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From the Chair: Our Hang Ups
Author: Paul D. Bagley
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
In a recent New York Times article it was intimated that a problem exists with regard to 9-1-1 hang ups and calls where dispatchers are confronted with silence at the other end of the line. While I believe that premier publications like the New York Times only run stories on the horrors of emergency services when they are experiencing slow news days, I’ll give the Times the benefit of the doubt and say it was a research piece that took some time to prepare. I’m all for raising the public consciousness about emergency dispatch, but I prefer it be done with a little less incendiary vibrato, and by appealing to intellect rather than emotion. At any rate, as a result of that piece it’s been suggested by a number of folks that I weigh into this topic and see where it leads us.
First, let’s understand that I’m an old-school dispatcher. My initial years were marked by answering phone lines that were not equipped with caller identification capability or even a suitable method for tracing from whence a call originated. We had no logging system, no call-check, and nothing other than dispatcher integrity to know that a call was actually received. We had our wits, which according to many, was only half a solution. 9-1-1 capability existed only in big cities, and advanced technology was purely a pipedream to us hicks here in the backwoods of New Hampshire. Although it would be decades before we would ever experience a “butt dial” from a cellular phone, we had our share of empty calls or open lines – calls where there is a connection but no one says anything. The frustrating element in those days was there was no way to trace them. Luckily for us the public had no idea just how uncommunicative our communications system really was.
One evening I received a call from a man instructing me to check out the police cruiser in a neighboring town where the police department was only part time. Despite trying to coax his name and address from him, the man was unrelenting. I sent a neighboring police unit to investigate and the officer discovered that the part time department’s cruiser had been fire-bombed. An hour or so later the same man called back trying to find out what happened. Again I tried prying out his name; again he was reticent. He finally stated that he didn’t want to get involved. I explained to him that he was already involved and that I was merely waiting for the man in the central telephone office to hand me a slip of paper with the caller’s name and phone number on it because the phone trace had already been completed. I further explained that if the caller gave me his name before that happened, he would be considered a witness; if he waited until afterward to give me his information, he would be considered an accomplice to Class A felony arson. He couldn’t give me his personal information fast enough.
We had no central office; no phone company employee sitting around on a Saturday night on the off chance he’d have to run a trace on one of my twenty in-coming phone lines. Had the caller stuck with his original strategy we never would have caught the culprits. That was then; now we have technology and we still run blind more often than we deem comfortable.
With the advent of Automatic Number Identification (ANI), Automatic Location Identification (ALI), the Global Positioning System (GPS), and late Twentieth Century computer technology guiding and protecting our lives, we have all kinds of tools available to dispatchers that are designed to make things more efficient. The problem is not every dispatch center across the land has access to all these cutting-edge technologies. Cellular technology is good, but it’s not inclusive. There are all kinds of places where cell phones are less than effective. Ever try using a cell phone in an elevator that is five stories below ground level? How about along Interstate 40 between Barstow and Needles, California, or between Kingman and Flagstaff, Arizona? There are all kinds of dry spots in those regions – no water and no cell coverage.
The concern suggested in the Times article had to do with how or even whether abandoned calls are handled at all. With the development of the Enhanced 9-1-1 system in my state, new laws were enacted that compel dispatchers to send someone. If the caller reports a fire, the fire department is sent; if the caller needs an ambulance, we send an ambulance. Every other call to 9-1-1 – butt dials, hang-ups, and open lines – a police officer is sent to verify whether or not there is an emergency. Is this a drain on police resources? Of course it is. Is it really necessary? It is essential!
Government established the original 9-1-1 system so that there would be a universal nationwide method of getting help in an emergency. Dialing three little digits was apparently still too much for many who preprogrammed it into their speed-dialers. The phone rings when no one is home; the new Labrador retriever puppy leaps up to the sound of the ringing bell on the wall and manages to knock the handset from the cradle onto the floor; as the handset lays there the puppy steps on the keypad. Somewhere in the process the speed dialer gets pressed and the 9-1-1 dispatcher is confronted with the sound of a panting puppy. The ANI/ALI data shows where the call is and the police respond to find a lonely and extremely friendly lab in the kitchen with a telephone handset lying on the floor. Thank you speed-dial!
That panting pup could easily have been an elderly person gasping for air because their oxygen supply ran out and they couldn’t catch their breath enough to speak. The periods of silence could easily have been that same elder lapsing into unconsciousness. There is no way of knowing for certain what is actually happening at the other end of the line until a trained set of eyeballs can observe things firsthand. Yet, there are jurisdictions in this country that have yet to embrace this method of verifying every 9-1-1 call, and I shudder to think of their liability exposure, much less their insurance premiums. True, the ratio of frivolous-to-real calls is staggeringly high, but letting even one real emergency call go unanswered in lieu of ignoring all the phonies is unacceptable in a zero-defects industry like emergency telecommunications. We must verify!
In addition to the insanity foisted upon dispatchers by those whom they serve, telephone manufacturers have also played a role. Although not even mentioned in NENA Document 56-501 published ten years ago, many portable telephones were programmed to automatically dial 9-1-1 when their batteries drained to a point where the phone’s power could no longer sustain voice transmission. This was to insure that a call for help begot an official response on the off chance there might be an emergency. This is partially why so many silent calls are received after prolonged power outages. Cops arrive to find the residence locked up tight and no one home.
The New York Times article pointed out the horrific realities of the silence that confronted the dispatcher handling the O.J. Simpson case. Being met with no sound on the line, or with only the ambient sounds of normalcy like a running dishwasher or the blare of television in the background, provide little solace. But obtaining no information is still acquiring information; it just doesn’t seem so to dispatchers. We’re equipped to fill in the blanks and answer the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why. On those occasions when we’re not given such an opportunity we feel cheated somehow. Only when the police arrive at the scene and determine what has happened, and only if they report their findings back to dispatch, do we achieve vindication.
Abandoned 9-1-1 calls are truly a nuisance, but it’s like a store owner computing the impact of shoplifting on his margin of profit; it’s the cost of doing business. The public fails to fully comprehend that the instant that second numeral one in the sequence is pushed their ANI/ALI data is captured by the PSAP. Many believe that sending a police officer to check up on these calls is a waste of municipal resources. But, every now and then there is the call that was initiated by one spouse and terminated by the other in the heat of a domestic squabble, and salvation rests in the hands of the police official that you send despite verbal assurances that all is well. Saving one real one justifies responding to all the fakes. Besides, responding to 9-1-1 hang ups or abandoned calls still constitutes a call-for-service, and police departments justify their budgets with those numbers every year; it’s the public’s cost of doing business.
What’s next? Well, there is Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), which promises all kinds of technological advances that will make the public’s access to emergency communications easier and seamless… for them. That doesn’t mean it will be any easier on dispatchers. NG9-1-1 promises to heap even more responsibility on those in The Chair. True, NG9-1-1 may provide a new wrinkle where sight and sound can be incorporated into calls providing dispatchers with a first-hand real-time look at what’s happening through phone and laptop cameras. But this presupposes that every communications center will instantly embrace all these new technologies the moment they’re available. While it might be a far cry from those days when I was bluffing the guy at the other end of the line that I had his info, it’s likely that comprehensive widespread upgrades will take considerable time and funding for this next evolution to be implemented universally, as was the case with E9-1-1.
Maybe while the federal cabal in Washington is working with the techno-geeks in trying to figure out what the new technology should look like, it could pay a little more attention toward making this next giant leap more affordable to every little hamlet in America. It’s fine to develop an architectural concept that will accommodate any size disaster, but if Ma and Pa Kettle and their fellow townsfolk can’t afford to purchase it, what good is it? Beyond cost, one thing that goes right along with technological advancements is the need to develop universal standards in dealing with the care and feeding of technology. Of course that would mean national standards for dispatching (akin to air traffic controlling) and fully-funded training for everyone who finds themselves in The Chair. But then, that’s a topic for yet another column.
Taking critical incident reports from Twitter and Facebook accounts and responding to text messaging from some fifteen-year-old who’s having a bad day with his girlfriend will be analogous to the good old days when we’d receive calls-for-service over the fax machine. We didn’t care much for the public choosing that medium for communicating with us, but we got used to it and eventually accepted it as the cost of our doing business. Just as those in The Chair rose to the challenges of dealing with dedicated emergency lines known as 9-1-1, and just as we accepted initiatives like emergency medical dispatch (EMD), telecommunicators will rise to the new challenges placed before them with NG9-1-1. There will always be plenty of curve balls hurled in our direction to test our professional acumen, and there will always be a learning curve. Let us hope that this next new wave of methods and equipment will finally help illuminate the true value of emergency dispatchers, if to no one else but to those whom we dispatch to calls. It’s too much to ever expect that the public will grasp our worth; after all, they’re still programming 9-1-1 into their speed dialers! As for the Times; well, it’s a newspaper; what more need I say?
Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher. He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.”
"From the Chair" is produced for 9-1-1 Magazine by 911Lifeline, a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs. For more information visit http://911lifeline.org.