Hear No Evil: A Dispatcher’s View on Officer Safety
Imagine yourself in a situation where co-workers’ or friends’ lives, as well as the lives of citizens, are being threatened. Now imagine you have no weapons, no physical or visual contact, and can only listen to the events unfold. How would you feel? Would you feel helpless? As an emergency communicator, I have found myself in that very situation, feeling helpless because I cannot see the officers, the officers aren’t talking, and I am totally in the dark.
Emergency Services has been a part of my life since I was a small child. This gives me a unique view on responder safety. I take great interest in anything, which improves officer safety. My perspective is different than most because of my past. When I dispatch “unit 3436,” I am not just calling for an officer to respond. In my mind, I am sending Dad on a call. That difference makes officer safety hit close to home. In recent months, lines of duty deaths are in the news much more often. What can we do to improve officer safety? Refine communications.
While my job as a dispatcher is not solely to communicate, it is by far the most important aspect and holds the most liability. From the moment a 911 line is answered, the clock starts for the dispatcher to gain as much information as possible, dispatch an officer, and provide them with incident information. Officers can quickly become frustrated with the information provided by dispatchers, but dispatched information is only as good as what is provided by the caller. Dispatchers also become frustrated with the lack of information coming from the officers on scene. The end result is a communication void, with room for improvement on both ends of the radio.
What can dispatchers do to improve the information provided? Officers formulate how they will initially handle a call based on the information dispatchers provide. For example; a “previously physical disorderly” will warrant a much different response from an officer than a “previously physical disorderly, involving a gun.” A simple omission of the question “Are there any weapons?” could place an officer staring down the barrel of a weapon.
By developing a system to ask pertinent priority information, dispatchers ensure that they will discover the information officers find most useful. Often dispatchers can be distracted by the details of WHY Billy Bob pulled the knife on his sister, when they should be concentrating on the information about the primary threat to the officer’s safety. Officers need to know “Where is the weapon? Is it still in his/her hand or on his/her person? Are there other weapons in the house? Where is the suspect now?” If we can gather the crucial information, the officer can work out the details. Officers are the eyes and dispatchers are the ears.
On the portable side of the radio there is room for improvement, just as much as behind the dispatch console. How often do officers find themselves in a situation that went from bad to worse quicker than they can key a mic?
In departments, which cover a large area, it is crucial for officers to constantly relay information to dispatch. Dispatchers also formulate how they will respond based on the information that is provided to them. Where are you? What are you out with? How many people are there? Dispatching isn’t about just giving out the calls, it’s a careful balance of units, calls, and prioritization that requires accurate information to work effectively.
When officers advise dispatch of what they are seeing and hearing, dispatchers are able to efficiently send backup, track the call, and help ensure officer safety. Officers must get vehicle tag numbers and log them every time, mark out at accurate addresses, and make dispatch aware that something seems out of the norm. All of these details could save lives. Unlike other officers, dispatchers cannot see what officers see. If an officer has not relayed the message to them, they don’t know about it. Officers are the dispatcher’s eyes.
The objective for dispatchers and officers alike is for everyone to go home safely at the end of the shift. Refining communication skills on both sides gives law enforcement the best chance to reach that goal. Just because the officer sees a threat or a dispatcher hears a threat doesn’t mean that the other knows about it. Dispatchers and officers must articulate, verify, and communicate. Each group must imagine themselves in the other’s shoes. The best defense against the threats that exist on the street is everyone being on the same page. Stay alert, stay in communication, and stay safe.
By: Jesse Martin AAS, NREMT-I/99
Jesse Martin is an emergency communicator at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Emergency Communications Center in Harrisonburg, VA and a nationally-registered emergency medical technician-intermediate in the County of Rockingham, VA.