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Response & Recognition: A look behind the scenes at San Bernardino PD Dispatch During the Terrorist Shooting – and the Dispatcher Invited to the State of the Union Address
Author: Randall D. Larson, Editor, 9-1-1 Magazine
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
`9-1-1 Magazine interviews the dispatch supervisor who directed the emergency response during the Dec. 2nd San Bernardino terror attack about the incident and about being invited to be a invited to be a guest of Congresswoman Norma J. Torres and attend President Obama’s State of the Union Address.
The public safety dispatcher who directed the emergency response during the Dec. 2nd San Bernardino terror attack was invited to be a special guest at President Obama’s State of the Union Address Tuesday evening.
Since 1982, US Presidents and ultimately congresspersons and others have invited guests from their districts to attend the State of the Union addresses in honor of special accomplishments and other notable achievements.
Right: San Bernardino PD Dispatch Supervisor Annemarie Teall (left) with Congresswoman Norma J. Torres
Representative Norma J. Torres (D-Pomona), a former 9-1-1 dispatcher herself, invited Annemarie Teall to be her guest at the event. Annemarie has worked as a dispatcher for the past 27 years and is currently Police Dispatch Supervisor for the City of San Bernardino. “Annemarie was the calm voice we all heard on the 9-1-1 [radio] recordings from that fateful day,” Ms. Torres said. “As panic spread throughout the region, she and her team coordinated a swift, effective emergency response to what is likely the greatest tragedy our community has ever suffered.”
Congresswoman Torres is presently on leave from her position as dispatcher for the Los Angeles Police Department where she worked for 18 years. “As a former dispatcher, I know the unbelievable pressure 9-1-1 dispatchers are under and how important their work is in responding to emergencies,” said Torres. “By inviting Annemarie I hope to not only recognize her and the crucial role she played that day, but also the thousands of dispatchers throughout the country who form a vital part of our first responder teams, yet often go unnoticed.”
The San Bernardino Shooting: The View from Dispatch
When reports of a shooting came into the San Bernardino PD 9-1-1 Dispatch Center on Saturday morning, Dec 2nd, Annemarie, due to staffing shortages, was working as the dispatcher on the primary police radio channel in addition to supervising her team of three other dispatchers then on duty. “I was what we call the ‘primary radio operator,’” she told 9-1-1 Magazine. “As the supervisor I was working the radio and at the same time monitoring the staff who were taking all the incoming calls.”
When the first 9-1-1 call reporting the shooting came in just before 11AM, the dispatcher who took the call quickly routed it to Teall’s terminal for dispatch. “Initially, I really was not thinking it was anything unusual,” Teall recalled of her thoughts that morning. “I thought it was just your typical ‘Shots Fired’ call that we get in San Bernardino pretty consistently, but within 30 seconds or so the number of phone calls that we started to receive made it pretty obvious that it was going to be something extraordinary.”
Teall dispatched the call, relaying new information received from additional callers and ensured fire and ambulance units were dispatched once it was clear there were injuries. “Pretty much within the first hour the only thing I was thinking of was how to make the environment in there a better one for the team to work as cohesively as possible,” said Teall.
Above: Congresswoman Torres [center], first met 9-1-1 dispatch supervisor Annemarie Teall [right] during a visit to the San Bernardino Police 9-1-1 Communications Center in December. At left is Lt. Mike Madden, who manages the 9-1-1 Center – he was actually one of the first officers on the scene because he happened to be having lunch nearby.
Until additional dispatch staff arrived at the Communications Center to assist, Teall and her three dispatchers were all there was to handle police and fire dispatch and tactical radio channels, as well as answer the amount of 9-1-1 calls coming in from the scene. Within four minutes SBPD units were on scene – including Teall’s boss, Lt. Mike Madden, who happened to be having lunch nearby the scene, and the radio traffic switched from dispatch and response to tactical coordination and addressing numerous resource requests from the scene. In addition to being responsible for supervising the dispatch operation, Annemarie also had to maintain her primary focus on the police radio, coordinating the influx of multiple SBPD units and, soon enough, additional outside agencies as FBI and the Los Angeles PD’s Counter-terrorism unit and other mutual aid responders – both at the initial crime scene and during the pursuit and confrontation with the suspects. “I was really very blessed, I guess you could say, to have initially the three dispatchers that I had in there with me, because each of them is able to work autonomously and without much supervision at all,” said Teall.
Being initially short-staffed in the dispatch center, and with police command staff needed at the scene, the criticality of managing the event taxed all four of them, but the dispatchers all quickly fell into sync. “I had dispatchers move from where they were sitting to closer spots so that we could communicate without yelling across the room,” she said. “I set up some visual boards so people could look up and easily find information.” By coordinating information about the incident and ensuring that all the dispatchers could quickly and easily access it visually kept everyone up to speed and allowed dispatchers to answer questions about the incident coming in from the field, allied agencies, and the media, or refer them to another designated number.
SBPD’s dispatchers had not received any prior active shooter training at the time this incident took place. The agency did have a tactical dispatch team although due to lack of funds it had fallen to the back burner, operationally. “I had been a member when it was first put together and one of the dispatchers who was there that morning was also a tactical dispatcher,” said Teall. “But that training was field-work based, where the dispatcher will go out in the command bus and work as a liaison for the tactical team that’s out there on the police side. But we haven’t had any specific tactical response training as group in the dispatch center.”
Consequently, Annemarie Teall cites the need for training as the biggest area of advice she can offer to other 9-1-1 dispatch agencies. “I think the lack of specific training [to this kind of incident] was a bit obvious after the fact, although not so much during the incident,” she said. “When we sat down and looked back, we said ‘it really would have helped if we would have understood what kind of a plan we wanted to have, rather than trying to piece it together. It worked very, very well the way that it was, but it certainly would have been a little more comfortable to have had a pre-conceived idea of what our response [in the dispatch center] should have been.”
The State of the Union
“I’m so excited that Annemarie will today represent dispatchers across the United States,” Congresswoman Torres told 9-1-1 Magazine a few hours before the President’s SOTU address began. “I think the work that they did in San Bernardino was incredible, under the circumstances. A common theme we heard was lack of resources and, as you may already know, the city of San Bernardino is in the final stages of completing their bankruptcy, so when community leaders begin to draw down and control their expenditures, this is one area that is often looked at as a place where they can cut resources. I think tonight is an opportunity for us to show the American public that 9-1-1 is a critical part of the first responders’ ability to do their jobs. If no one is there to answer that 9-1-1 call, you’re not going to get a police officer, paramedic, or fire engine to you. Annemarie and her team did the best job that anyone that I know could have possibly done under those circumstances, but there should have been training provided for them on how to handle [this type of incident]. I’m glad that everything they did was right… and they truly made us proud.”
“I feel honored,” said Annemarie. “It is an amazing honor to be put in a position to represent a profession that is not often represented in public. We’re the quiet, behind the scenes crew, and it’s nice to be able to be in a position to express to the public really how best to use us as a resource when they encounter some sort of emergency. If they can get a better understanding of how we can do the job we need to do and help them, it will make the whole process work a little better.”
While President Obama did not refer specifically to the San Bernardino terrorist attacks in his SOTU message, nor did he mention any of the several guests, including Annemarie, who represented agencies and victims of the attack and were in attendance, this attack was clearly part of the subtext of his message concerning terrorism. While this disappointed some, according to an article in the Press Enterprise, Annemarie told the Press Enterprise newspaper on Tuesday that she was not particularly disappointed that Obama did not mention the San Bernardino attack specifically. “Maybe it was safer politically to be more generic,” she said, adding that she was pleased that Obama urged Americans not to let terrorists force them to deviate from how they live their lives.
The City of San Bernardino spans 81 square miles on the floor of the San Bernardino Valley, in California’s Inland Empire. The city, with serves as the county seat of San Bernardino County, has a population of 209,924 as of the 2010 census. For more information about the City of San Bernardino, see http://sbcity.org/
As a former 9-1-1 dispatcher, Congresswoman Norma J. Torres has drawn on her expertise to write a law that modernized California’s 9-1-1 system—resulting in a system that now routes cell phone callers to their local police department, rather than a statewide hotline, during an emergency. She represents the state’s 35th congressional district which includes Bloomington, Chino, Fontana, Montclair, Ontario, Pomona, and Rialto. She previously served as a State Senator, Assembly Member, and as a Mayor and Council Member in the City of Pomona. Throughout her career in elected office, Norma Torres has worked to make government more responsive to the needs of Inland Empire residents. She is currently a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. For more information on Congresswoman Torres, see: https://torres.house.gov/
1/13/16 4:45pm - story updated to clarify number of total dispatchers on duty (4, not 5). -rdl