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Training Tactics: Preparing for the Worst

Author: Richard Behr

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Jan/Feb 2002 issue.

On the morning of September 11th, I was flying from the East Coast to Chicago where I would change planes to fly on to Nashville, where I was scheduled to teach a dispatch class.  I was to be on the road teaching for a month and a half.  I first heard the news of the terrorist attacks upon my arrival at Chicago O’Hare airport.  All flights were cancelled so I scrambled to find a hotel.  My luggage wasn’t allowed off the flight, so I settled in at my hotel and became riveted to the television set.  Watching the news, I was like millions around the world; horrified at the tragic events and the loss of life.  My next thought was, “Oh my God.  What about the dispatchers who fielded the calls from the three crash sites?  I wonder how they are doing?  How are they going to cope?”

Over the next couple of days, we heard accounts of 9-1-1 calls made from the doomed airliner over Pennsylvania.  We heard accounts of radio traffic and 9-1-1 calls from Arlington, Virginia and Washington, D.C.  It wasn’t until much later that we heard excerpts of the radio tapes from New York and the panic in the voices on the radio.  What about the calltakers?  What about those professionals that surely were taking 9-1-1 calls from inside the World Trade Center before the collapse?

What horrific calls those must have been; a true critical incident at all three locations.  Now, in the aftermath, the realization of Critical Incident Stress is starting to settle.  How will we, as 9-1-1 professionals and American citizens, deal with the affects of the worst terrorist act committed against our country?  It won’t be an easy task, but it can and will be accomplished.

After three days in Chicago without my luggage and only my laptop in a carry-on, it began to become clear that I needed to rethink packing extra items in my carry-on.  I needed to be prepared in the event that, during the course of my travels, I became grounded again.  Then the thought occurred to me, “How prepared are we as 9-1-1 professionals to handle events that we’ve never been trained or prepared to handle?  What do we need in our professional “carry-on?”

Here are some suggested items to pack on your professional “carry-on:”


Emotional Preparedness

In the immediate days after the attacks, we all were glued to our TV sets.  We were stunned beyond belief.  One half of our brains couldn’t comprehend that what we were really seeing had actually occurred.  Watching the events over and over on video replay were traumatizing to us, sometimes without us realizing it had that affect.  One way to start “packing” is to turn the TV off once in a while.  Don’t watch the news all-day or nightlong.  Having a healthy awareness of what’s happening in the world is fine, but don’t set yourself up to becoming overwhelmed with information from the media.  The network news programs probably had their highest ratings ever and we kept traumatizing ourselves over and over again by watching news video.

Get back to business.  Continue on with your lives; go shopping, go to the movies, take a trip or weekend getaway, spend time with family and friends, anything that will help you get back into your routine.  Indulge yourself in a hobby; talk with others that may be affected; do something nice for others; do something that makes you feel good.

Educate yourself and get some training on the affects of Critical Incident Stress and it’s signs and symptoms.  Learn how to take care of your emotional well being, that of your loved ones and your co-workers.  During these trying times, callers are going to be scared and full of fear.  Using a little empathy with callers will help lessen their fears and will ease some of the stress we will encounter when taking their calls.


Training & Preparation

Pack a good amount of “The What If” game.  In the coming months, our profession is going to be faced with calls that we have little to no training for.  We will and are taking calls regarding situations that range from the ridiculous (“There’s a powdery substance at the bottom of my washing machine”) all the way to the “we have to do something, but what?” calls.  Examine your Communication policies/procedures, protocols and directives.  Are they evenly balanced with those for the field?  What about station and Communications Center security?  Have you developed a policy or protocol for not only taking those calls, but for dispatching them as well.  Many PSAPs around the country have developed new policies for handling suspicious circumstances involving powdery substances, and many won’t broadcast those calls over the air.  Many fire departments are requiring that a phone call be made to the responding station to inform them of the circumstances.  Other agencies without MDT/MCT capability have developed code words or special type codes to inform responders of a possible hazard.

Develop a resource list.  Contact your state, county or city offices of emergency services or management.  See if they have existing protocols for handling terrorist incidents; i.e., protection of power plants, water resources, natural gas processing plants, fuel storage facilities, telephone equipment, etc.  If your agency doesn’t already have access to their protocols, see if you can obtain copies.  Network with surrounding agencies to see if they have protocols in place that you can utilize and build upon. 

Here’s a short list of web resources to help you get started:,,,, 

Will we ever be prepared for all eventualities?  No, but being as prepared as possible will keep us one step ahead during these and upcoming trying times.

Training Tactics is a guest column about dispatcher training issues.   Richard Behr has been in public safety for over 29 years and is a senior instructor with Public Safety Training Consultants.  He also works as a dispatcher for San Bernardino City Fire Department, CA.  Richard is the author of “Under the Headset: Surviving Dispatcher Stress” and is a member of The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.  He is a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress and Board Certified in Emergency Crisis Response.



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