assistance in looking for a missing child or other vulnerable missing person.  A signed letter from the Sheriff/Chief stating their wish to participate in the program is requested.  If an agency has a missing case and has not yet sent in a letter of participation, they can still activate the program.

This is the only program of its kind in the United States and it is working.  It is a proven public/private partnership.  They save money for agencies and become a partner in the search effort.  Eighty-five percent of law enforcement agencies have 15 or less sworn officers and the cost of equipment used by ACIM would be prohibitive for smaller agencies.  Additionally, many agencies do not maximize use of reverse-911 equipment after it has been purchased.  It is much more cost-effective to be a part of a network that used the ACIM program.

In most cases, ACIM obtains initial funding to bring the program to a state.  Once the program has been established, ACIM seeks voluntary law enforcement donations as well as state and federal funding.  Even if a department can't afford a donation, they have access to the program.

Fundraising events, corporate sponsors, private donations and individual gifts also help fund program operations.  If you are interested in starting a fundraiser group in your area to benefit ACIM, please contact the main office in Fort Lauderdale for more information.  The address is 500 SE 17th Street #101, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316.  You can also show your support by visiting their catalog at www.achildismissing.org.

My agency has been using A Child Is Missing for a number of years now.  They have always been quick and efficient at getting all information out to the public as soon as possible and offering to help us in any way.  I strongly encourage you to at least research their program and make a suggestion to your chain of command to give them a try.

Managing Call Overload: Triaging Calls Before They Are Answered

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, January 2014
Written by Bob Koenig, director of sales - eastern U.S. for TriTech Software Systems, he is a member of APCO and serves on the National Commercial Advisory Council. Koenig has been involved in helping agencies implement voice and data radio systems, 9-1-1 center refreshes and public safety software solutions for the past 16 years.  He has also been an active member of the IJIS Institute since 2003 and currently serves on the IJIS governance committee.

During an actual emergency, citizens need and expect a professional to immediately answer their call for help.  Holding for the next available calltaker adds to their anxiety and can slow the response.  Unfortunately, this sometimes happens because of our overloaded 9-1-1 centers.  With the increased use of mobile phones, combined with the increased number of duplicate calls to 9-1-1 reporting the same emergency, our 9-1-1 centers and staff are receiving more calls than they can handle in a given period of time.

With the population of the United States at 313 million people and the Wireless Association (CTIA) estimating the number of wireless connections at 321 million wireless subscriber connections, it's evident that wireless calls will continue to be a growing source of challenges for our 9-1-1 centers.  Prior to the popularity of mobile devices, emergency calls were strictly placed from landlines at a residence, business or public payphone.  When there was a car accident on the highway, there would be one or two calls into 9-1-1 to report the incident.  Today, with the proliferation of mobile devices, our comm centers get flooded with many good Samaritans calling to report the same incident.  While our good Samaritans are all well-intentioned, their calls can be to the detriment of other emergency calls coming into the center.

Standard NENA protocols direct that 9-1-1 calls be answered according to first in first out (FIFO) priority.  But with multiple calls reporting the same car accident, what happens to the possible heart attack call queued behind all our duplicate good Samaritan calls?  When a center is in an overload situation, wait times and abandoned calls are increased.  In 2009, California's overload problem caused more than 26% or all wireless calls to 9-1-1 to be abandoned.  In other words, more than a quarter of the people calling 9-1-1 hung up in frustration.

What if there was a way to group potential duplicate calls and highlight incoming calls that are outliers for the calltaker?  Through Phase 2 E9-1-1 rules, wireless service providers can typically provide the latitude and longitude of the wireless caller within 50 to 300 meters, enough to determine potential duplicates, something computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems have done for years to identify duplicate incidents.

However, current 9-1-1 computer telephony integration (CTI) systems are developed primarily for information intake and presentation of automatic number identification (ANI)/automatic location identification (ALI) information for call handling.  But what if that location information could be used before the call is answered to identify possible duplicates, including CAD incidents, and highlight outliers?  While 9-1-1 systems don't possess the geospatial intelligence of duplicate call checking capabilities, the CAD system does.

The CAD system is the technology hub of every comm center.  It processes incidents using geospatial awareness and agency business rules to ensure the most appropriate, closest lifesaving resources are dispatched as quickly as possible.  What if we leveraged that power of CAD and used it just one step earlier in the 9-1-1 emergency process - before the call is answered?

A unified CAD and 9-1-1 system leverages the proven situational awareness capabilities of CAD to triage calls before the call is even answered.  Beyond standard integration, a unified CAD and 9-1-1 system leverages CAD's duplicate incident detection capabilities on incoming calls and active CAD incidents to identify multiple reports of the same event.  The ALI information from our wireless callers is used to group the multiple good Samaritan calls together so that calls are likely to be unique, such as an incoming heart attack call, will be separated out.  With a CAD and 9-1-1 system, ringing calls can be prioritized or grouped to allow calltakers to answer those likely to be unique before potential duplicates.

The number of wireless devices will continue to grow and overload our nation's 9-1-1 systems.  But a unified CAD and 9-1-1 system knows not only what other calls are coming in from the area of this caller, but also what active incidents are occurring nearby to help reduce workload and provide better tools for calltakers to prioritize incoming calls.  That way, when that heart attack call comes in at the same time as our multiple good Samaritan calls, there won't be a busy signal.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

After The Call: Stress Management in the Comm Center

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, January 2014
Written by Myra Allcock, communications supervisor for the Orange County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office

Public safety telecommunicators answer the call 24/7, 365 days a year.  Our chose profession, our calling, is extremely stressful - whether we work from a 9-1-1 console, a dispatch console, or a supervisor's console.

Before we ever answer the first 9-1-1 call, or dispatch the first incident of the shift, we experience stress.  Stress lives at home with our daily interactions, our relationships, our lifestyles; life in general can be stressful.  Then add in all the job-related stressors: shift work and mandatory overtime that force us to be absent from major family events, difficult work environments and even internal conflicts.  Now toss in steady exposure to duty-related trauma: a frightened caller in the midst of the worst situation of their life, giving life-saving instructions to the parent of a seriously injured child and other high-priority calls.  We dispatch calls for service and track the status of up to 40 or 50 uniformed patrol officers and specialty units.  We document self-initiated traffic stops, foot pursuits and vehicle pursuits with skill, patience, teamwork and courage, knowing that the next radio transmission may be those words that all of us train for and pray that we never hear, "shots fired, officer down."

It's a wonder that we can function at all, let alone at the fast pace that public safety communication demands of us.  As supervisors and managers, we train our staff and ourselves to handle the uncooperative or distraught caller or injured officer effectively, efficiently and with calm professionalism, but that doesn't mean these calls don't affect us on a personal level.  What is shown on the outside does not necessarily reflect how we feel on the inside.

We know that handling life-threatening emergencies day in and day out, while highly rewarding, is also highly stressful.   As a result, telecommunicators experience a wide variety of job-related stress issues.  These issues vary in the way that they manifest and the intensity of the manifestation.  Stress reveals itself physically in the form of headaches, sleep problems, fatigue and general health problems such as diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure and heart disease.  Emotionally we may experience anxiety, depression or irritability, and behaviorally stress may result in eating disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, or self-imposed isolation and social withdrawal.  The effects of job-related stress, including the human and financial toll to our agencies, are universal and not unique to any one PSAP.

Job-related stress routinely leads to increased absenteeism and burnout - comm center supervisors and managers know all too well that stress impacts job satisfaction and ultimately turnover in our agencies.  In an attempt to reduce stress-related health problems and impacts to the agency, most PSAPs offer some form of stress management training.  Some agencies make this training mandatory for new employees; others make it a standard part of the annual in-service training requirement.  Most of us have been to at least one of these stress management classes - some can recite the tips for reducing stress from memory.  But knowing the information and practicing stress management are two different things.

While the basics of stress management don't change much from year-to-year, what does change is our ability and willingness to follow them, which makes them worth repeating.

Eat right: Be mindful of what you eat.  Well-fed and properly nourished bodies are better prepared to handle the stress we face every day.  Start your day with breakfast, and keep your energy levels up and your mind clear with nutritious meals and snacks at regular intervals throughout the day.

Get plenty of exercise: Physical activity is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to reducing and preventing the effects of stress.  Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week.  You do not have to buy expensive gym memberships.  Ask around your agency, most have training facilities and wellness programs for employees.  Check with your city or county Parks and Recreation Department to see if they offer free memberships, access to their facilities or programs for public employees.  Aerobic exercise is great for releasing pent-up stress and tension - take a walk during your lunch break, take the stairs instead of the elevator, park a little further away from the building - every little bit helps!

Relax and smell the roses: Relaxing at the end of the day and on your days off will help reduce your stress.  Make it a point to spend time socializing with friends and family, read a book, shoot a few hoops, go for a bike ride, take up gardening or treat yourself to a massage and some meditation.  Make sure that you take vacation time and do your best to make sure that vacations are relaxing.  How many times have you said "I just need a couple of days off to relax," thinking that a mini-vacation will give you rest and relaxation, only to find that just when you are starting to relax and enjoy yourself it's time to go back to work?  Try to take a two-week vacation instead of two one-week vacations, you might find that you are more rested and focused when you go back to work.

Get plenty of rest: Doctors (and our moms) have told us since childhood that we need eight hours of sleep to be at our best.  We know that stress can cause us to lose sleep and lack of sleep causes us stress - a vicious circle that compounds itself over time.  You know how fuzzy your thoughts can be after a night of tossing and turning.  Then you go to work tired and maybe a little grumpy, you can't concentrate, you aren't quite as proactive and you end up making silly mistakes.  We have all had days like this that make us feel less effective and even more stressed.  Thankfully, these are a few things that we can do to help ourselves get a more restful sleep:
  • Try to stick to a routine.  Do your best to get into bed at the same time every night, or day depending on your shift.
  • Don't take the job home.  Your brain needs time to slow down before you put your head on the pillow.  Refrain from any type of mentally challenging activities several hours before bedtime.  In other words, relax!
  • Turn the TV off before you go to sleep.  If you don't, part of your brain may actually continue to pay attention and interfere with sleep.  If you need some kind of white noise to help you fall asleep, consider using a sound machine.  Natural sounds such as rainfall, waterfalls or ocean waves tend to be more soothing and less distracting to the brain.
  • Stay away from caffeine or alcohol after dinner.  Caffeine is a stimulant.  Every day we reach for our caffeine fix as soon as we wake up, usually in the form of coffee, tea or soda, and we take in caffeine continuously throughout the day in these forms as well as in our favorite chocolates.  Excessive amounts of caffeine may prevent you from falling asleep.  Additionally, you should steer clear of alcohol close to bedtime, as it can lead to disrupted sleep later in the night.
You don't have to do these all at once.  Try a new one every couple of weeks - you might be surprised at how much better you sleep and more rested you feel.

Socialize: Socializing provides support and helps you tolerate life's trials and tribulations.  On those days when you are a bit depressed or irritable and you think that you just want to stay in bed, try reaching out to friends or co-workers.  Meet a friend for coffee, email a relative or visit your place of worship.  Do you have a few extra hours every week or two?  Think about volunteering for a charitable group or at a local school or a library.  You can make a few new friends and help yourself while you are helping others.

Laugh: Whether it's a giggle or a big hearty belly laugh, laughing is great medicine.  While it may not cure all that ails you, laughter will certainly make you feel better.  According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing is a great stress reliever and provides several healthy benefits:
  • Laughter relaxes the whole body.  A good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after.
  • Laughter boosts the immune system.  Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease.
  • Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals.  Endorphins promote an over-all sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.
  • Laughter protects the heart.  Laughing improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which can help protect you against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems.
Not everyone has the skills to recognize and manage stress.  Managers, supervisors, communications training officers (CTOs) and telecommunicators must be aware of and able to recognize the causes, effects and symptoms of stress in ourselves, our coworkers, our trainees and our comm centers.  It is equally vital we have access to and utilize the resources to mitigate the immediate and cumulative impact of job-related stress on our staff, our agencies and ourselves.  We've heard it over and over again and, mandatory or not, training alone is not the answer to managing stress in our comm centers.  So what else can we - should we - be doing?

Supervisors and managers can do several things to help our staff and ourselves:
  • Make readily available a variety of educational materials and resources about stress-related risks as well as information about local and online resources to manage stress, including traumatic stress disorders, chronic stress and related health problems.  Current information on the role of nutrition, exercise and sleep in prevention of stress disorders and stress-related diseases is also beneficial.
  • Educate your staff about the employee assistance programs (EAPs), the benefits of using them, how to access them and the difference between voluntary EAP use and mandatory referrals to an EAP.
  • Pay attention to your staff and each other.  While each of us has a different threshold, as a group we are not very good at admitting that we are having difficulty shaking off that one call or incident or that we might need a little help every now and then.
  • Supervisors need to make it possible and encourage 9-1-1 telecommunicators to take a break after a bad call.  At the very least, check on them during and after the incident.
  • Remember that managers and supervisors are not immune to stress and its effects.  It is important that we encourage and support each other in the same way that we encourage and support our staff.  Knowing that someone cares is important.
If your agency has a critical incident stress management (CISM) program, utilize that when you have a critical or traumatic incident.  If your agency does not have a CISM program in place, check with sister agencies to see if they have one and are willing to assist when needed or, better yet, work with your agency to start one.  If your agency has a CISM program, consider joining the team.  Having telecommunicators on CISM is advantageous for the comm center and the agency.

Make sure that your staff members are included in critical incident stress debriefings (CISD).  When an incident is deemed as a critical incident that requires CISD, more times than not the communications staff is left out of these important debriefings.  Telecommunicators are a significant part of every critical incident.  9-1-1 telecommunicators are the "first" first responders, yet many times they are left wondering about the outcome of a critical incident.  Being able to hear the whole story, and seeing and talking to the officers involved in the incident goes a long way to addressing or relieving telecommunicators' anxiety and stress.  9-1-1 telecommunicators need to know that they are as important as the officers are.  They also need to know that CISD is not a forum to review how well all of us did or did not do our jobs - it's not a bashing session.  They should know that their feelings are normal and that CISD is confidential, so they can be comfortable talking about their feelings.

Coworkers can often be the strongest support system, so watch over each other.  Remember, what seems routine to you may not be routine to someone else.  Maybe they have had a personal experience that affects how they handle that routine call.  We are human, we are unique and we will handle and react to stress in very different ways.  Your empathy and compassion will be beneficial.  Conversely, don't make your coworkers feel embarrassed or incompetent for asking for help.  Remember, the next call may be yours and you might need that coworker's support.

We may not be able to control all of what happens in our lives, but we can absolutely control how we react and mitigate the impact of the resulting stress.  While some of life's major stressors are unpredictable, we all have daily stressors that we can control - those little things that drain our energy and make us feel more stressed overall.  These daily stressors come in all different shapes, sizes and situations: cluttered desks, messy kids' rooms, annoying co-workers, overly critical friends or family members and so on.  It's amazing how quickly they can all add up.

Our job is challenging, rewarding, demanding and difficult.  Having healthy, engaged staff members is mission critical.  We may not be able to control every incident every day, but we can certainly arm our staff and ourselves with the knowledge and tools to manage how we respond to the day-to-day chaos that has become our routine.  We are each responsible for creating a culture of open communication at every level.  If we cannot or will not depend on each other and our management teams to help us recognize and mitigate the stress before and after the call, then who can we depend on?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What Do I Tell Them? Pre-Arrival Instructions for Active Shooters

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, January 2014
Written by Bob Smith, former county 9-1-1 director and APCO International executive staff member, who previously served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Emergency Communications, focusing on interoperability and emerging technologies.  He currently oversees emergency/incident management, safety and risk management for the Arlington (Va.) public school system.

On Sept. 16, 2013, an armed assailant opened fire in a facility at the Navy Yard Complex in Washington, D.C., killing 12 and injuring three.  With the passing of several weeks, the nation progressed from shock and surprise, to grief and anger, and finally to asking how and why.

Tragic incidents such as this lead us to ask many questions - it's human nature.  For dispatchers and telecommunicators, the questions are not necessarily ones of "how" or "why," but "what would I have said if I had taken that call?"  Though many telecommuicators go their entire careers without handling an active shooter situation, the key to knowing you'll be at your best is to prepare for the worst.

Many of the immediate questions to face after a mass-shooting revolve around security clearance, criminal background checks and physical security.  Some of the conversation will be the traditional Monday morning quarterbacking we are familiar with in the media and elsewhere.  Some of it will attempt to ascertain valuable information about what happened, what policies worked and what didn't.  The lessons learned will be integral to evolving response procedures for active shooter incidents - incidents that no longer ask the question "if," but "when."

Unfortunately for the 9-1-1 industry, many of the lessons that can be learned from this event will not be available for some time.  The 9-1-1 recordings of calls for assistance placed from inside and around the facility are typically held as evidence for weeks or even months, if they are released at all.  But most of us in this line of work already know what we'll hear when the tapes are made available.  There will be multiple calls from multiple people who are spread throughout the building, as well as outside.  Most will be on cellphones.  A few, most likely tucked in an impromptu hiding spot, will be on landlines.

They'll report shots fired, a shooter in the building, people hurt, people screaming.  Some won't really know what's going on.  Some will know exactly what is happening and the severity of the situation.  There will be reports of one shooter, of two, of three.   There will be multiple calls with the consistent themes of fear, confusion and chaos.

But through it all, one thing will ring true of nearly every caller.  They will all want the answer to one question: "What do I do?"  And just like every other call we take in our day-to-day operations, it is our job to answer that question and tell them what to do.  We call it pre-arrival instructions; they call it a chance to survive.

Pre-arrival instructions are nothing new to the 9-1-1 industry.  We've used them in some form or another since the late '70s or early '80s.  Most commonly, they take the form of a formal pre-arrival or emergency medical dispatch program.  Sometimes the instructions are complex, such as providing childbirth instructions or CPR over the telephone.  Sometimes they are a little simpler, such as telling a caller to get everyone out of a burning house or to gather up a patient's medications for emergency medical services (EMS).

Pre-arrival instructions exist for medical calls for service, fire calls, law enforcement calls, even for non-emergency calls, and active shooter incidents should be no different.  Many currently available programs and systems for providing pre-arrival instructions have begun to incorporate instructions for callers reporting an active shooter event.  Your agency may already have pre-arrival instructions in place.  But is there more you can do?  Is there anything else worth looking into?

Many law enforcement agencies are rallying around a simple concept to provide advice to those who find themselves in the midst of an active shooter incident: Run.  Hide.  Fight.

Based loosely on the "stop, drop and roll" public service campaign made famous by the fire service, "run, hide, fight" is a simple response recommendation that can be carried out by young and old alike, in any setting from an office building or school to a mall or warehouse.

I should mention that the "run, hide, fight" concept is still being reviewed by many law enforcement agencies and some debate still remains as to whether "run" is always the best first step.  So, as with any other policy or procedure you put in place, this should be reviewed by your agency and your legal counsel before being adopted.

The "run" portion of this response plan revolves around one simple concept.  If you find yourself in an active shooter event, ask yourself two questions: 1) Is there a safer place to be, and 2) Can I get there unharmed?  If the answer to both questions is yes, then the "run, hide, fight" plan recommends you make your way to that safer location as quickly as possible.

The "hide" component of the plan is also fairly simple.  If you are unable to evacuate to a safer location then find a place to hide from the assailant, possibly even barricade yourself in.  History has shown that this particular response can be successful if carried out properly, but success depends greatly on the situation, the assailant and a myriad of other components.  There is evidence of cases where, despite their best efforts, people who have hidden are discovered by the assailant.  There is no perfect plan that is 100% effective every time, so the best plans prepare for as many contingencies as possible.

Last but not least is "fight."  If you cannot evacuate to a safer place or effectively hide from the attacker, then your last resort is fight.  But how do you instruct an unarmed civilian to fight an armed assailant with nothing more than a fire extinguisher or desk chair?  It's a tough call to make.  Remember: This is the last resort, worst case scenario response, to be used if there is no other option.

As always, any policies or procedures your agency adopts should be vetted appropriately.  There is no silver bullet for any type of emergency situation.  So don't adopt a policy or procedure just because it is the latest and greatest thing to come along.  Take your time, do your homework and make sure any policies you put in place work specifically for your agency and your jurisdiction.

In the meantime, there are some things we know that can be passed on to callers in these situations, such as information about what's going on around them and what they can expect once responders arrive.

Callers should be aware that the first law enforcement units on scene will be focused on locating and securing the assailant.  They should know that those units will not stop to check on injuries or to evacuate people until they know the scene is safe.  Callers need to know officers are not ignoring them and they should not rush to approach or otherwise confront officers until they are told to do so.

Callers should also be told that while law enforcement is searching for the suspect there will be periods of loud noise and shouting.  This could even include loud explosions from flash bangs or other devices officers use in their mission to locate and subdue the shooter.  This noise could come between long periods of silence as officers proceed through a building searching for a suspect.

When told to exit the area, callers should be aware that they need to follow the instructions of officers on the scene and to keep their hands up until told to put them down.  Law enforcement will consider all persons on-site to be potential threats until they are assured otherwise.

Persons on scene should know that once they are evacuated from the initial scene they should not leave the immediate area until they are debriefed by law enforcement.  Each and every person involved in these types of events could have a vital piece of information that could assist with the investigation or recreation of events.

These are just a few pieces of information that can be passed along to people calling for assistance from the scene of an active shooter event.  The first thing an agency should determine is whether they have a policy for processing calls from an active shooter incident.  In addition to dispatch guidelines and responder safety guidelines, does that policy include some level of pre-arrival instructions to provide to callers on scene?  If not, then a policy should be developed.  Once developed, that policy should be trained on and then tested through some type of drill or exercise, just like any other policy your agency has.  And then that process should be repeated.

Unfortunately these types of events will continue to happen.  As each happens, policies should be compared to the lessons learned from responding to specific incidents.  It will be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent these incidents in the future, but we can learn from them and ensure policies and procedures exist to address them from as many angles as possible.  In this way, maybe we can begin to minimize the number of lives lost and the overall impact of these incidents, helping to better secure our jurisdictions and the citizens who rely on us to be there when we are needed most.

Radio 101: Operations Basics for Telecommunicators & Officers

Taken from Public Safety Communications, January 2014
Written by Charles Nash, Jr., retired in 2010 after a nearly 33 year career as a telecommunicator, supervisor and lead with the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, in Montgomery County, Md. He has been a member of the Mid-Eastern chapter of APCO since the mid-'90s and has been a member of the Editorial Advisory Committee since 2007.

Radio technicians and 9-1-1 telecommunicators can often feel like they're speaking two different languages.  But being able to quickly and effectively communicate with each other, and then relay accurate information to callers and first responders, is a key factor in enhancing public safety.

There are some basic tenets of radio operation that every dispatcher and call-taker should know.  This article is by no means an in-depth or technical review; rather, it's a broad, layman's overview to hopefully increase, or at least refresh, your understanding of on-air courtesy and the principles of propagation (that's techie-speak for "radio wave behavior").

Before we delve into radio usage, we should begin with an understanding of how radios function.

The higher the frequency of a radio signal, the shorter the wavelength and, therefore, the less area covered by the signal.  This of course doesn't take into account location or number of transmitters and antennas, locations of field units (both portable and mobile), field units' reception, terrain, buildings and other factors.  As a telecommunicator, those factors are largely beyond your control, but your radio system's designer and engineers spend countless hours laboring over such details.

Generally speaking, if your agency operates in the 800 MHz bandwidth, the signal will not travel as far as, say, a 700 MHz signal or an ultra-high frequency (UHF) signal, which tends to be located at about 450 MHz or so. The 800 MHz band certainly does not travel anywhere near as far as a very high frequency (VHF) high-band signal at 150 MHz, or the VHF low-band signal in the 30 to 50 MHz range.

Higher frequency also means that more towers and antennas are needed to compensate for that shorter wavelength.  Conversely, lower frequencies require fewer towers and antennas to cover the same area.  Cellphones (which operate at 900 MHz and higher) require many towers, and those towers must be placed close together in order to provide adequate coverage.  Bandwidths of 1.2 GHz, 2.4 GHz and above require a great number of towers to broadcast their extremely short wavelengths over the coverage area.

Though they can't travel very far, higher frequencies can penetrate manmade structures better than lower frequencies can.  This is beneficial for emergency responses to buildings, skyscrapers, apartments/condos, underground parking garages and so on.  Lower frequencies are better for covering vast distances.  A frequency in the VHF low-band or below can sometimes cover hundreds of miles across flat terrain.

Now that we have an understanding of how frequencies and wavelength behave, we're ready to discuss operation.  This top-level review is primarily for telecommunicators, but these basics also apply to field personnel.

The first rule is one that all calltakers and dispatchers should already be familiar with: Always listen before transmitting.  It sounds simple enough, but in an emergency situation it's often the first step people forget.  Make certain that the "air is clear" before speaking, and be sure to first note anything essential before you say what you need to say.

When broadcasting specific information, such as suspect or vehicle description, it's always best to read through the information before transmitting over the radio.  You will be much less likely to stumble over what you're reading if you look at it at least once before speaking.  The few extra moments you take to familiarize yourself with the information will be worth it to speak accurately and not have to repeat yourself.  Be accurate first, and then work on efficiency.

When you're ready to broadcast, key the microphone for a full second (count "one, one thousand" in your head) before speaking, and keep the microphone keyed for a full second after you finish your message.  This will prevent the first or last words from being clipped or garbled.  It takes a radio system a couple of seconds to fully transmit or receive, and also to react to the pressing or releasing of the transmit button.

Be sure to speak across - not directly into - the microphone so your voice is carried clearly.  For field units using a shoulder microphone, remember to turn your head toward the unit; don't expect to be heard clearly if you're talking away from the mic.

Here's a tip that should go without saying: Don't try to have a "cool" radio voice.  Speak slowly, in a natural tone of voice.  If you shout or speak too loudly, you'll over-saturate or distort your signal.  You won't be understood and will have to repeat yourself - wasting valuable seconds of airtime.

A related piece of advice: Don't mumble, and don't "eat" your last word or phrase in the interest of saving airtime.  There's nothing worse than a fast mumbler who trails off at the end.  Speak slowly and clearly, even when chaos is breaking out around you.  Remember, emotions are contagious.  Even if the field units are screaming, your job is to be the steady and calm voice of control, whether in the field or in the comm center.

No matter what the circumstances, try to find the golden ground in between saying too much and not saying enough on the air.  Both of these errors are common forms of "mic fright" that can hinder first responders' ability to get the job done.

Whether you're working with law enforcement, firefighters or EMS, it's important to remember that proper radio operation is as important as following proper protocol when dispatching 9-1-1 calls.  And it's not just telecommunicators and radio techs who need proper radio training.  First responders will spend hundreds if not thousands of hours training in weapons, tactical skills, use of force and the proper usage of tools, apparatus and medical devices - radio ought to be no different.

When used properly, a public safety radio in the professionally-trained hands of a civilian or sworn comm center operator or field staff will help protect the public and maybe help save lives.  Never forget that your radio is vital to your job, citizens' safety and your own life.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Next Generation Communications Center

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com 12/11/13
Written by Tony Harrison; he has more than 25 years in public safety.  He spent a majority of his career at the Oklahoma City Police Department.  He served as a dispatcher, trainer, training coordinator, and supervisor.  He currently serves as President of the Public Safety Group and resides in Estero, FL.  He can be reached at tharrison@publicsafetygroup.com

I believe that we are going to see more change in the Communications Center in the next five to ten years than we have seen in the last 25.  When I began my career in 9-1-1 the agency I served did not have 9-1-1 and the first major change was the start of our E9-1-1 center.  Then several years later we had to deal with the expansion of cell phones.  During these years we have had to move to a CAD system and move from a simple 9-1-1 phone system to a PC based phone system.  These have been the major changes in 9-1-1 during the past 20 to 25 years.  But now we are moving to Next Generation 9-1-1.  I prefer to call it Next Generation Communications Center - because I believe NG9-1-1 has a lot more to do with the entire function and operation of the communications center than just 9-1-1.

Let us take a minute to look at what the Next Generation Communication Center will bring to us.

Text to 9-1-1 - Most of us have heard about the ability to send text messages to 9-1-1.  The truth is that is coming and some agencies have already begun taking text 9-1-1 calls.  One of the major reasons for text to 9-1-1 is for the hearing impaired community, who many these days just do not own a TTY machine because it is old technology but most own a smart phone that they can use to communicate not only with the hearing but the hearing impaired.  But, text to 9-1-1 is much larger than helping the hearing impaired.  Just think about that domestic violence victim who cannot safely make a voice call or the person who just has a question to ask and does not want to take the resources to call 9-1-1 but can simply send an easy text message.  At this point we do not know what impact this will have on communications center operations.  It is possible that text to 9-1-1 has a small impact on the center but then it could have the impact the cell phones have had over the last twenty years.

Photos/Videos being sent - Along with the ability to send a text comes the ability to send photos or videos from your smart phone to the communications centers.  The biggest concern that I have is what we are going to do with them.  Do we just keep them as part of the record or do we view the photo or video.  Are we supposed to be taking the emergency call, dispatch the call then view what photos and videos I have received about the incident?

Live video from patrol cars or businesses - Some agencies have already installed the equipment that allows video from the patrol car be sent live to the communications centers.  In one system, anytime the patrol car camera is turned on a pop up window in the communications center will display that video.  The next step is that when the hold-up alarm is activated in the convenience store the live video is sent to the alarm company then the alarm company will forward that live video to you.  Do you want to watch live video of the 7-11 being robbed?  Your bank being robbed?

Ability to transfer 9-1-1 calls across the state or nation - Today we may be able to transfer a 9-1-1 call to another agency in our immediate area but we cannot send that call across the state in most areas, or across the country.  The promises are that this possibility will be a part of future 9-1-1 systems.

Advanced Telematics - We have all heard about OnStar but the future about the abilities telematics will change how we respond to the accidents.  The ability to tell us how many people are in the car and what is the probability of injuries after the accident.  In some ways that future is already here with OnStar and other companies currently working with this technology.  But if OnStar can tell me that there are four people in the car and that there is an extremely high probability of traumatic injuries,do we change our normal dispatch of one ambulance, fire and police to two or three ambulances, fire, police and an air ambulance and notify the trauma center to expect multiple patients?  We have already seen OnStar use the ability to slow down a stolen car - what will GM come up with next?

These are a few of the reasons that I believe the Communications Center is getting ready to change in ways that some of us never dreamed of when we began our careers in public safety.  As exciting as these changes are I also have many concerns that I believe that many people have not been talking about as much as we should.  At what point are we expecting the front line telecommunicator to do too much?  When do we hit information overload?  Video to the Communication Center sounds great.  But, if I am taking the armed robbery call, dispatching it, watching the video from 7-11 and relaying the information to responding units - is that expecting too much?  If this call goes bad do I want to deal with the trauma of watching the clerk being shot?  But, the ability to provide the responding officer real time information about the scene can increase officer safety.  With the changes that the Next Generation PSAP will bring I think we have to look at staffing, training and work load issues.  These issues are real and serious.  We must continue to have the conversation and take a real look at the benefits of the NG and the impact that this technology will have on the Communications Center that will continue moving toward a command center that looks more like STAR WARS than the simple one screen and one phone of the past.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Criminal Charges for Dispatcher, Lost 911 Calls

Back in September of 2013 it was reported that Charleston County (SC) Sheriff's investigator's arrested a 911 center calltaker on criminal charges after they found she took at least 45 telephone calls for service since January of 2013, but failed to enter information for a police or medical response.  The arrest was a rare response to allegations of misconduct by a public safety dispatcher in the U.S. The dispatcher was fired, officials said, and faces obstruction of justice and misconduct in office charges.  She was jailed on $40,000 bond.

Comm center officials began an investigation earlier in that month when a citizen complained that police never showed up when he reported a burglary in progress at a neighbor's house.  Police in Mount Pleasant said they were never notified of the incident.  Logging tapes confirmed that the dispatcher fielded the man's two 911 calls, but that no incident was ever entered into computer-aided dispatch (CAD) for dispatch to officers.  Further investigation showed that the same dispatcher failed to enter incidents for 45 other incidents dating back to the beginning of January, 2013.  One incident was medical-related, and the others required a law enforcement response.  No injuries were reported as a result of the dispatchers actions (or inaction I would think), officials said.  The motives for the dispatcher's inaction is unclear, and there seems to be no pattern to the types of calls she mishandled.

Jim Lake, 911 center director, said supervisors are increasing their review of call reports to insure calltakers and dispatchers are properly handling telephone calls and incident dispatches.  Officials advised they were considering criminal charges against two other dispatchers who failed to promptly dispatch officers to critical incidents.

What is the major malfunction with these dispatchers?  How hard is it to enter a call into the CAD and dispatch it to an officer, medic, or fire department?  People like this make dispatchers as a whole look really bad and that makes me angry.  I hope they are given the punishment they deserve, and I hope the other two didn't result in someone getting hurt or losing their lives.

Google Maps Update

For an occupation that is heavily dependent upon locations, Google's latest Maps update provides additional ways to identify addresses and track incidents for public safety dispatchers.  The update rolled out generally back in July of 2013, and improves on the standard Maps features of showing street maps and satellite images for almost every point in the United States.  The street maps have been re-colored and given a cleaner look, and the typography has been simplified.  Searching is much easier now -- you don't even need to press the Return key to begin a search.  Instead, Maps will immediately start moving the map view to the location you've typed into the search box.  Once you're centered on a region, you can determine a specific address simply by clicking on a building outline (map view) or image (satellite view).  The exact address is instantly displayed.   You can now quickly view the Streetview version of a specific location with a single click (previously it took 3 clicks).  And Maps now displays live traffic congestion on the roadways for many urban areas, and traffic incidents are displayed as icons (click for information).

Podcast about Dispatching

A former dispatcher has reached a milestone with his podcast devoted to public safety dispatching, and he is now looking to expand the discussion using Google Hangouts, which brings together participants via radio.  Ricardo Martinez says he's taped 44 episodes of "Within the Trenches," talking with dispatchers from the United States, Ireland, Australia and Canada about all aspects -- good and bad -- of the dispatching profession.  Besides sparking discussion within the dispatching community, Martinez hopes the podcast also helps to inform ordinary citizens about the tasks dispatchers perform and what motivates them.

"My co-host Whitney Wisner and I want to tell the stories of the unsung heroes of emergency services," Martinez says, "With the show, we are able to do that as well as educate the public by showing them our side of the call."  Now, to help support his latest effort to expand the podcast to video, Martinez is looking for participants to share their experiences and perspectives on dispatching.  Anyone interested in being a guest on the show can email Martinez or Winer at wttpodcast@gmail.com.

Let's Get This Done, Please!!!!

I don't often ask people to help with a petition unless it is something I really believe in.  If you will click the link below and read what this family is trying to do after the loss of their daughter, I think you will agree with me that it is a good cause and pass it along to everyone you know.


Emergency Dispatchers Note Long Hours and Stress of Job

Taken from The Washington Post, December 19, 2013
Written by Rachel Weiner

The woman who called 911 said she had been kidnapped by her boyfriend.  All she knew was that she was in a red brick building somewhere near Benning Road in the District.  She gave a name for her kidnapper, but on a public records search nothing came up.

As she tried to calm the woman, D.C. 911 operator Tanika Steen was able to wring out enough details to combine with cellphone coordinates and find the woman's location on a Google map.  Then she provided that information to police dispatchers.  All the while, Steen said she was anxious: "I sound calm, but my heart rate was up."

Steen has worked at the 911 communications center for seven years.  Before that, she was an emergency medical technician, and she thought answering phones would be less stressful.  She was wrong.

"It's very stressful to do for long hours," said Theodocia Tyson, Steen's colleague at the D.C. 911 center.  "Ninety percent of us have high blood pressure."

Steen's experiences and Tyson's sentiments reflect the growing concerns of many 911 dispatchers around the region.  The difficulty and emotional strain of the job as well as increasing call volume has forced some local emergency call centers to put workers on longer and longer shifts, even as coming technological changes mean that the job will likely become more challenging.

Shifts in the District are 12 1/2 hours a day with every other weekend off.  In April, Lee Blackmon, a D.C. dispatcher and president of the union that represents the workers, warned in a letter given to D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) that the change would have an "overall negative effect" on public safety.  Prince George's County, Alexandria and Montgomery County dispatchers work 12-hour shifts.

"You have to have a support system" to handle the hours and the job, said Beverly Jackson, a Fairfax County call-taker and dispatcher.  Otherwise, she said, you could never take care of a family or yourself.

Indeed, the concerns of dispatchers are getting new attention from national experts as well.  Last year, a study from the Journal of Traumatic Stress found for the first time that the heart-wrenching situations dispatchers are dialed into can cause post-traumatic stress disorder.  The study recommended better mental health support.  But in the District, Arlington County and many other jurisdictions, dispatchers don't receive the same benefits as public safety officials.

Part of what makes the job so stressful is that dispatchers often don't know what happens to the people they try to help, experts say.  Heather Pierce, co-author of the 911 study, suggested that dispatchers be included in debriefings to learn what happened in particularly traumatic cases.

"Sometimes it's like starting a really good novel and you never get to the end," said Vanessa Coles, operations chief at the Arlington center.  "But sometimes knowing the outcome is not good.  It can weigh on you just as bad."

Dispatchers can recount harrowing tales that follow them long after their shifts have ended.  Aleisha Fincher, an Arlington dispatcher for 13 years, remembers hearing a man screaming his wife's name over and over on the phone while he tried to perform CPR.  For years, she said, she heard it in her sleep.  Now, "thank God," she said, she can't remember the name.

Linda Shegan, in Prince George's, talked for more than an hour to a man who had killed his wife and was driving around with her body in his car, threatening to kill himself.

"It still affects you, I think, if you have any kind of morals or any kind of values," Shegan said.  "But you have a job to do."

To address concerns about stress, Arlington is reducing shifts from 12 hours to eight or 10.

"We have been understaffed for years, and this schedule was just wearing on the folks," said police Capt. Adrienne Quigley.  Studies suggested the rotation dispatchers were on could lead to serious physical problems, she said.  On the 12-hour shifts, exhaustion led to more people taking sick leave, which caused additional staffing problems, she said.

Still, some jurisdictions have found that longer shifts make more sense.  Fairfax has been on 12-hour shifts for 15 years.  Steve Souder, the director of public safety communications, said that most dispatchers prefer to work longer hours and have more time off between shifts to decompress.  But he acknowledges that staffing is always an issue; in Fairfax there are 24 vacancies.

"I don't know of any 911 center in the nation that is fully staffed," he said.  "We are losing people and seeking people in the same breath."

Loudoun County is considering extending shifts from eight hours to 12.

But there is concern that the growing complexity of the job is having a harsher effect on dispatchers even as they are working for longer stretches of time.  Technological changes mean that the job for about 600 dispatchers in the region is about to become more complicated and taxing.

In the next five years, call centers around the region and country will move toward a 911 system that can incorporate text, images and video as well as phone calls.  Known as Next Generation 911, the system development is a goal that goes back more than a decade but is only now being tested in a handful of centers in the United States.

Many dispatchers see the move as necessary for a world in which people increasingly text rather than talk.  But they wonder how analyzing new types of information, perhaps including violent crime scenes, will change an already difficult job.

"It's a whole new way of dispatching," said Charlynn Flaherty, director of public safety communications in Prince George's.  "Imagine seeing video of a baby not breathing or a person being shot.  There's going to be a lot of emotion to deal with on a personal level."

The coming changes, current stress and increasing call volume has led many dispatchers to press for growing awareness of their job hazards.  Coles, the Arlington dispatcher, said it is important that dispatchers receive the same appreciation extended to other public safety officials.

"When the mayor and the sheriff and the chief of police stand up and thank officers and firefighters," she said, "I would just love to hear someone say, 'I would like to thank all the dispatchers, all the call-takers.'"