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A Matter of Perception

Author: Dave Larton

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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Dave Larton

Dispatchers and Public Expectations

One of the great things about 9-1-1 Magazine has been the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas that we hope would be of benefit to the 9-1-1 community. In many cases, the magazine has prompted a discussion of recent news, events, and procedures that we hope have led to the movement of the 9-1-1 profession forward in a positive direction.

It’s time to have similar discussion…we hope you’ll take this issue (and particularly this column) and share it with your partners…The topic? Looking at your sleeve….

Item: Two EMT/dispatchers are under investigation for failing to assist a pregnant restaurant worker, who was having difficulty breathing. Rather than coming to the victim’s aid, they directed the restaurant to call 9-1-1, and continued to get their lunch.

Item: A 9-1-1 call of a possible body in a field was never acted upon until the next day. The call was never dispatched; the caller could not provide an exact location and the calltaker could not get the call to verify in CAD. The caller evidently stated that he would call back with a better address…he did not call back.

Item: A dispatcher is under investigation for starting a Twitter group, allegedly mocking the calls she was receiving, in real time, by using her cell phone in the Center. (The Twitter group has since been taken down.)

Now, we’re not out to implicate any particular dispatcher, nor to put any particular PSAP in a bad light. We also recognize the fact that there are many, many, 9-1-1 dispatchers and calltakers who have done Herculean efforts to save a life, usually with little or no recognition from anyone except their partners (and even that isn’t always the case…) But, which stories make it onto the six o’clock news?

Having said that, let’s talk a little about public perception.

The media has done a great job in the last twenty five years of hyping 9-1-1. We’ve put it on our police cars, on our fire engines, on our ambulances. (Call 9-1-1…Call 9-1-1…) We’ve encouraged people to call 9-1-1, but we’ve also given many of them the impression that help is right around the corner.

Sadly, we know that life does not always imitate art. The ambulance does not always arrive in thirty seconds, as we see on TV. The problem is not always effectively handled in two minutes; kids aren’t back playing on the swing set three minutes later (just in time for the commercial)…

But, what is the public’s perception of 9-1-1? Would you agree that there is a distinct disconnect between what we actually do…and what the public thinks we do?

What can be done?

First, 9-1-1 as a profession must be on our best game 24/7. We need to recognize that every incoming call constitutes a potential crisis call; we just haven’t gotten to the end of the call as yet. We need to tell folks what we can do’; not what we can’t do…

I’m reminded of the public’s perception when I recall the little old man who was reporting graffiti on his fence on day shift…Yep, I know…graffiti on a fence at 0930 will be graffiti at 1700…no big deal…but to the little old man, who has to paint that fence, it’s a big thing. Public Perception…

Second, we need to tell the 9-1-1 story. We need to tell that story by our words, deeds and actions. We’ve seen examples of dispatchers and calltakers taking the extra effort and saving lives of countless citizens…but which stories make the six o’clock news?

Our relationship with our local media is a love-hate story at best…we’re usually instructed to reveal nothing to the media, and we usually don’t. At the same time, we have need of those same media outlets to publicize our 9-1-1 successes all year long…and not just in April during National Telecommunicators Week. The public needs to catch us doing something right; we know how easily they will catch us doing something wrong.

Finally…look at your sleeve. Does it have a patch? Maybe it’s a departmental logo polo shirt you wear. It identifies you as a member of a public safety team. It’s important that you essentially wear a walking billboard that tells the public that you are a Public safety professional.

Whether you are on or off-duty, at lunch or at the supermarket, your words, deeds and actions reflect the entire Department. Indeed, they may reflect, positively or negatively, on the 9-1-1 profession as a whole.

I’ve always encouraged partners to be a ‘five percenter’….that is, to do that little extra five percent effort that will help somebody else. Do it because you want to…not because you have to. Do it… because it’s the right thing to do.

Officers need to qualify with their weapons on a regular basis because their skills must be sharp when that particular crisis moment in time comes along. Many never have the occasion to draw their weapons throughout their entire career except at the range. Until one day…and then it’s too late to wish you’d had more practice.

For the 9-1-1 profession, we need to constantly ‘qualify’ in our particular skill sets by attending regular training sessions, by participating in exercises and scenarios, and by playing a mental game of ‘what if’…to keep our skills at their very best. Our callers expect it, the public demands it…and their perception is that we do it anyway. Let’s not prove them wrong.

Associate Editor Dave Larton has been involved with public safety for 26 years, 15 of them in dispatch. He is currently the Coastal Region Auxiliary Communications Service (ACS) Officer for the California Office of Emergency Services. A nationally known dispatch instructor, Dave continues to provide training and consulting services for dispatchers and PSAP managers through First Contact 9-1-1.

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