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An Unprecedented Time For Violence
Author: Barry Furey
In a time of unprecedented violence against police, public safety telecommunicators remain as the guardians of the gate when it comes to maintaining first responder safety. That means paying close attention to all callers, listening for warning signs, maintaining radio discipline, and utilizing their resources to the fullest.
As I sit typing this column, I am faced with the fact that during the first two months of 2016, eleven police officers have been shot and killed. That’s more than one fatality a week. There have also been numerous reports of active shooters from across the country. Practice does, unfortunately, make perfect, and our telecommunicators are becoming unintentional experts at handling calls involving what were once acts of unthinkable violence.
I started dispatching in 1972 and continued until 1979. After this, but for a four year hiatus, I was actively involved in managing public safety answering points until 2015. During this 40 year run, I had two officers die on my watch from a vehicle accident early on in my service, and lost another two from gun violence as a director. Additionally, a detective was kidnapped at gunpoint, and two other members of service suffered non-life threatening gunshot wounds in separate incidents. These were reasonably large centers, with correspondingly high call volumes. Still, the serious encounters I experienced during what was a long career are traumatic and tragic, they are statistically insignificant when measured by today’s standards.
The current lunacy is not confined to high crime areas, nor is it native to any one region. The communities involved are varied in both location and demographics, so this is not a trend that can be easily predicted. There is no single underlying cause. It’s not simply a performer, or a movement, or a crippled mental health system. Gun control by itself is not the answer. Are poverty or respect for authority or dysfunctional families the culprits? Not entirely. The truths lie somewhere in the toxic swirl of factors that now somehow say it’s normal to shoot up a campus or shoot down a cop. Unless we, as a society, have a serious self-check on how to deal with this disease, we’ll continue treating this terminal cancer armed with a proverbial box of Band-Aids.
Until that time, telecommunicators will remain as the guardians of the gate when it comes to maintaining first responder safety. That means paying close attention to all callers, listening for warning signs, maintaining radio discipline, and utilizing their resources to the fullest. While I covered many of these points in the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, in our current environment they bear constant reinforcement.
- This is an unprecedented time for violence. Telecommunicators must remain vigilant to warning signs both in incoming calls from the public, and in radio traffic from officers.
- Many people equate calling 9-1-1 to talking directly to the police, and explaining otherwise may be of little value. Be extra cautious in both your tone and demeanor so as to not further exacerbate what may already be a volatile situation.
- Clarify and document any threats, whether direct or implied. Get all the information you can. Who is the target? Why? When will this happen? How? Is the caller involved or is this third party information? Pass this information along to the proper authorities immediately.
- Similarly, be sure to document all complaints received against uniformed personnel, and relay them without delay.
- Dust off your bomb threat procedures. You may need them.
- Review all call types that require that at least two units be dispatched. If backup is not immediately available, notify both the primary unit and the district sergeant or squad commander of that fact.
- Do not be afraid to upgrade a call type if you question the priority. My standing rule has always been to elevate the urgency based upon the most critical event type considered, whenever in doubt. You can always argue about the “waste” of resources later. You can’t bring back a dead responder.
- Never give out officer’s locations, even if you have Automatic Vehicle Location and the caller queries about their response. While the question may be genuine, it can also be the prequel to an ambush.
- Never release officer duty status, assignment, or direct telephone numbers. If the officer is on duty, have them directly return the call.
- Read and re-read the Computer Aided Dispatch warnings and premise history files on all dispatches. This is where information concerning known threats to officers will be found, along with an audit trail that will reveal frequent and/or serious offenses at the location given. Where officers have access to this data via Mobile Data Terminals, it is still advisable to double check with them to assure that they acknowledge any alerts.
- Maintain radio discipline at all times. While many telecommunicators refrain from enforcement, thinking this a supervisory duty, to maintain control you have to be in charge. Do not accept microphone clicks as acknowledgements and insist on the use of full unit numbers. Don’t be afraid to ask for repeats or to clear the air, if necessary. Nothing should be left to chance.
- Know where your officers are at all times. Make sure your CAD status is always up to date. Conduct check-ins, as required. Impress your units with the need to inform you when they leave the vehicle, especially when it is to interact with the public.
- Remember, that while this concentration is being placed on law enforcement, acts of violence against fire and ambulance personnel are also on the rise. Similar concerns and considerations must also be provided for their safety.
These are but a few of the best practices that managers should discuss with their staff. Conversations should be expanded to include the agencies which you serve in order to develop a cohesive, unified plan. We are fast becoming unintentional experts. Let’s put that expertise to work.
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