Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Brother, can you lend a hand? Officer need help calls.

In Alameda County (CA), the cities of Oakland and Berkeley border one another. Oakland Police and Berkeley Police have longstanding mutual-aid agreements in place for both police and fire incidents. In reference to police incidents, dispatchers have to use plain talk when passing information between the two dispatch centers, for each agency uses different radio codes: Oakland traditionally on a nine-code system for its daily business while Berkeley uses ten-codes. When it comes to the State criminal, vehicle, and other offense codes, all agencies are on the same track.

A dispatcher from Oakland calling in a request for help on a 940b would be the same as a dispatcher calling in a request for an 11-99.  Each incident is a call for emergency help. Ten codes do vary from agency to agency, and in this case, the two agencies border one another. How many times is this scenario repeated across the country? I do remember a call coming in once and a co-worker saying hand on, with a puzzled look on their face and saying aloud what’s a 940b? The person sitting next to them said it’s their code for an officer needs help! It is this exact reason some law enforcement agencies are moving away from codes altogether and switching to plain talk, just as fire departments did decades ago.

Before I go any further, let me share a little insight on officer-involved shooting incidents. You, the dispatcher, can read all of the policies, can take courses, can study your agencies geography, and know the field personnel’s habits inside & out. That all goes out the window when the bullets start flying and the emotions skyrocket. Which officer will stay calm and who will panic? No one can say until the event happens. It will be up to the dispatcher to remain in control.

There was an officer I knew that I worked with who decided to lateral over to another agency. He was a real nice guy, well liked by his co-workers. One evening he came by to visit us after he picked up some paperwork. Less than thirty minutes after leaving our dispatch he was in critical care at the trauma, victim of multiple gunshot wounds from an incident in his beat. A couple years later, he was shot on yet another incident in Oakland. You just never know when it will happen…

So, what can you do to be ready when the BIG call happens? As I recommended above, know your policies & procedures. Know your jurisdiction, the boundaries, beats, major cross-streets, highways, and landmarks. If you work with the same officers, on the same shift, then try to learn their habits. Where do they go for their breaks? I had an officer ‘disappear’ for the last two hours of the shift once. No one could go home until he was located. I had to initiate a search for the missing cop. Eventually the embarrassed officer called me on the in-house line, asking if the search activity was for him (it was). The search was called off and he was directed to the watch commanders’ office. Mr. “I fell asleep” gave me his secret location when he came back to work the next night, just in case he fell asleep and neglected to answer his radio in the future.

As much as we tell the public we don’t deal in ‘what-ifs’ we really do. If you read policies & procedures, most of them are based on the what-if scenario. It is a rare department that doesn’t have a P&P on an officer-involved-shooting. Go through it and understand your role as a dispatcher BEFORE you must act on the incident. The same applies if your communications center has an SOP on officer-involved shootings.

When the officer notifies you of shots fired, initiate an incident. Get cover units started. Getting descriptions of involved suspects is critical, too. You MUST keep control of the radio traffic, but allowing units to communicate is important. Where do you draw the line between the two? Remember where I said to know your department’s P&P? Are you allowed to initiate a marker tone? What about authorizing field personnel to run code 3 (lights & sirens) or setting up block covers? Not all agencies let dispatchers make these choices. 

Let’s say for now you can tell units to run code 3, and you’ve turned on the marker tones (the intermittent beep noise). I was taught that during an officer-needs-help call to announce over the main channel this wording to effect of “Any available units respond to (give location) for officer (give unit ID) code 3 help (or radio code for emergency help). Only advise when on scene.”

It sounds wordy, but it keeps 20 officers from coming up on the radio to tell the dispatcher that they are enroute. I know they are going. In these events, the Chief rolls out. Guys, who haven’t hit the streets in ten years, jump in cars with detectives, to help. An officer-helps-help call strikes a nerve with law-enforcement personnel. No one wants to say they were in the station when they heard that request over the station intercom or the radio and ignored it. I was told, during my training, that if I ever heard that intercom announcement while I was out of dispatch, I should flatten myself against the nearest wall because I’d be run over from the stampede of men & women running through the halls to race out to vehicles. They weren’t kidding either: I never saw a building empty out as fast as it did when the call for help was broadcast.

Now that the call has come in, you have an incident started. Depending on if you use CAD or not, make sure you have all units attached to the event. Keep updating locations of individual units: this is important in case you have a missing unit. You want frequent updates on the suspect descriptions and victims, too. Document, document, document!

Think about some of the more sensational officer-involved incidents of the recent decade. Tape recordings were released to the media. In the case of the LA Bank Robbery, even though it might have sounded like chaos to the average person, to those of us in the field, the dispatcher kicked butt. Of course, she wasn’t in a room by herself. She was in a communications center filled with back-up. Her co-workers and supervisor fed her information, answered calls, and someone took any units and calls NOT associated with the actual incident to another channel, freeing her to deal with the bank robbery suspects. The Oakland officer shooting happened the same way, the dispatcher worked the event while her co-workers backed her up. I can tell you during the years when I handled major incidents, the ‘everyday’ stuff would switch to an alternate channel monitored by another dispatcher while I worked the in-progress incident.

You are no better than your co-workers are. Of course, if you worker in a single dispatch center, you must prioritize your tasks. Start by getting cover to the field unit, even if it is mutual aid. Get that call initiated and get the details documented. Notify a field unit supervisor. Call the dispatch supervisor – let him or her get YOU some help, and make administrative calls. That should allow you to concentrate on the field units. Pull out the P&P and start going down the list of things to do. Update the incident as details come in or you do tasks. Eventually help should arrive, let your back-up answer the phones or make out-going calls.

Remember; keep your voice at a normal tone. If an ambulance or fire is requested, dispatch the personnel. Protocol may require EMS & fire to stage until a scene is declared safe or the personnel are escorted in by law enforcement. Find out where the fire & ambulance need to respond to: directly to the scene or a staging point? Is the scene secure? How many ambulances are needed? At some point, the media will call dispatch and start asking questions. If the Press Officer is not available, then find out who is the contact person until the he or she is available. Can you give out information? What does your agency allow dispatchers to say? Some departments do allow Communications Center personnel to disperse very limited information in certain circumstances – again, find out in advance if and what you can say.

We all hope and pray to never handle an officer-involved shooting. Unfortunately, the nature of our business dictates somewhere in this country, this year, probably this month, a suspect will aim at and fire upon a law-enforcement officer. As a Public Safety Telecommunicator, we all need to be prepared for the worse. With luck, it will never happen to you.

Be safe out there!

One of the links is the Los Angeles Police Department bank robbery incident. The next one comes from Oakland, California on an incident in which four officers were killed in two separate locations. Woodlaw, Ohio. Both of these certainly are worth listening to for education's sake. The third recording is from Woodlawn, Ohio where an officer reports being shot at, and the final tape is from Kansas City.

What would you have done differently? Can you keep up with the radio traffic? Try writing down the units as they call out, the locations, and their movements (you don’t need to know the geography of the cities to do this).

Los Angeles Bank Robbery , California

Shooting at officer, Woodlawn Ohio

Kansas City, Kansas Officer Shot (you can hear the 'marker tone")

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