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From The Archives: Handling a Hostile Public

Author: Randall D. Larson, Editor, 9-1-1 Magazine

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In view of current events (see Barry Furey’s column here for our primary focus on the issue just now), this column from many years ago still seems rather relevant. - rdl


Originally published in our Nov/Dec 1998 issue


A recent incident in our jurisdiction fueled a degree of heated media debate and an intensely hostile reaction from much of the community that took a lot of dispatch managers by surprise. 

An incident occurred regarding debris in the freeway which involved a number of calls coming into our primary PSAP and being transferred to the jurisdiction responsible for handling this incident.  One call, however, was not referred – instead the caller was told to call the other jurisdiction herself.  This caller was none too pleased about this, and made the statement, “Never mind.  I’ll just let somebody get killed,” before hanging up.  This call came in 20 minutes after the first call was transferred to the responding agency.

The jurisdiction having responsibility for handling the traffic hazard, meanwhile, dispatched the call to an officer whose response was delayed while, unbeknownst to dispatch, he finished up paperwork at the office. 

You can guess what happened.  Before the officer’s arrival, a vehicle swerving to avoid the debris overturns, a passenger is killed, and the frustrated caller – the one who’s call wasn’t transferred – and her unfortunate comment winds up being broadcast nationwide on prime time.

While there were some legitimate concerns brought up about the way the call was handled – what I found most disturbing was the extraordinarily hostile outcry given by the public, and the media.  Reporters in Sacramento vilified the handling of the call, but never mentioned the first call that had been immediately transferred.  Other reports focused as well only on the one call (which came in on a non-emergency line) that wasn’t transferred.  A San Francisco newspaper described “the distress call that went unheeded,” ignoring its own statement one paragraph before that responders had already been alerted. A radio talk show a few days after the incident was a veritable gauntlet of hostility eagerly goaded along by the announcer, who asked callers if they thought the dispatcher should be fired.  When somebody asked where the supervisors were at the time, he mentioned they were on duty at the time of the incident, prompting angry callers to decry, “fire <<them!>>”   When the police department’s PIO came on the line to describe the department’s call-handling procedures, callers shouted “fire the police chief!” for signing off on those procedures. 

The public perceived this as a gross mishandling of an emergency, even though the first call had been processed properly 20 minutes before. Jumping to conclusions through an emotional-based outcry devoid of an understanding of how the system works resulted in a disturbing amount of hostility heaped upon both dispatch centers. The fact that the handling – properly or improperly – of one call had little if any impact on the unfortunate outcome of the event was lost in the emotional fervor that erupted in its aftermath, spawned by accusatory newspaper headlines and freewheeling announcers. The reasoned explanations of the PIO and a supervisor from a neighboring PSAP who tried to support the dispatch process were mostly ignored by the volatility raised against the dispatchers.

How do we handle this kind of public hostility?  Obviously, and foremost, it must be in accordance with department or agency policies in what can be said and by whom.  We may as well learn to expect media hostility and public outcry against real or perceived mistakes by emergency services and emergency dispatchers. They won’t tolerate anything less than perfection in our business, even if sometimes misunderstanding may be more the issue.

When confronted by hostility from the public, do not respond emotionally – you’ll be pouring gasoline on the fire.  Defuse the situation by remaining calm. Investigate the situation thoroughly and in a timely manner, without blaming or exonerating your personnel until that investigation is completed. Be proactive and positive, especially if it turns out mistakes were made.  Don’t ever cover up a mistake – own up to it and emphasize what’s being done to correct the situation.

Support your dispatchers who are feeling derided by the public. Maintain a public education program that includes the dispatch center to fuel a balance of positive and promotional stories in local papers.  Maintain an educational program to let the community know how the 9-1-1 process works. 

PSAPs can be hives of negative attitudes; make any necessary constructive changes and move on.

The public may too, before long.


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