Sunday, August 14, 2011

The usual suspects: describing persons & vehicles for dispatchers

When the public needs help in emergency situations, they have been told since they were old enough to dial the telephone, to call 9-1-1. When Public Safety personnel need help, they call on Public Safety Telecommunicators (aka dispatchers) for assistance. Regardless of which side of the emergency you are on, the recipient or the responder, you still rely on the dispatcher to gather correct information and disseminate it, and react appropriately. It’s fine to know that you are responding to a medical, a fire, or a robbery, but it’s better to know more than just the location and what type of incident. Field units expect more from their dispatchers. Details are important, and details can save lives. Inversely, dispatchers need information to handle incidents correctly.

Most incidents are handled by Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) without any problems. Alas, it is that 0.01% of calls that make the national news and cast a dark cloud over dispatchers. After review, many of those bad calls could have been avoided had someone questioned or confirmed information during the process. We are quick to sit back and judge an incident after the fact. Prevention by education & training is much more efficient, reduces liability, and smoothes the entire process along.

Every responder & dispatcher can hang around the water cooler and tell war stories about uncooperative RPs, field scenes that could beat any horror movie ever made, and incidents in which everything went wrong from the moment 9-1-1 started ringing. I have personally been called just about every foul name in any book published at some point over a 9-1-1 line and been threatened & attacked on scenes when I worked the field. My husband wore a Kevlar vest for the same reason. I lost track of how many times I was asked by both the Public AND field units “Why do you ask these stupid questions? Just send the damn police / fire / ambulance!”

Reacting to incidents requires information. Part of that information includes descriptions of involved persons and vehicles. Getting descriptions is like pulling teeth, a struggle at best, but mostly digging and pulling to get necessary information. And the field units can be just as bad when it comes to providing information to pass along to another division or department.

All right, it’s about now that I’m ducking…half expecting some pissed off crew to drive by and pelt me with old ammonia capsules or flash bangs. Hey, I calls them as I sees them (sorry, flashback).

That brings us to the 0.99 cents question (our budget’s been cut to the bone this year). How does one gather information? What is important?

If you ever are in the position in which you witness a crime, or are the victim of one, and feel the need to pass on the information here are some tips. First tip, COOPERATE with the dispatcher. Keep calm, screaming doesn’t help. Tell the dispatcher where the problem is. 9-1-1 dispatchers should repeat the address (including the numbers) back to you. Make sure you tell them if there is an apartment, or a business name. You can’t rely on your cell phone to tell dispatchers where you are. Answers questions and don’t hang up until they tell you UNLESS you are in imminent danger.

You will be asked to provide descriptions. In the cases of domestic violence, hostage situations, etc. we’re not stupid. Tell us the bad person is there. I’ve done the yes / no questions while letting the person on the other end pretend to talk to a family member. If you need to, hide in a closet, or under the bed. I understand that you need to be safe. That’s why you called in the first place.

As the song goes: this is how we do it…the point is to provide what you see first when it comes to information. Think of it this way. Without knowing who is involved in an incident, too many times officer drive right by suspects in crimes. Had someone stayed on a phone with a dispatcher and provided a description, that suspect might have been caught.

Format for a person description:

Remember – head to toe, unless you know the person, use descriptive words not exact numbers. Most law enforcement personnel don’t drive around with tape measures or scales in their patrol cars.

Race (this doesn’t mean nationality)
Age (guess, child, teens, 25-30, etc)
Sex (male or female)
Height (tall, medium, short using your height as the basis)
Weight (again, fat, skinny, petite, muscular, etc.)
Hair (not just color, but style, length)
Eyes (include glasses)
Facial hair
Clothing:(always give color of each item) hat, jacket, shirt, pants (or dress, shorts), shoes
Miscellaneous (backpack, cane, dog, etc).
** weapons should be described, handgun, rifle, knife, machete, what color, where kept, how many
**where suspect or missing person last seen
**how long ago last seen
**what direction traveling – or room of building last seen
**additional persons should be called #2, #3, etc.

Vehicles: again, information is taken in a format for a reason. This is easy – remember the acronym CYMBL

Color of vehicle
Year of vehicle (skip if not sure)
Make and model of vehicle
Body style – 2 door, coupe, truck, convertible, and anything special added that makes vehicle stand out
License & State
**When was the vehicle was last seen?
**What direction was seen moving?
**How many occupants inside?

For the incident itself, remember the basics:

Where: the location where the problem is. Is it at a specific address, a business, or at an intersection?

In a large county, like Los Angeles where often you only know you’ve crossed ion to another city by the color of the street signs, it is very important to give the entire address. For example, giving 1234 5th St, instead of 1234 W. 5th St, can make a huge difference in where help is sent. The same goes for cities that have similar sounding street names in different areas. Oakland (CA) has 14th Street, 14th Avenue, and E. 14th Street, all in different areas. 14Th street is downtown, 14th Avenue runs from E.12th and stops at Park Blvd, north of Lake Merritt by Alameda County/Highland General Hospital, and E.14th Street is a east/west street that goes all the way to San Leandro.

What is the problem?

Medical, fire, or law enforcement? If medical, don’t hang up, your local department might offer pre-arrival instructions. For fires, what’s on fire? Is anyone trapped (including animals)? If it is a car, is it enxt to a building? Any hazardous materials inside that you know of? For law enforcement calls, let the dispatcher ask questions.

When did the incident start?

Is it in progress? Are involved parties still there? Are there any injuries? Any weapons involved? Who has the weapons?

Who is involved?

Family or strangers? Adults or children? Inside or outside?

As you can see, dispatchers ask many questions, but don’t think we’re waiting to send out help until we’re done talking. Help has been sent. Calls are entered quickly; units dispatched and updated as we speak over the phone or radio (and even more quickly for field units).

As Red Green says at the end of his show at the Possum Lodge, we’re all in this together.

Keep safe out there.

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