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Managing a Last Call Broadcast: Traditions & Guidelines for Dispatch Centers

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

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-07-06
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via First Contact 9-1-1, LLC.

One of the toughest calls a public safety radio dispatcher/telecommunicator can handle is a line-of-duty death.  Being one of the last people to hear the voice of an officer, firefighter, or paramedic who dies in the line of duty can be traumatic and long-lasting, to say the least.  Or else, simply working the radio channel when it occurs, being responsible for the aftermath and coordinating the response of numerous supporting units and agencies throughout all that follows, can scar a dispatcher’s well-being for a long time.

Another tough call, less complicated but equally stressful, is transmitting the radio broadcast of the officer’s last call on his or her radio channel.  These on-air announcements are a tradition of the police and fire services, and are often made when a death in the line of duty has been confirmed, and then more formally on the day of the officer’s funeral or memorial service.  These announcements began to come into the general public’s awareness particularly after the death of nineteen firefighters on the Arizona Granite Mountain “Hotshot” fire crew on a wildlfire last June (2013).  Among our nation’s worst line of duty deaths on a single incident, the memorial service and last call broadcasts were seen by many due to youtube and its associated Facebook and Twitter links, allowing many to share in the grief and honor the fallen men and women of Prescott, Arizona.

That broadcast also prompted First Contact 9-1-1, for whom this commentary was originally written, to consider how many public safety agencies have a pre-plan for making a Last Call (sometimes called Final Call) broadcast?  When the worst case scenario visits your PSAP and you have the sad duty of honoring a fallen officer or unexpected death of a department member, how do you come up with a proper announcement?  What is the tradition or procedure in your department?  Is there one?  If not, what do you come up with?  What should the format be?  What is the proper verbiage to honor the decedent?  What statements will be appropriate to represent your agency during this memorial broadcast?  What input does his or her family members have?  Who decides when, on which channel(s), and who should read the solemn words to honor the deceased with a final radio call and tribute?

Click image to hear a recent example of a Last Call, broadcast by a dispatcher for the Omaha (NE) Police Department on May 26, 2015, in honor of detective Kerrie Orozco, gunned down while serving a warrant on May 20th.

As with many “high risk/low frequency” incidents, to cite Gordon Graham, there seems to be a large inconsistency in America’s 9-1-1 dispatch centers as to how these calls should be handled.  Given the extremely stressful, emotional environment during which a Last Call broadcast is to be made, trying to come up with what to say, when, and by whom from scratch, in the immediate aftermath of a death can be problematic, to say the least.  Having a procedure in place – just as many public safety agencies have Standard Operating Procedures for funeral and Honor Guard protocols – is a kind of procedural insurance policy that pays its dividends in having mapped out in advance how you should proceed, during a time of extreme grief, in formulating the what/when/how/etc. considerations needed to honor the fallen in a proper and standardized manner.

I queried a couple of dozen police and fire agencies as to what their procedures were in developing and/or implementing a Last Call broadcast.  Few dispatch centers had their own policies, but followed that of the associated police or fire department(s) they dispatched for.  Consolidated 9-1-1 centers that dispatch for multiple agencies generally followed the protocols of the department in need of the broadcast using material supplied by that affected department; procedures likely differed between agencies.  Those that had no SOPs created the appropriate broadcast to fill the need at the time.  As with many activities in common between 9-1-1 dispatch centers nationwide, there is little standardization as individual agencies, for the most part, have created their own procedures and protocols largely on an as-needed basis.

What follows here are guidelines and examples we’ve culled from a number of agencies which we hope may help you develop a pre-plan for composing a suitable Last Call broadcast for your department or dispatch center, in the hopes that you will never have to use it.  As we’ve found with most critical event SOPs, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it, to cite my mother’s oft-repeated wise counsel.  Thus, having a plan for when and how to make a Last Call broadcast with guidelines as to verbiage, will serve an agency well if and when such an unfortunate event transpires. 

The Last Call broadcast has been a tradition of public safety funerals for decades, although its manner of use differs between agencies.  Some agencies begin the broadcast by querying the fallen officer’s radio call sign, as if calling them for a normal broadcast.  When the officer (as expected) doesn’t respond, the dispatcher proceeds to transmit a specially formatted “final call” that briefly outlines the officer’s service and ends with a final message of farewell to the fallen officer. 

Example from East River Volunteer Fire Dept., Princeton, West Virginia:
“Lieutenant [name] of the East River Volunteer Fire Department gave his life in the line of duty on [date].   This is Lieutenant [name] ’s final call as he reports to his final duty station.  He carries with him our gratitude and appreciation for his sacrifice in the line of duty.”

Example from San Bernardino County S O (CA)
[Queries call sign, three times]
[After no answer: ] “All units stand by for tone out.  Code 33 [=do not broadcast] this channel, for final call.  This is the final call for Detective [name, badge #]  Detective [name] was fatally shot on [date] while answering the call for duty.  He gave of himself while serving his community with courage and valor.    The men and women of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department are forever grateful, and proud to have serviced with Detective [name] and will never forget his ultimate sacrifice.  All units, break for a moment of silence. [pause]  
[Name], may you rest in peace, knowing that your strength lives on in your wife, your legacy will be carried on through your children, and that your honor will continue on with all of us.  Detective [name], thank you for your service.  [Call sign] to you are clear to go 10-7 EOD [Out of Service, End of Duty].  Godspeed, sir.”
Code 33 is lifted. Control clear.

[Listen to this call online here ]

Last Call broadcasts and official agency funerals are not only performed for members killed in the line of duty, but often times for other deaths in the agency family.  An off-duty death may warrant a department funeral with honor guard and/or a memorial broadcast as well, based on department SOPs or approval by agency command staff.  My former agency developed a final call broadcast commemorating the death of a dispatcher after a year-long battle with cancer; the verbiage was developed among the team she had worked with and approved by Communications Center administration; a recording of the broadcast, which I had the honor and challenge of reading, was later played during her funeral.

Dispatchers for the Fire Department,  City of New York (FDNY), which after 9/11 has had far more Last Calls to broadcast in the shortest time period than any other fire department on the planet, does not have a specific “last call” announcement format, per se, but follows the procedure in their communications manual that govern broadcasting department messages. “Citywide and Borough dispatchers broadcast special messages when ordered or required,” reads the designated section.   These messages are often preceded by a “Signal” designation associated with the specific kind of broadcast; i.e., a “Signal 65-2” is used to “announce by radio the deaths of active uniformed members of the department, members serving in the Armed Forces, prominent officials of the National, State, or City Governments, distinguished citizens, or others not covered under the signal 5-5-5-5 (Line of Duty death of member).”  The 5-5-5-5 announcements are transmitted as soon as death is confirmed and the decedent’s family has been notified (in the case of 9/11, dispatchers made those announcements in the morning, containing all the names confirmed since the previous broadcast the morning before.  There were a number of very sad mornings for the FDNY in that dark September).

According to veteran FDNY dispatch supervisor Frank Raffa, his department’s protocols specify that, when used to precede an announcement to the entire department, the Signal 65-2 must be authorized by the Fire Commissioner or other designated chief.

Example for a Signal 6502 broadcast from FDNY:
The Signal 65-2 has been transmitted, all units stand by for a Department message, pause for 20 seconds, and repeat.  Pause for [an additional] 20 seconds, and state “The Signal 65-2 has been transmitted, message is as follows….”  These messages are transmitted twice, first at normal rate of speed, then slowly to accommodate a clear recording.  The message concludes with the dispatcher’s designated number and time of day.

On the opposite coast, dispatchers for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office (VCSO) in southern California do not have a specific policy on Last Call broadcasts, but likewise follow the department’s general procedures for alert messaging.  The protocol states that a radio announcement will be made for Sheriff’s Office members “who are in good standing and retiring or have passed away while still employed by VCSO,” as initiated by that person’s supervisor or the commander coordinating the retirement of funeral.  “Requests to deviate from the verbiage by including call signs, assignments, etc. are rarely approved in an effort to stay in compliance with FCC regulations,” said VCSO Communications Manager Danita Crombach.

Example from Ventura County, CA, incorporating ten-codes for In Service (10-8) and Out of Service (10-7):
“The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office is grateful for [rank or title and name] ’s 32 years of dedicated law enforcement service to the people of Ventura County.  10-7 April 1979 and 10-07 April 20-13. Rest in Peace.”

Other agencies, using verbiage drafted by department members and with approval from chief or designated commander, use the occasion of the Last Call broadcast to serve as a more specific tribute to the fallen officer.   “Departments and precincts often have unique traditions,” stated an unsigned article on law enforcement funeral customs posted at the funeralwise.com web site [www.funeralwise.com/customs/police/].  “For instance, the last radio call may include a mention of the officer’s background, length of service, and circumstances of death, or it may consist of a few simple words, usually ending in ‘Gone, but not forgotten.’”

Example from Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Warden Service:
1. [Tone, 3-second count]

2. [Unit ID], last call for Warden Pilot [ID #]…

Warden Pilot [name] unit number [#] end of watch [date], You have completed your mission here… you have been a good friend to all… we will remember your friendly smile and compassion… you have fought a good fight and now it has finished its course… now it is time to rest… all units break for a moment of silence [5 second count]
Warden Pilot [name] may you rest in peace knowing your strength lives on in your children, your love lives on in your wife and your honor lives on in all of us.
Warden Pilot [name] thank you for your service and ultimate sacrifice… you are clear to secure and remain with the Lord forever… goodbye, we have it from here.

3. Tones [3 count]

Example from the Albuquerque Police Department:
1. [Long Alert Tone], secure all airs.

2. “All units will be 10-3” [stop transmitting]

It is with a heavy heart we broadcast the passing of Lieutenant [name].
Those who worked for and with [name] found it impossible not to respect him and value his tremendous sense of humor.  His dedication to his family and the Albuquerque Police Department is well known by all and highly valued.  He impacted and gained the respect of so many in his short time here with us on Earth.
We know [name] will watch over his entire family, especially his wife [name] and children [names] as he travels to his chosen place in heaven.  [Name], you will be missed by all.
[Pause]
Lieutenant [Name], Call Sign [###].  Respond now to your final assignment at Sunset Memorial Park.”

3. 10-8 the air.

In the largely conservative traditions of the law enforcement and fire service communities, some announcements also include implicit or explicit religious statements, as may be appropriate to the officer or his/her family, and may dedicate several minutes of air time to honor their fallen brother or sister. 

Example from West Virginia State Police:
“Unit [#] respond to Heaven, contact God, our Father
He advises you have completed His mission for you here. He wants to see you regarding your final call.
You have been a good friend to all who have met you, brother, husband, and son beyond compare.
During your brief time we were allowed with you, we saw a trooper whose work was tireless, whose ethics were exemplary.  Your love for your job and your brothers and sisters in the badge was unmistakable.  Today and every day we return that love to you.

Last call broadcasts are not only for human officers – canine partners of officers who die in the line of duty have also received a memorial broadcast just as many receive department funerals in honor of their service to the department and community.  I am not aware of a last call broadcast for a fallen police horse, but I would not be surprised to find that an equal honor might have been bestowed upon an equine fallen in the line of duty.

Example from Bluefield Police Department, West Virginia:
“K-9 [name] of the Bluefield Police Department passed away on Thursday [date] after serving eight loyal years.
This is [name] ’s final call as she reports to her final duty station.
She carries with her out gratitude and appreciation for her sacrifice to protect and serve the Bluefield Police, her handler, and the community that she loved.
K-9 [name] is 10-7, 10-42.  God bless and Rest In Peace.”

Being the dispatcher selected (or volunteering) to read these often emotional announcements can be challenging, but can also be felt as a unique honor to serve the fallen officer’s memory, his fellow officers who will be listening, and his family, who may be given a tape of the broadcast in remembrance of the officer.  Doing so will also be challenging, as emotions will run high and keeping composure may be difficult.  Practice the reading in advance so that you don’t stumble over words, pronunciations of names, and can gain a feeling for the flow of words that will enable you to read them with a kind of formal compassion.

The nature of pre-planning is inherent in the operations of any public safety agency, and this is true of its Communications Center as well, whether it’s an agency-specific Comm Center or a regional center dispatchers for multiple agencies and disciplines. While it’s difficult to plan for one of an agency’s worst case scenarios – a line-of-duty death – having this element of the post-death activities planned in advance is one less item to complicate a difficult time. 

Related online resources:

What Is A Line Of Duty Death?
     http://policefunerals.blogspot.com/

Funeral Protocol for Line-of-Duty Deaths
      http://www.iaff.org/hs/LODD/funeralprotocol.html

Additional Resources for Law Enforcement Funerals
     http://www.funeralwise.com/customs/police_resources/

Article: Handling a Line Of Duty Death - A Double Tragedy in Oakland, 9-1-1 Magazine (1999)
     Archived: http://www.9-1-1magazine.com/Archives-0799-Liggin-Oakland-LODDs

This article was originally written for and posted on dispatcher training company First Contact 9-1-1 LLC’s web site [firstcontact911.com].  Slightly modified and reposted here with permission of Dave Larton.

A retired dispatcher of 25 years the San Jose Fire Department and the director of its field communications team for 18 years, Randall D. Larson has made the Last Call announcement on three occasions and served as Communications Unit Leader for the planning of a line of duty death funeral for an allied fire department.   Having retired in 2009, he continues to serve the field as editor of 9-1-1magazine.com, a member of the instructional team at First Contact 9-1-1, founder and plans chief for the annual California Mobile Command Center Rally, and is a writer in a variety of fields of interest.

Special thanks for assistance to: Danita Crombach, Barry Furey, Dave Larton, Rob McMullen, and Frank Raffa for assistance and input into compiling this article.

 

 

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