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Calltaker to Calltaker: Adapting in a Text-to-9-1-1 World

Author: Vanessa Rodriguez, Senior Dispatcher, Collier County Sheriff's Office

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-11-06
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There is so much focus on the move to Next Generation 9-1-1, particularly the addition of text-to-9-1-1 to our public safety tool kit. Much of the attention is around the technology and how to fit this new communication medium into workflows. Of course, all that must take place before a single text-to-9-1-1 message is answered but we shouldn’t lose sight of the work that follows—the daily challenges calltakers will face to adapt their honed skills to the text-to-9-1-1 world.

The Collier County (FL) Sheriff Office first adopted a web-based text-to-9-1-1 system in 2014. The following year we transitioned to Airbus DS Communications’ VESTA® SMS solution, which integrates SMS messages into the VESTA 9-1-1 Calltaking platform. This makes answering text messages exactly like answering a voice call. The integration is so important because it means calltakers don’t have to think about how to manage the technology as we adapt to the unique challenges of a text-to-9-1-1 call for help.

No doubt there are lots of lessons ahead of all of us as calltakers and the public-at-large to adjust to this invaluable tool. It will take creative thinking and collaboration every day, but after 2 years of text-to-9-1-1 calltaking, there are a few bits of wisdom I’d share with those of you who are getting ready to implement, or using currently using, a text-to-9-1-system.

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Prepare for a New Public Mindset

We all understand the scenarios where there’s a benefit to texting 9-1-1 rather than calling—dangerous situations where a secret call for help is the only option or to serve those with hearing impairment. But there are also cultural pressures that drive citizens to text rather than call.

By most, but particularly by younger generations, phone calls are viewed as a more formal form of communication than a text message. You’ll call your mother on her birthday but text her when you’re thinking of her midday. We see the same can apply to contacting 9-1-1. Decades of 9-1-1 education campaigns have taught the public that calling 9-1-1 is for life saving help but that doesn’t always transfer to the public’s texting mindset. As an example, we’ve received texts for minor incidents, such as stolen car registration tags.

Calltakers should prepare themselves to encounter with more frequency a public perception that text-to-9-1-1 is more casual and can be used to report events that aren’t life threatening. Shifting that tide will take patience, repetition and public awareness campaigns led by local Public Safety agencies.

Find Paths to Better Responses

Every calltaker has their approach to handling a call. Minor additions and nuances that people respond better to include: how you order certain questions, phrase an order, or a tone of voice that you use only at work. Emergency texts for help are no different, though you may need to challenge yourself a little more. Here’s what I mean. 

When I first get a text call, I immediately respond with a pre-scripted message, “9-1-1, what is the address of your emergency?" and give the individual a little time to respond. But because a phone could be tucked in a pocket or just out of ear shot, if a quick response doesn’t come I send a second message to get their attention.

Once we’re exchanging information, I push to get the most vital details quickly—even more than on a voice call—because text conversations are slower and more likely to end abruptly, unlike most voice conversations.

Relying on pre-scripted messages can be tempting but as you learn more about a situation, tailored questions often get better responses. Get creative in what you ask for and how—build on the information you already know and leave no room for ambiguity. Help your caller give meaningful responses.

These tips are learned daily, bit by bit, and should be a regular point of conversation among calltakers, particularly in the early days of implementing text-to-9-1-1.


Connect How You Know Is Best

Anyone who’s been in the calltaker’s chair knows how much information can be gained from background noise and the rapid verbal exchanges possible during a call. By contrast, texting is slower and scrubbed of any audible context in the room. Even gauging the urgency in the caller’s voice is lost. But of course, they could be texting for a good reason.

So, it’s vital that you connect how you know best based on your experience and training. With every text for help, I ask if it’s safe for me to call the individual—with an emphasis on safe. Don’t make the individual feel obligated to call but the importance of a voice connection should be emphasized. This is especially true with younger generations, which may feel more socially comfortable texting though a call would be perfectly safe.

An additional consideration is language translation resources, which may not be equally accessible through text messages as voice conversations. Of course, this variable is entirely dependent on the call center but calltakers should know and consider in advance how they’ll need to respond to and connect with non-English speakers.

Finally, connecting how you know best is sometimes knowing when not to connect. If a single message is sent to 9-1-1 and then no additional response is received, calling the number can be tempting. But consider the many scenarios in which that call could endanger a life—there are actions that can be taken other than returning the call.


Get to the Information However You Can

There will be situations—whether it’s a single message with no response or an individual who can’t accurately identify where they are—when you have to get creative and think about how to leverage every resource available to you.

While you’re waiting for more detail from the texter, use the time to run CAD searches to look for similar calls for help in the past. Run reverse look-ups on the number to see if there are any names "or addresses" associated with the phone being used. In Collier County we have access to database to help us identify possible locations and past types of emergency that could inform a dispatch of first responders.

Though I work hard to get every scrap of information from the individual, sometimes the only option is to dispatch resources to a probable location to investigate further or conduct a wellness check. That has often led to uncovering the issue that encouraged the text—emergency or not.


Expect a Different Emotional Impact

Being a calltaker is without question an emotional job. Each day is different, challenging and rewarding. But the emotional impact of a text conversation is surprisingly different than the phone conversations we’ve all experienced.

Phone conversations are emotionally taxing in the moment because you experience the emergency with the caller. Tensions can run high. But you also have better situational awareness and, as a result, are more confident that you’ve done your job as well and as quickly as possible.

Text messages tend to be emotionally better for the calltaker in the moment, but there are pitfalls in the long run. Because of slower communication and less situational awareness, calltakers can feel far less in control of the situation. It’s also possible that an emergency is worse than the text conveys, meaning the response may not precisely meet the need.

On a voice call, the calltaker remains on the call with the caller until help arrives so you hear the first responders coming in and you know the person is being helped. But with a text, you don't know what happens when the first responders arrive. And if the result isn't a good thing, it can lead to feelings of remorse hours or days later.

All of us in public safety are facing growing pains and it’s critical we recognize that implementing the right technology is the correct first step—but it is the first step of many. The true success of Next Generation 9-1-1 will be driven by how much we share information with one another and look for each inch of ground we can gain so our communities are as well supported as we all want them to be.


Vanessa Rodriguez is a Senior Dispatcher at the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in Naples, Fla. She is a member of the Incident Dispatch Team and a Communications Training Officer.  She has been dispatching for six years and says that nothing is more rewarding than helping people.
For more information on the Airbus DS Communications VESTA SMS solution, see:
Photo above by Randall D. Larson, 9-1-1 Magazine Photo File.




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