9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Phantom Dispatcher Syndrome

Taken from Headsets911.com (The 911 Dispatcher Stress Experts)

Every dispatcher wants to do their best, well, most of them anyway.  Yet within our ranks there is the perception of perfection that manifests in a mindset I call - THE PHANTOM DISPATCHER SYNDROME!

The Phantom Dispatcher gets every call right, never screws up a teletype entry, never flubs a radio transmission.  Know anyone like that?  Didn't think so, but it doesn't stop people from trying.

In the quest to do a good job and consequently stay out of trouble we attempt to become the "perfect dispatcher".  You know, we don't make mistakes, at least we can't tell anyone that.  One of the greatest sources I stress I have observed comes from dispatchers believing that if they make a mistake then they are stupid, unworthy of love and deserve to be punished.  I have seen dispatchers get flustered when they gave out a call with the wrong information and then curse to themselves, "He (the officer) is going to think I'm an idiot!" Of course this just isn't true.  But your perceptions can rule your emotions, which control your actions, that can affect your performance.

We all like to be liked.  Yet our self image is many times dependent on what others (especially in our group) think about us.  We are extremely sensitive to the opinions of others.  This performance-based self worth can cause problems, not only on the job but off as well.  Lots of dispatchers I have spoken to have told me that they are really two people.  The person they are at work and the person you see outside the PD.  We all have been to department parties and have seen people we thought were outstanding, moral individuals act like heathen when they got a few cocktails down them.  The news is full of stories about police officers getting into trouble after duty hours for doing things that are not becoming an officer, and this happens to dispatchers as well.

The cause for this is simple.  We in the law enforcement business live in a world of perfection.  We have appropriate rules, regulations and standards that we work and live by because we work for and within the law.  Yet we know we are not perfect.  So when the occasion arises where one can "let loose", they often do.  This is not true for everyone of course, but more than enough to validate the example.

Here is another example of PDS.

Have you ever been on shift and the supervisor comes in and says something like, "Who left the dispatcher door unsecured?"

If you were there with more than a couple of other dispatchers the response was probably "I don't know, I didn't".  Or, "I wasn't the last one in", or maybe the response was just silence.

The fear of failure that pervades many dispatch centers sets up this scenario.  When something goes down and the boss is hot, the blame game begins.

I know, I spent 10 years doing it myself.  The nature of 911 communications leaves no real room for failure.  If you screw up you're going to hear about it.  This isn't to bash the system.  It has to be that way sometimes.  We are in a high risk business.  The lives of our officers and the public are in the balance.  When mistakes are made they are often addressed quickly and resolutely.  Yet while this is the nature of the beast we don't have to drive ourselves crazy just because we work in it.  We don't have to fear failure.  In fact when you are fearful of a certain result, what you are trying to avoid, you end up doing even more.  Fear is a powerful emotion.  It can save our life and help us if it is properly manifested.  Yet when it becomes chronic it can become very destructive.

There are NO perfect dispatchers.  While we do our jobs and try to do them well there are going to be times when we screw up.  The one thing about mistakes is that everyone makes them.  The best thing we can hope or strive for is that we learn from our mistakes and try not to repeat them.  Yet life is a learning process.  We didn't learn to walk in a day, nor drive, nor talk, nor eat by ourselves all in one day.

In my ten years of dispatching I wish I could tell you I didn't make any mistakes.  I wish I could tell you that I always got a perfect "5" on every evalutation.  No, I didn't.  But I did learn from my mistakes.  I did always get an "Exceeds the Standards" and I always came to work to try and do the best job I could and I am proud of my career.  As we know most dispatchers quit after only two years.  I lasted ten, and retired only to begin this company so I could teach others what I know.

But through my years I saw the PDS rear its ugly head more than I care to remember.  I  saw it ruin partnerships, friendships and people in the process.  I saw dispatchers who were partners to the end - through and through - turn on each other when the heat was up.  To be fair its really because the people affected didn't know there was any other way to be.  But there is a better way, we can break out of the Phantom Dispatcher Syndrome.

To begin change you must come to the realization that you are human.  You are not a machine.  The best you can do is learn from your mistakes and move on.  Life is a practice.  Yet practice doesn't make perfect, just better.  It's just a small start, but an important one.  Fear of failure should never be a motivation for doing a job well.  You do a good job because that is what you really want to do, not because you're afraid that if you don't you are any lesser of a human being.  There are variables to your behavior.  Sometimes these variables are going to cause you to fail.  But this doesn't mean you're a failure, it only means you're human.

For more information on scheduling a seminar contact Headsets911.com today.

Is Your Agency Ready?

Taken from Headsets911.com (The 911 Dispatcher Stress Experts)

For most dispatchers, the "big one" or event never comes.  For others it comes quite frequently, almost every day.  Yet just because your agency is small doesn't mean the critical incident cannot occur.  The question though is not "IF" but "when" the "Big Call" or disaster hits, how will your communication's center handle it?  Even more, how will you, the individual dispatcher handle it?

Jefferson County Sheriff's Office found out on April 20th, 1999, when at 11:19 am they received the first of many calls about an explosion in a field on the east side of Wadsworth Boulevard at Columbine High School.  Within one hour 31 more calls would follow.  Complainants reported, "multiple gunmen and explosions".  By midnight of that day, the dispatchers received literally hundreds more calls, including more than 340 just from the media.

In the end these dispatchers performed admirably.  Yet at the time of the call, just the normal manning was present.  In fact, just a total of six personnel were in the communications center when the first call was received.  I'm sure that none of them had a clue of what was going to unfold that day as they began their shift.  However, none of them will ever forget how fast things can get overwhelming.

Our agency had Hurricane Andrew.  Even though in Florida we live in the hurricane zone, we usually dealt with the "normal" of the storms we had seen to that point.  Lots of wind, a little property damage, frightened people on the phone and long hours "camped out" in dispatch.  But on August 24th, 1992, none of us were ready for that day.  We actually lost the roof to the city building.  Through a 150 mph storm that caused fifty-billion dollars of damage and left 500,000 homeless we learned a lot of lessons AFTER the fact.  But who would have thought?

One might think there is no way to prepare for an incident like that.  But I would ask why not?  Why can't a communications center be prepared to handle even the most unlikely scenario?  The answer is "they can", and since Columbine many agencies are re-thinking their disaster plans and training for "the impossible".

In most communications centers there are the usual spare batteries, handheld radios, flashlights and other equipment to be there when all hell breaks loose.  But how about the dispatchers?  Are they ready to handle any situation?  How trained are the dispatchers to handle critical situations not only as individuals but each shift as a team?

When I was a career man in the Army I can tell you that even though the best training in the world cannot completely prepare you for real combat, even so, it didn't hurt either.  Confidence in your job, your abilities come from KNOWING your job.  Not just in the narrow focus of your particular agency, but KNOWING your job as a 911 dispatcher.  Preparing yourself for every contingency can prepare you for that day when the phone rings, and the balloon literally goes up.

How can you do that?  First, a self-education is better than none.  Disaster training is one way to do this.  Many agencies have mock drills for different scenarios, does yours?  You might say, "We don't have the time" or "We're not that big of an agency".  I say, "Read the paper".  Even in the smallest of towns the biggest of incidents can occur.

Some centers opt for the "SOP blanket" The thinking; "It's in the SOP, so it's covered!"  That is true.  Yet how many dispatchers really read the SOP?  They should, but even when they do there are usually more questions than answers.  True, lack of resources can hamper your agency's ability to respond to a large-scale crisis.  Jefferson County quickly found that their resources were being tasked.  Yet quick thinking dispatchers and managers called in reinforcements.  Other off-duty dispatchers were called in.  In fact, many who heard the news through the media volunteered to help out.  This quick thinking "saved the day" on a day when a very terrible situation could have leveled even the best communication's center.

Training for the impossible isn't hard.  Yes, it takes time and a little imagination.  But having an established contingency plan is the key.  Here are some of the things your agency, no matter what the size, can do.

  1. Train for the impossible.  No situation is impossible!  Conduct training that uses situational role-playing.  Yes, train for that shooting, that airplane crash, that hazardous waste incident.  Why wait for the rain to fall to buy an umbrella.  Recent weather reports have predicted storms and rain.  Buy an umbrella BEFORE the storm and the rain.  Train for the impossible.
  2. Have after-action critiques.  Brainstorming sessions between managers and dispatchers and officers to discover weaknesses found during training and find solutions to them.  No one involved in emergency communications should be left out.  Fix the bugs in the system before an incident and they are less likely to occur DURING the incident.
  3. Establish a call-in procedure to shore-up manning in the event of an emergency.  It was nice that the Jefferson County dispatchers volunteered their services, but don't leave it at that.  Have a clear policy to have the communication's center properly manned when existing manning levels will likely be overwhelmed.  A good way to do this is to draft Mutual-Aid agreements with surrounding agencies.  In the case of disaster they would lend a helping hand, with additional personnel, reroute of non-emergency calls, etc.  Establish a fair but precise procedure for calling in off duty personnel.  While this "ordering of overtime" is usually a bug with some dispatchers, by and large when you have a large incident you won't like experience this happen.  My experience?  Real dispatchers LIVE for this.  They are in the job to help people!
  4. Lastly, READ and LEARN from other incidents in other jurisdictions.  There is a wealth of information on the web and in the media.  When an incident occurs elsewhere, find out as much information about that call and how the communications center handled it.  Learn from their lessons.  If mistakes were made by them you can ensure your agency doesn't repeat them.
These are just a few of the ways you can prepare your agency for the impossible call.  As it was written long ago, "It is better to shine as the Sun, than to fade as the Moon".  When that incident occurs, and it likely will someday, will your communcation's center be ready to shine?

Need more help?  Our seminar, "Stress and the Dispatcher" incorporates much of what you read here.  As Mr. MrAtamney says, "Knowledge and Experience are KEY in managing job related stress.  It is the unknown that leads to the fear that freezes initiative."

For more information on scheduling a seminar contact Headsets911.com today.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Worst Case Scenario: Escaping a Submerged Vehicle; How to Help a Caller Escape a Sinking Automobile

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, April 2014, Part 3 or a 7-Part Series
Written by Angie Stiefermann, employed with the Jefferson City Police Department for 21 years as a CTO and for the last 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.

As a 9-1-1 calltaker, there are 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.  This series aims 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 previous issues, we've discussed handling callers who have been locked in the trunk of a car, as well as callers operating a vehicle with a stuck accelerator or failing brakes.  In the future we'll 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.  In this installment, I'm going to focus on handling a caller trapped in a submerged vehicle.

In the article, "Help, My Car is Sinking" in the Oct. 2011 issue of Public Safety Communications, expert diver Robert May suggested that many escape recommendations for this situation are ineffective.  Even Mythbusters, a television show devised to test the validity of long-existing theories, tested various notions about escaping from a sinking vehicle, not all of which were successful.  Below are the best steps to follow when aiding a caller in a submerged vehicle.

First, as with any emergency, the caller should be directed to remain calm so that you can help them -- their car may float for up to 2-10 minutes, according to May.  While their location should be obtained as quickly as possible, May suggests that time might be wasted trying to gather location information rather than leading them to safety immediately.  The caller may be confused or unaware of their location, so when triaging the call, an operator must weigh the severity and determine if time is better spent getting a location or guiding the caller to safety.  If the location is known, send rescue units immediately.  If the caller does not know their location because they are disoriented after running off the roadway, or from other contributing factors such as intoxication or a medical emergency, obtain the last road they recall traveling on, where they left from and where they were headed to.

Tell the caller to place the phone, leaving the line open, in a pocket or bra while following your instructions.  The occupant and any passengers should then be encouraged to release their seatbelts; children should be release from their restraints and helped into the front seat.  Keeping the window closed during this time should slow the rate of water entering the vehicle until all parties are successfully out of their seatbelts.  If time allows, the operator should try to determine how deep the water is and how fast the water is entering the vehicle to help determine how much risk they are in.  The goal now is for them to exit out of the window and climb on top of their vehicle.

Electric windows may still work as long as the battery has power.  The sooner they can get a window down, the better.  If a window will not open, encourage the caller to break the glass.  The best way to do so is by punching the window or using a glass-breaking tool.  Most people will not have this specific tool on hand, so direct them to find a strong pointed object, such as a key, seatbelt buckle, posts on a headrest, rearview mirror handle, etc.  At this point, they should try everything possible.

The tool should be punched into the corner of the glass, and the caller should push into the glass with their shoulder as they punch.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for an occupant to open their door once it is mostly submerged due to the outside pressure of the water against the door.  Occupants are only encouraged to try to open the door as a last resort, for this will flood the car quickly, causing it to tip and potentially trap the occupants.

If the vehicle has stopped sinking, indicating the water is shallow, the caller may be able to wade or swim to land.  In cases where the vehicle is in moving water, victims should stay on top of the vehicle and hold on tightly until it comes to a stop.  If the water is deep and the vehicle sinks quickly, the caller will be forced to swim.  They should be encouraged to remove any heavy clothing that could drag them down in the swift water.  Clothing such as jeans can also become a flotation device if they knot the legs and grasp at the waist.  According to May, this method is taught in many water safety courses.  For callers forced to swim, he recommends that they travel with the current and angle toward the shore.

In cases where a vehicle crashes through ice, occupants should follow the same procedure; however, if forced to jump, they should land flat and roll to the bank to avoid breaking through the ice.  If the vehicle hasn't initially broken through the ice, it likely will soon.

If not all of the vehicle's occupants are ambulatory, the most agile should escape out of the window first and then assist others in crawling through the window.  A hysterical caller  may be inclined to fight the waters and should be reminded that the option remains for them to float if forced to enter the water.

First, quickly obtain a location and dispatch rescue units.  Ask the caller if they are able to communicate with the victim(s).  Encourage them to have the occupants roll down their windows, climb out and get on top of the car.

If the caller asks if they should attempt a rescue, warn them that they must be an excellent swimmer to do so.  If they wish to attempt a rescue, encourage them to take a tool to break the window if it isn't already open.  Submerged windows are more difficult to break -- if one of the vehicle's windows remains above water, they may wish to try that window first.

In the case of a submerged vehicle, time is of the essence, as is keeping a level head.  Encouraging your callers to remain calm and follow teh steps outlined here will allow them to make the most of the moments that could save lives.  As a 9-1-1 calltaker, it pays to address worst-case scenarios of this kind in order to provide callers with the best chance of survival.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Supervisory Negligence: Seven Forms of Deliberate Indifference & How to Avoid Them

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, April 2014
Written by Kyle Bradshaw, 29 year veteran of public safety and chief of DeKalb County (GA) Fire Investigations and Internal Affairs.  He is an adjunct instructor for the department of health, public safety and security at Georgia Piedmont Technical College and has served as a communications officer, police officer, firefighter, EMT, certified fire and explosion investigator (CFEI), and computer voice stress analyst (CVSA).

Last month, I introduced a topic that is rarely discussed in comm centers: the need for internal affairs.  The purpose of the unit is to protect the public, the agency and the employees, and its duty is to set ethical standards for the organization.  This month, I will address issues concerning supervisory negligence, which are best investigated by an internal affairs unit.

Think back to the days when you were sitting in your basic communications certification class.  Do you remember that one subject that bored you to tears?  Let me guess: legal liability.  I teach basic communication officers training classes throughout the country, and during this particular lesson I notice many students get that glazed look in their eyes, specifically when the discussion is about negligence.  Negligence is a tort, or a civil wrong, under common law.  There are four components of negligence: 1) duty; 2) breach of duty; 3) proximate causation; and 4) damages.  Let's take a closer look at each of these.

When a citizen dials 9-1-1, it is the duty of the PSAP to have a representative answer and provide assistance.  If you fail to provide this service, you have breached this duty to act.  This failure will be judged by the "reasonable man" doctrine.  In other words, what would a reasonable person in the same position, performing the same duties, under the same conditions do?  An example of breach of duty is not performing the policies and procedures of your agency, directly causing or worsening the citizen's injury due to your actions or inactions.  The resulting damages sustained can be financial, or the inability to function at a certain level.

Supervisors are also subject to issues of negligence.  Beyond the everyday actions or inactions by subordinates, supervisors face unique challenges.  Supervisory negligence is defined by U.S. Legal as "deliberate indifference," or "the conscious or reckless disregard of the consequences of one's acts or omissions."  All too often in administrative interviews, I see supervisors plead their case for how they acted on a perceived egregious act of a subordinate.  Yet when I read them the operating guidelines detailing the supervisory actions the situation called for, the truth becomes apparent and they realize their own failure to act.  Negligent supervision applies to supervision of employees.  There are seven common supervisory negligence issues departments face.

All employees must be trained to perform their jobs correctly and adequately.  Your department is charged with ensuring that this happens.  Depending on the size of your agency, training takes place either at a state facility, in a class hosted by multiple partner agencies, through private organizations or in an internal training department.  Basic training classes have certain mandates depending on statutory regulations and can be offered through either public or private vendors.  But does your agency offer continuing education?

Failure to train results in inadequacies in job performance.  Training should be job-relevant; instructors must be qualified; records must be maintained for audit; curriculum must be up-to-date and correct; and learning must be measured.  If the student performs inadequately, the supervisor must follow-up with additional training or some corrective action.

Failing to adequately direct telecommunicators with clear guidance as to how to perform their duties, through direct supervision or clear and concise policies and procedures, constitutes a failure to direct.  This includes the absence of agency policies and procedures, or merely having employees sign off on policies even when they don't understand them.  Well-written policies and procedures allow employees to understand how to perform their duties, give supervisors the ability to manage and achieve organizational goals, and enable the department to achieve its mission.  Policies must be accurate, address necessary aspects of the job, and be updated with legal aspects that address current standards.  Employees must read and understand these policies, and documented notification can assist with employee accountability and audits.  To ensure employee understanding, written examinations may also be administered.

You may think it's a relief if your agency does not have certain policies and procedures, but the mere absence of such constitutes an official policy.  Training officers may also pass on certain behaviors to their trainees because "that's the way we've always done it," and those behaviors become part of an agency's unofficial policy, even if it does not necessarily conform to current standards.  This unofficial policy will be the standard to which you and your agency will be held accountable.

Negligent entrustment can be a combination of failure to train and failure to supervise.  When employees operate comm center equipment, we entrust them to perform these tasks correctly within policies, mandates and statutes.  If the operator does not know how to properly utilize the equipment, then the supervisor or department will be deemed negligent.

For example, a new hire may have up to six months to attend a basic communications certification course under statutory law, and during the first few months that trainee works alongside a veteran employee.  Up to this point the trainee has done well, mimicking the role of the trainer, but then the trainer leaves the trainee alone just for a second.  What could happen?  The trainee answers an incoming call and it's a medical emergency.  The trainee has never sat for the basic certification class, much less an advanced calltaking class such as EMD.  The trainee, in good faith, attempts to give medical advice to the caller, only to worsen the situation.  When the trainer left the trainee alone, this constituted deliberate indifference, resulting in a failure to supervise and negligently entrusting the trainee with departmental equipment.

Public safety agencies can get into trouble by assigning people to positions that they are not qualified to fill.  The 9-1-1 field has low retention rates, leaving many open positions to fill.  Many departments have mandatory overtime built into the normal work schedule because they do not have enough staff to fill the needed shifts.  Overworked, under-paid and under-staffed are all common complaints in the industry; skilled employees are in high demand.

Depending on the retention rate of your department, you might see an employee promoted to a supervisory position simply because they were the only one left with any amount of seniority.  Seniority and qualifications, however, are two very different things.  An example might be a senior operator assigned to a training position, despite having never attended a train-the-trainer, method of instruction, or instructor trainer course.  These courses are crucial for a trainer to understand the principles of adult education, classroom behavior, the fundamentals of a lesson plan and how comprehensive and cognitive behavior are measured.  It's incumbent upon the director, supervisors and supervisory training staff to determine if this person actually understands the job well enough to train someone else.  If so, then they still need training to understand how to effectively deliver this knowledge to a new hire.

This should be self-explanatory; if an employee does something wrong, then you discipline.  But this is always easier said than done.  My experience in internal affairs has shown that supervisors can have great difficulty disciplining employees. One factor is if they do not feel supported by the chain of command.  Many employees, if disciplined, want to file some form of complaint that they are being harassed by their supervisor.  For the most part, however, this is not the case.

We all make mistakes -- subordinates and supervisors alike.  Instead of disciplining an action or inaction, we can look at the overall goal of what we are striving to achieve:  correcting improper behavior.  The actions or inactions of employees constitute a behavior.  When the action of the employee is not in accordance with a policy, procedure, mandate or law, the department's goal is to correct the action and change the behavior.  An employee's role is to carry out tasks, which they are trained and certified to do, ensuring the department's mission and goals are being accomplished.  The role of the supervisor is to engage and lead their staff, ensure that tasks are completed correctly and manage the department's mission.

If employees follow a well-written set of policies and are completely trained to perform their job, then they should not fear being disciplined.  If the department has a strong set of policies, then managers should not fear using them to correct behavior.  The department should use corrective action progressively and fairly.  Looking the other way or treating one individual harsher than others will have negative consequences for the supervisor.

As I stated last month, it is the job of the internal affairs office to ensure policies and procedures are adhered to through administrative investigaions.  This ensures that ethical behavior is accomplished for the department by its employees.  If your department does not have an internal affairs unit, there must be something else in place to investigate allegations of employee misconduct.  In addition, the department must have a system for citizens to voice complaints and for employees to have a grievance process.

Have you ever observed a rogue employee who should have been fired long ago and wondered how the agency could have allowed that to happen?  The preceding failures can become mountains that make it very difficult for a supervisor or the department to alleviate itself of a problem employee, begetting the cliche: "We bought it, we own it."

A supervisor is charged to investigate allegations of misconduct.  If they do not do so, it is deliberate indifference.  If there is a violation of policy discovered through the investigation, then intervention must take place with employee-corrective action.  Progressive corrective action should begin with written counseling, and then proceed to suspension, demotion and termination.  Some acts, such as wanton disregard of policy, require immediate termination.

When we fail to train, direct, discipline or investigate, or negligently entrust, assign, or retain, it creates deliberate indifference, causing supervisory negligence.  As a supervisor, you have a duty to the organization, your subordinates, and the citizens you serve, to ethically adhere to the policies and procedures of your organization, mandates and statutes.  As an employee, you have the same duty to perform the tasks in which you have been trained and entrusted to do.  Not everything can be avoided, but certain situations can be minimized or defended.  Armed with a well-written set of current legal policies, a well-trained staff that is qualified to manage and lead, records that can be audited and proven to meet standards, and an investigatory unit to address allegations of employee misconduct and lead to successful corrective action, your organization will be better equipped to set the example of excellence.

Risk Management: Expert Advice on Identifying & Preventing Risk in the PSAP

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, March 2014
Written by Craig Scholl, RPL, a senior emergency communicator at Clinton County (NY) Emergency Services, member of APCOs Editorial Advisory Committee and past president of the Atlantic Chapter.  Gordon Graham and Tom Catino also contributed to this article.  Coupled with his extensive background in law enforcement, Gordon Graham's education as a risk manager and experience as a practicing attorney have allowed him to become recognized as a leading professional speaker in both private and public sector organizations.

The importance of risk management is such that I'm asking you not to read this article unless you promise to share it with at least one other person - whether they're a coworker, supervisor or manager.

Every profession has a certain level of risk associated with it, but the nature of our work in public safety communications leaves us and our employers especially vulnerable to legal liability.  A mishandled call for help can mean the difference between life and death, so it's critical that telecommunicators remain diligent and always follow the procedures laid out in agency policies and official documents.  Taking personal responsibility for managing risk and protecting both the public and the agency is the first step to a secure and satisfying career in public safety.

I spent the early part of my career listening to various managers refer to my colleagues and I as "the dispatchers."  This mindset was prevalent in the early to mid-1980's, but thankfully not so much anymore.  I often wondered how someone could think in this way -- I was expected to keep first responders safe and informed, represent my agency in a professional manner when someone called for assistance, and protect members of the public when they were faced with an emergency, not to mention all the other duties assigned on a day-to-day basis.  I was so much more than just a dispatcher and I knew that I made a difference.

The first time I heard the term "risk management" was early in my career when I took the basic course for public safety telecommunicators from the APCO Institute.  As telecommunicators, avoiding risk is instilled in us as an inherent part of our jobs. We participate in risk management activities on a daily basis, often without even realizing it.  In most cases, risk management strategies are hidden in the policies and procedures we follow on a daily basis.

One of the best resources for developing these policies is the staff who will ultimately be responsible for abiding by the directive.  As telecommunicators, we use policy and procedures on a daily basis.  These are living documents that are changed when needed.  We may assume that these policies exist simply because it's what the boss wants us to do, but in fact they are generally documentation of lessons learned.  They were developed (perhaps even with our own input) and then evolved through trial and tribulation before being enacted by our agency.  This is what we do in our field; we learn from each other and make changes based on what we learn in order to improve our operations.

In August 2003, on the eve of the APCO International Conference & Expo in Anaheim, Calif., APCO's executive council met for two days of business sessions.  The first day included a presentation by Gordon Graham, founder of risk management service provider Lexipol and a 33-year veteran of California law enforcement.  Graham's work in risk management spans many different disciplines, and his extensive experience make him a valuable resource for PSAP managers, supervisors and dispatch staff.

Lexipol's aim is to standardize policy, procedure and training in public safety operations.  Most law enforcement agencies in California currently use the Lexipol Knowledge Management System, and many other states also use this approach to their law enforcement operations.  The system has greatly improved the safety of police personnel and influenced a dramatic reduction in claims, settlements and verdicts against law enforcement agencies.

In Anaheim, Graham presented a number of his rules for risk management, which I've received his permission to share with you here.  Much of his strategy is centered on personnel.  Agencies must strive for continuous improvement in staff members, and continuous training, recertification and education are pillars of a strong risk management policy.  In the same vein, organizations must start by hiring quality people.  "If you hire stupid people, they are not going to get better over time," Graham says.  This is especially true for supervisors, who are responsible for spotting problems -- whether procedural or personnel issues -- before they become tragedies.

A sound risk management strategy is one in which the agency and all of its members have a healthy respect for the dangers and risks they face.  Personnel must be willing and able to learn from their mistakes, and the organization must establish performance metrics by which to hold individuals accountable.  As Graham says, "Rules without enforcement are just nice words."

Many of us in the public safety communications field share a common concern for the quality of our profession, and we often feel that the public deserves better.  We must improve the quality of the way we do business.  We need to constantly strive for improvement and deliver the public better than minimum standards.  We need to up our game, especially in light of national trends in video and audio recording and public records access.  What we learned from Graham's presentation in Anaheim is that we need to do more than get things done, we need to do them right.

We're all familiar with the fire service's Everyone Goes Home initiative, which is aimed at reducing the number of line of duty death calls.  The law enforcement community has a similar program called Below 100, which strives to reduce the number of line of duty deaths to less than 100 per year, a number not seen since 1944.  What about us in the communications field?  What can we do to assist in these endeavors?

Identifying risk is the first step in the proactive risk management process and provides the opportunities, indicators and information necessary for an agency to identify problem areas before they adversely affect operations and staff.  In our high-risk jobs, complacency is the biggest culprit of human error.  Dispatchers and calltakers must not get overly confident in their jobs, think that they know and have seen everything, or fall into the "it won't happen to me" way of thinking.

I asked Graham what his advice would be to telecommunicators, and he shared that whether you are fresh on the job or have several years under your belt, his advice remains the same:  "Never get complacent."  Graham comes from an extensive career in public safety, so he knows all too well the calls we handle on a daily basis:  "Hey, is it raining outside?" "Was that an earthquake?" "Did the Dodgers win tonight?"  Of course we get fed up with these calls, but never forget that the next time that phone rings or the radio crackles, it could be a life-changing event -- a baby choking or an officer who needs help.  You have one opportunity to make a difference, so answer that call with a clean slate and without assumptions.

There are other factors that contribute to errors and situations in which the telecommunicator places themself and their agency in jeopardy.  Fatigue is a big risk factor.  How many of us are working excessive hours or suffer from lack of sleep?  Staying alert is a dispatcher's imperative.  I'm also a firm believer that cellphones, tablets and other personal devices have no business being in the PSAP.  It only takes a few seconds of distraction to have a serious impact on our citizens, ourselves or our agencies.

Evaluating risk is the responsibility of not only supervisors and upper management, but of the dispatchers and calltakers as well.  Whatever your title is, you make a difference.  On a daily basis, you are the frontline of communication with the public and first responders, so remember Graham's mantra:  "Predictable is preventable."

Worst Case Scenario: Can't Stop! What to Tell a Caller with a Stuck Accelerator

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, March 2014, Part 2 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 last eight years as a telecommunications supervisor and instructor.  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.

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.

Last month's article focused on the unexpected call you could receive from someone who is locked in the trunk of a car.  This month I am going to examine how you can help someone who is operating a vehicle with a stuck accelerator or failed brakes.

A situation in which a motorist experiences a stuck accelerator pedal is rare, and receiving calls from a victim in this situation is even more rare.  This issue gained national attention following the massive Toyota recall in 2009 due to issues with stuck accelerator pedals, and the death of off-duty California state trooper Mark Saylor and three family members the same year due to a stuck accelerator.  Though you may never be faced with this scenario during your career, it's advantageous to be prepared to deal with it just in case it does.  What you tell a caller could save a life.

As with all emergencies, the caller's location should be ascertained and emergency services sent.  However, the operator should not become so focused on the location that they don't give the caller some tools to aid them in slowing the vehicle immediately.  Depending upon speed, roadway, time of day and traffic conditions, an operator may have several minutes or just a few seconds to help the caller.

Frantic callers are not always the best problem solvers, so it's important that dispatchers remain patient and start with the basics.  Considering the altered mental state of some callers, the reason for the acceleration may simply be that the driver is stepping on the gas rather than the brake.  The operator should initially ask the caller what happens when they take their foot off the pedal altogether.  If the vehicle slows, they should be directed to either put their foot down on the pedal to the far left or stay off the pedals altogether and allow the vehicle to slow on its own.

If that is not the issue then there might be a problem with the floor mat.  In the case of the off-duty trooper and his family, the cause of the unexpected acceleration was determined to be an improperly sized floor mat installed by the company that loaned the trooper the car.  If possible and safe, have the caller pull back the floor mat and ensure that it isn't lodged under the pedal.  If the floor mat cannot be dislodged, they should firmly and steadily step on the brake pedal with both feet.  They should not pump the brake pedal repeatedly, as this will increase the effort required to slow the vehicle.  If the foot brake alone will not bring the vehicle to a stop, suggest the driver slowly engage the emergency brake of the car.

Another suggestion is to shift the transmission gear to the neutral position and use the brakes to make a controlled stop.  In neutral, the operator should continue to have power steering.  If the operator is unable to put the vehicle in neutral, then they should turn the engine completely off.  Power assist to steering and brake systems will then be lost.

If the vehicle is equipped with an engine start/stop button, the caller should firmly and steadily push the button for at least three seconds to turn off the engine.  They should not tap the button, but hold it down firmly.  If the vehicle is equipped with a conventional key ignition, they should turn the ignition key to the ACC position to turn off the engine.  Make sure they do not remove the key from the ingnition as this will lock the steering wheel.

As you assist the caller with options to stop the vehicle, ascertain their speed.  Suggest that they turn on their hazard lights and bear down on their car horn to alert other motorists, particularly when they approach intersections and heavy traffic.

It is imperative that the caller do all that they can to slow and/or stop the vehicle; if they are unable to do that, then they should try to do all they can to protect the people around them.

This type of situation is never easy to handle, but we must be prepared to tackle this type of call so that we can do our best to protect our callers.  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.