9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Worst Case Scenario: Trapped! What to Tell a Caller Locked in the Trunk of a Car

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, February 2014 (Part 1 of a 7 Part Series)
Written by Angie Stiefermann, employed with the Jefferson City Police Department for 21 years as a CTO and for the past eight years as a telecommunications supervisor and instructor as well.  As a member of  a department that encourages continuing education, Stiefermann feels a responsibility to do her part in educating others through affordable or free training with the APCO training partnership.  She is married to a police sergean and has two daughters.

As a 9-1-1 calltaker, there are days when you find yourself saying, "Every day is something new," while other days leave you feeling, "I've heard it all."  There are definitely days that bring nothing new to the table, but occasionally even a seasoned calltaker is taken aback by a situation they've never experienced before or a routine call that takes an unexpected turn.

Call to mind some unique situations that you may have never considered, or perhaps you have considered but dread the day that you might be faced with handling them.  In this series, I'm going to try to simplify several unique emergencies to aid you in becoming more proficient, and perhaps less intimidated, when handling those emergencies as a 9-1-1 calltaker.  In upcoming issues, I'll cover handling callers who are operating a vehicle with a stuck accelerator or failing brakes, or who are trapped in a submerged vehicle.  I'll also examine what to ask of a passenger in a downed or troubled aircraft, a victim of a home invasion in progress, or a caller who is trapped in a house fire.  Here, I'm going to focus briefly on handling a caller who has been locked in the trunk of a car.

Don't Panic
To start, encourage the caller not to panic by telling them you will help them.  Easier said than done, but, as with all anxious callers, they'll be able to problem solve much more effectively if they remain calm.  Trunks are not airtight, and although it may get stuffy, hot or cold, and the caller could hyperventilate, they aren't likely to suffocate.

Try to obtain as much information from the caller as possible.  Ascertain their location, direction of travel, where they last remember being and a time frame.  If their location is unknown and the vehicle is moving, ask them if the road seems to be gravel or paved, how fast they are going, and what other sounds they hear or sensations they experience that could better describe their location.  There could be information that doesn't necessarily assist in your efforts, but when passed on to responders it may trigger some personal knowledge and assist in finding the caller.

Since they've called 9-1-1. do your best to get a location based on cell tower triangulation, or consider having the cellphone provider ping the phone.  Even if the caller offers their location, it's recommended you verify with a rebid of the automatic location identification (ALI) information if possible.

Get a vehicle description and find out the circumstances that led to their current situation, as you would with any emergency call.  Recommendations hereafter should be based on your knowledge of how this happened whether accidental or in connection with a crime.  With safety considered first, gather as much information as possible until you have a clear understanding of the situation.

Escape Attempt
With a clear understanding of the situation that is taking place, next consider helping the caller extricate themselves from the vehicle.  Make sure that the caller feels they can do so safely, without drawing attention from a perpetrator, before encouraging an attempt.

Have them call out for help, particularly if their location is unknown.  Then, direct them to look for an emergency release handle.  Every car manufactured since 2002 is required to have some sort of internal trunk release hatch.  The most common type is a T-shaped, glow-in-the-dark emergency release.  The release can either be found hanging from the top of the trunk lid or inside the baggage compartment near the taillights.  If they pull the release, the trunk should pop open.

If they are unable to locate the emergency release, have the caller attempt to find a seat release in the trunk.  Many cars have fold-down rear seats, so encourage the caller to find a trunk mounted release, or they can just start kicking against them to try to force them down.  Many cars have a remote release lever or button, often located near the driver's seat, that is attached to the release mechanism in the trunk by a long cable.  The caller should feel around for the cable; it may be under the carpet.  The cable may be very difficult to pull, but could work and provide an escape route.

The caller could also feel around for some sort of tool to attempt to force the latch.  Some cars even come with a factory toolkit mounted in the trunk.

Knocking out the taillight will provide additional ventilation and possibly allow them to poke their hand or another object through the hole that can be seen by passersby.  If nothing else, they can pull the brake wires because, without brake lights there's a greater chance the car could be pulled over.  Once you, as the operator, know they've disabled a taillight or the brake lights, officers will have more descriptive information to assist them in locating the vehicle.

Out of the Car
There is a chance that the caller might be successful in escaping or a perpetrator might release them from the trunk.  If time allows, discuss with the caller what they should do if the latter occurs.  Recommend they lay the phone down or somehow keep the phone with them with the connection open so you may continue to monitor the conversation and re-bid or ping their location of necessary.

It is imperative that the caller do all that they can to help responders locate them.  In addition to their phone, leaving a piece of personal property or hair behind may aid investigators if they are removed from the vehicle.

This type of situation is never easy to handle, but we must be prepared to address situations of this kind in order to provide callers with the best chance of survival.  By reviewing these strategies, we have a better chance of providing help and guidance if we answer a call for one of these worst case scenarios.

Quick Guide to use When a Caller is Locked in a Trunk:
1. Location
  a. Where were they last?
  b.  Direction they are traveling
  c.  Sights  & sounds
  d. Re-bid or ping cellphone

2. Vehicle description

3. Find out the circumstances

4. Get them out
  a. Emergency release
  b. Fold down rear seats
  c. Trunk cable
  d. Kick out taillights & alert motorists
  e. Force the latch

5. Keep cell line open

6. Leave evidence behind

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