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12 Things I Learned About Dispatchers on the Internet... kind of.

Author: Barry Furey

Date: 2016-02-07
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Just before Thanksgiving last year, an article entitled 12 Things That You Definitely Didn't Know About 911 Dispatchers hit the web, appearing on several sites simultaneously. Since it did not carry a byline, I am unable to attribute the source or understand his or her experience in the field of public safety. Throughout the holiday season, this posting was linked to and commented on in social media circles frequented by folks from our profession. As suggested by the title, the piece promises to provide a dozen bits of insight into our world for consumption by the lay person. Letting folks in on our “trade secrets” seems, on the surface, to be a good idea. After all, how many times have you or a co-worker commented that, “if only these callers understood what it is we actually do?”

For the most part, the twelve things turned out to be pretty basic. Are most reports, as suggested, not emergencies? Although the definition of what constitutes an emergency varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, it’s true that much of what we deal with on a daily basis doesn’t qualify as life-threatening. Is there really a hierarchy for handling calls? Yep, just like in the emergency room, resources go first to those who need help the most. Should you use a landline whenever possible? Until location technology further improves, you’ll get no argument there. Are many of us traumatized by what we hear over the headset? A resounding, “hell, yes!” Thankfully, we’re finally recognizing it and taking steps to help. Are calls involving infants the worst? In most cases, you bet. Regular customers? Who doesn’t have a frequent flyers list? Butt dials? Hey, welcome to our world. But past this, a few items in particular raised concern. Let me tell you why.

For starters, the author suggests that you don’t have to talk to get help, stating “If you're in a bad situation and can't speak, dispatchers will communicate with you through buttons.” You don’t have to talk to get help? Maybe if you send a text this is true (where text-to-911 is available), but a “no-voice” call will likely be treated as a hang-up after a TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) query. If you’re on a mobile device, you may or may not get an officer dispatched to investigate the call, and he or she may or may not find you. Yes, I am aware of areas that have established so-called “codes” for callers to indicate there is an emergency, but these are far from universal. There is no nationwide standard series of beeps or secret silent handshake that will trigger an emergency response. To suggest that there is creates an expectation that we have no chance of fulfilling. I have seen telecommunicators figure out that “pizza orders” and other veiled calls were really cries for help, and manage these to successful conclusion. Typically, these happy endings are more the result of good training, careful listening, and the grace of God than of any formalized policy or procedure.

Another statement of concern is “they [meaning us] don’t care why it happened.” I beg to conditionally disagree. Do we need your entire life history from birth, or want to know that your Aunt Tilly’s second cousin had a neighbor who once knew someone to whom something like this almost happened? Of course not! And I’ll also acknowledge the fact that the nuts and bolts of what we are after are the where and what. But, a little backstory goes a long way. I can give you a laundry list of calls wherein the “why” will drastically change the dispatch because it provides a vision into factors such as domestic disputes, drug and alcohol involvement, and criminal activity.  A better insight into our world is that we are going to ask a lot of questions that may not make sense to the caller, but make a difference as to the type and priority of assistance they will receive.

One of my favorite things that everyone “needs to know” has to be our ability to do two things at once, as dramatized by the observation that “The dispatcher may be knitting when you call.” While I can’t disagree that ours is a wonderful world full of multi-tasking, I would have liked a more appropriate example. What could be a more fitting testimonial to our skills than the fact that we can continue our personal craft projects on government time while your loved one is in cardiac arrest? Imagine if we were unprofessional enough to lose the stitch count while instructing CPR? “One….two…. oh, dang it, I’ve lost track! Mrs. Johnson, hold on a minute while I pull out the sleeve on this sweater I’ve been knitting for the county fair. We’ll get back to your dying husband in a second.”

At a time when we are suffering through a decades’ long pandemic of telecommunicator shortages, historically high call volumes and unprecedented technology changes, should we as a profession be remembered for taking up knitting to avoid having “idle hands?” My Spidey sense tells me we should not. This is the same sense I use to determine that you’re fibbing and decide not send you help. I mention this only because, “Based on tone and context, most dispatchers can tell whether or not callers are lying, and can then respond to the situation accordingly.” Who says you can’t learn anything on the Internet?

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in three states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See www.barryfurey.com

Photos: from the Internet.  Clockwise from top left: viralnova, youtube, megavirals, damn13, funnyvilla.

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