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Guest Host: Jennifer Golbeck
From fender benders to serious crimes, the first person to respond to an emergency is the 911 operator. While those operators can often be the voice of calm in harrowing situations, they must juggle critical tasks within seconds, often while battling fatigue amid increased workloads. We look at the personal and professional challenges facing our region’s emergency dispatchers, and explore how new technology is changing their role in public safety.
- Lynne Putnam Emergency Communications Technician, Arlington County VA.
- John Crawford Public Information Officer, Office of Emergency Management, Arlington County VA.
- Stephen Williams Chief of Operations, Office of Unified Communications, Washington, D.C.
- Lajuan Sullivan Assistant Watch Commander, Office of Unified Communications, Washington, D.C.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Goldbeck from the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKIt's a question most of us have been asked but wish we hadn't. 911, what's your emergency? The crucial minutes it takes to answer that question can often seem like hours when you're under stress. But for the 911 operator on the other end, it's all in a day's work. While 911 operators can seem like the voice of calm in harrowing situations, they're juggling critical tasks that get their adrenaline pumping too. These front-line workers must gather crucial information about your emergency, dispense medical care, and determine which emergency services you need.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKIt's a tough job that's constantly evolving as new technology, like texting and video, become more mainstream in emergencies. Add in 12-hour shifts, and you get a profession that struggles with high turnover, a problem that can directly impact public safety. So, what is it like to do this job? And how is the work of emergency dispatching changing? We have a whole studio full of guests to help answer those questions today. We have Stephen Williams, Chief Operations Officer for the Office of Unified Communications in Washington D.C. Thanks for being here, Stephen.
MR. STEPHEN WILLIAMSThank you.
GOLBECKWe have Lajuan Sullivan, Assistant Watch Commander for the Office of Unified Communications in Washington. Thanks for being here.
MS. LAJUAN SULLIVANYou're welcome.
GOLBECKWe have Lynne Putnam, Emergency Communications Technician for Arlington, Virginia. Thanks for joining us.
MS. LYNNE PUTNAMThank you.
GOLBECKAnd John Crawford, Public Information Officer for the Office of Emergency Management in Arlington, Virginia. And he's the former deputy director of Arlington's Emergency Communications Center. Thanks for joining, John.
MR. JOHN CRAWFORDThank you.
GOLBECKSo, Lynne, let's start with you. Whether we like it or not, most of us have had to call 911 for an emergency. But we rarely give thought to the voice who answers our call. You're one of those voices. And you've been at it for nearly 30 years. Tell us how you got into this work and what keeps you going in such a stressful job.
PUTNAMWell, I actually got into it accidentally. I was working at McDonald's, a restaurant, after I got out of college. And my boss, my manager, her brother was a captain in a small town of Hall, Massachusetts, and they were thinking about going to civilian dispatchers. They had currently had law enforcement officers doing the dispatching, call taking and things like that. And I applied and I got the job. And I fell in love with it. And I've been in it for almost 30 years now. And I just keep loving it.
GOLBECKSo it's a pretty intense job, right? Can you kind of walk us through what a normal day looks like for you?
PUTNAMWell, we start very early in the morning. As you know, we're going to be transitioning from our 12-hour shifts to 8- and 10-hour shifts. Most of the employees are getting older, as I am. And we find it easier to do a work-life balance in that respect. Your workday starts where you relieve the on-duty shift. It, obviously, it's 24 hours a day, seven days a week, holidays, every, you know, all that. And then you're assigned to a different position. In Arlington County, we are first certified as call takers. And then we move up the chain. There is a career level.
PUTNAMAnd then you become a 911 dispatcher. We rotate every four hours. And that keeps our skill levels up and also keeps from burnout in the same position.
GOLBECKAnd what are you rotating between?
PUTNAMWe rotate between answering phone calls, our -- what we call our teletype section, which is where our NCIC and how we communicate with other jurisdictions, and also between police dispatching and also fire and EMS dispatching.
GOLBECKThat's a lot of different tasks that you have going on in a single day.
PUTNAMYes. And it takes approximately three years to get fully trained to be an ECT3, we call it, Emergency Communications Technician 3. And then you can go on a career ladder to an assistant or a supervisor. And even part of staff, we could do radios and things like that. So it's very interesting.
GOLBECKThat's very interesting. So you can join the conversation as well. Have you ever had to call 911? What was your experience like with the operator who answered the call. Join us by calling 1-800-433-8850. Or email us at email@example.com. So, Lajuan, you've worn all the hats in the District's Emergency Communication Center. And now you supervise about 30 people during your shift. When you're sitting in the chair taking calls, how do you stay calm and organized, even though your adrenaline might be pumping?
SULLIVANWell, you put your training hat on and you have to assist -- know that it's important to assist the caller that's in trouble or that requires help. So you have to remain calm. You revert back to what you were taught in training. And you have to help the caller feel comfortable that you are going to provide -- obtain the information that they need to get the services that they're requesting.
GOLBECKSo, I don't want to get, like, too deep into your personal lives, but what happens if you, like, have to have lunch or, like, take a bathroom break? Does someone jump in and cover you? You know, how many people are there and what does that process look like?
SULLIVANWell, all of our employees have scheduled, official break times that they take throughout the tour of their duty. And then, in the event a call taker needs to relieve themselves, they can take themselves out of queue and go relieve themselves.
GOLBECKAnd, Lynne, is this about the same process for you, too?
PUTNAMThat would be with call taking, but with dispatching, we need to get relief, so...
GOLBECKSo what's the difference between call taking and dispatching?
PUTNAMWell, with call taking, you're answering 911 calls and non-emergency, okay? And also, we have what they call ring-down lines, where we answer for Virginia Dominion Power or Washington Gas and things like that. And then, on the dispatching side of it though, you're actually, you have a headset on, as we do here. And you are plugged into a position. And you can't just get up and leave, because there's no one to answer if a unit calls you or you have to put a call for service out. So, and we have to get somebody to relieve us. We have tactical positions.
PUTNAMSo we have a police dispatcher and a police administrative dispatcher. And we also have a tactical dispatcher to relieve us, if we have to take a bathroom break or we need to go to the kitchen and get something to eat.
GOLBECKSo the dispatchers are actually talking to the police and the firefighters in the field. And the call takers are talking to the people who call in. Is that right?
GOLBECKInteresting. So, Stephen, let's turn to you. As Chief of Operations for Emergency Communications in the District, can you give us an idea of the volume of calls coming into your office on a typical day and what those calls are like?
WILLIAMSYeah, we can currently take about 4,000 calls a day. It works out to about 1.4 million a year. And those calls range from things that people probably shouldn't call 911, like my neighbor knocked over my trashcan, to things that are very serious -- car accidents; you know, unfortunately, shootings; and also things like, you know, somebody delivering a child and, you know, they haven't made it to the hospital. And so they've called to get that kind of help.
GOLBECKSo you're actually delivering children over the phone.
WILLIAMSYeah, we have. And we had one of our dispatchers -- or call takers, I'm sorry, recently did do that. And the father actually closed the loop with us by inviting him out to meet him and to meet the family, so...
GOLBECKThat's great. Can you take us back to a recent example of a big emergency in the city, like the Navy Yard shooting, or something on that scale? And tell us how you ramp up your staff in situations like that.
WILLIAMSWell, with the Navy Yard shooting, you know, we staff every day to expect the worst, unfortunately. That's just the society we live in today. On the morning of the Navy Yard shooting -- we were fully staffed, as we always are -- we received several phone calls that day, during that time period. So, and we were able to handle them. The other events that we really staff up for that are -- are things like the Inauguration and the Fourth of July fireworks. Those days, we actually plan ahead and we have more staff.
WILLIAMSWe don't necessarily allow as many people off work those days, and things like that, because there's such an influx of people that it's a planned event. So we really deal with the everyday emergencies, which unfortunately the Navy Yard was an event that could happen any day. So we're prepared for those. And then, on the planned days, we actually -- the planned events, we actually do change our staffing some for that.
GOLBECKAnd, Lajuan, how does this look for you, actually on the floor working with people when these big events are happening?
SULLIVANWell, the adrenaline is flowing. We receive a large volume of calls. But you put your training hat on. And you coordinate the information that you're receiving from the callers so that the dispatchers can relay that information to the field units, the first responders.
GOLBECKSo, John, let's turn to you. Staffing these 911 calls is a critical part of the city's emergency services. And many jurisdictions in our area have made headlines for chronic understaffing in these emergency centers. What's the reason for that?
CRAWFORDWell, you have a minimum staffing level in your center. Most centers do. So you try to get to that minimum staffing. And when you don't, you hire back or you get overtime people because, as has already been indicated, you try to ramp up for that big emergency, whatever that might be. And you never want to be caught short handed when something like the Navy Yard shooting or other disasters occur in your jurisdiction.
GOLBECKSo does Arlington have problems getting up to the staffing levels that it needs? Or are you pretty much level?
CRAWFORDI think it's a challenge in most emergency communication centers. Some days you do, some days you don't. We were actually pleased to announce that next week we will be fully staffed, with zero vacancies. That is almost -- that's almost unknown in this industry, to have a center that's fully staffed. And we will be up to speed by the end of next week.
GOLBECKFrom what I was reading in preparation for this show, it sounds like it really is a chronic problem, that very few centers are actually fully staffed.
CRAWFORDI think when people enter this profession, they don't really realize what the job entails until they get in and they find out that it is a very complex profession -- that it's not just picking up a phone and talking to somebody. It's giving first-aid to that person who's choking; or to an accident victim that's been seriously injured; or the person in the middle of the night, who someone's breaking into their house, and you have to be that calming voice to calm them down. You have to multitask. You have many, many screens in front of you, from cad dispatching, to mapping, to radio.
CRAWFORDAnd so you're constantly -- your eyes are moving in all different directions on the screen while you're trying to gather information. So, after a while, and I think once people get into this profession, they say, "Wow, this is not anything that I thought it would be." And then they leave to go do something else.
GOLBECKRight. So, Stephen, does the District have similar kinds of staffing problems that a lot of other places do around the country?
WILLIAMSThat's one of the -- we really don't currently. We are -- we do have some vacancies. And this year we hope to be fully staffed with those vacancies. They're very few vacancies that we do have. And sometimes, you know, it just doesn't -- it's not the type of job where you can just hire one or two people at a time, because of the amount of training that goes into it, it just doesn't make sense to do that. So you have to wait until you have enough vacancies to have a training class. Our turnover rate's very low. It's one of the things we discuss a lot.
WILLIAMSAnd we think that could possibly be, you know, the way we do rotations around with our dispatchers and call takers.
GOLBECKGreat. So let's take a call right now. We have Izzie from Woodbridge on the line. Izzie, you're on the air. Go ahead.
IZZIEHi. Thank you very much. I have a question. When I was a child, we had a, you know, your standard, plug-into-the-wall, spirally cord phone. And, one of the things my parents made sure to do was they sat me down one day and said, "This is how you call 911. And they're going to ask you these questions. And this is how you answered it." And they actually had me call 911 and explain to the dispatcher, you know, "I'm sorry this is just -- my parents want to make sure I know how to do this, so that just, if it was an emergency, I would know what I was doing."
IZZIEAnd it actually, it ended up I used it more than once, as a teenager. And my question is, we don't have a land line anymore. We only have cell phones in our household. And so I was trying to teach my daughter the same thing. She's seven years old. And we ended up dialing 911. I wasn't going to have her do it. It wasn't an on-purpose thing. But we ended up calling 911. And we explained, you know, "I'm sorry," you know, "we'll get off the line right away.
IZZIEWe're just -- I'm trying to make sure she knows how to do it because, you know, she has to unlock the phone and get to the home screen and all the rest of it." And the dispatcher was actually pretty upset with me, which is understandable that, you know, it's an emergency line and, you know, practicing isn't necessarily an emergency. But is there a better way for me to teach my kids how to do that?
GOLBECKThat's a great question. Stephen, do you want to tackle that one?
WILLIAMSYeah, so one of the things we do in the district is we actually go out into the communities into the schools. We have our public information team, goes out with a 911 simulator to go to the schools and show kids how to dial 911 that way. It is very difficult, you know, due to, like John was saying earlier, with staffing levels across the nation, for people to make calls to 911 even by accident. We -- 70 percent of our calls in the District of Columbia now come from wireless phones. And a lot of those are accidental pocket dials. And that really ties up the true -- for the true emergencies to get into the dispatcher to get dispatched.
GOLBECKWe’ll continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with a number of guests about 911 dispatching. You can join the conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or get in touch with us through our Facebook page or by sending a Tweet to @kojoshow. An issue that came up before we went to the break was what happens if you're using a cell phone to call 911.
GOLBECKAnd this morning, a Senate subcommittee's meeting about the issue of how 911 dispatchers can better locate cell phone callers because so many people are using phones now, both when they're out and they see an emergency and in place of landlines in their house. I'd very like to talk to Jamie Barnett who's calling us from the Find Me 911 Coalition. This is an organization representing more than 150,000 911 personnel, first responders and others who are concerned about failures in the wireless 911 system. Jamie, it's good to have you call in.
MR. JAMIE BARNETTThanks, Jennifer. It's good to be with you.
GOLBECKCan you tell us how your organization's working on this issue?
BARNETTYes. The Find Me 911 Coalition is about 160,000 911 professionals, call takers, folks like you've got on the show and -- that I appreciate you having the show. It's very timely with the subcommittee hearing and stuff like that. But they're all for improving the ability for 911 to find you if you call from a cell phone. And that's incredibly important because there are about 240 million 911 calls a year across the country. Over 70 percent of them are from wireless phones.
BARNETTMost people think that 911 can find you just as easily as if you picked up a landline. But it's actually quite complex, particularly because the carriers have moved to GPS systems which work pretty well if you're outdoors and not obstructed. But if you're in a city, if you're under a metal roof, if you're in a brick or concrete building indoors anywhere, 911 may not be able to find you. And it's alarming. And so we want the FCC to move forward with adopting indoor standards that would require the carriers to use all the technologies that are available right now. This doesn't have to be a problem.
BARNETTThere was an op-ed in The Hill this morning about the young man whose wife was abducted, put in a trunk. And she had a cell phone. She could call but they couldn't find her because the signal couldn't get out from the trunk. What I would ask your guests is, here in D.C. and in Arlington County where I live, are you experiencing problems with not being able to find 911 call takers, and are they even erroneous locations provided sometimes when 911 calls come in from a wireless phone?
GOLBECKJohn, do you want to take that?
CRAWFORDYeah, that was an excellent question actually. You know, we've come a long way in 45 years when the first 911 call was made in 1968 in Haleyville, Ala. Most people back in the '60s and the '70s all had landlines. Today we see a steady increase in cell phone usage, and they're actually taking over the primary telephones in households. That's good and it's bad. The bad part is, as the caller was saying, it's hard to find them. They may call 911, we'll have a general idea as to where they are but we have to hook up with cell towers and do a triangulation. And so it takes time to try to figure out where these people are.
CRAWFORDIf they're in a high rise, for instance, up on the 7th, 10th, 13th floor, we get a phone call, we may be able to know what -- where they are, the address of the building, but where in the building are they? That's really critical. And in this business, seconds and minutes are critical to get to patients or victims of, you know, criminal activity and so forth. So that's a very good question.
GOLBECKAnd Stephen, I'd like to have you answer this also, but read you an email that we got from Mary regarding cell phone versus landline, and get your comments on that as well. She writes, "I called 911 after putting out a kitchen fire that my seven-year-old started. And after using the fire extinguisher the fire was out but the wall was smoldering and I realized that fire could be in the walls. I stepped out with my cell phone and called 911. The line rang indefinitely. I walked back into the house to call on our landline and this rang through immediately. Can you say more about what happens when you call 911 from a cell phone versus a landline?"
GOLBECKSo, Stephen, I'd like you to kind of just talk about the technologies that go with that in response to both these questions.
WILLIAMSYeah so, you know, the wire line system that we're familiar with that John was talking about is -- you know, that system's been around for a long time. I mean, not just for 911 but people have been using the phone for several years, you know, the regular wire line. And that technology's well tested, well used. You're not depending on hitting the closest tower or anything like that, it' just the wiring in your house. With your cell phone, when you step outside, you may or may not get a good signal. There's places in Washington, D.C., you know, there's places in Arlington, Alexandria where you may not have a good signal even though you're in a city area with a lot of towers
WILLIAMSAnd unfortunately, the technology doesn't always allow that cell phone call to go through because of the saturation to the network. And we've seen that even with the Navy Yard shooting. After 911, people couldn't call 911 because of saturation from the network. You never have saturation on the wire line phones like you do with a cellular phone.
GOLBECKJamie, can you talk to us about the Find Me 911 Coalition and their thoughts about the privacy concerns that naturally go along with the kind of location tracking technology on cell phones?
BARNETTWell sure, Jennifer. That's actually a key point because it's not tracking. There's no tracking with this technology. Actually 911, the location system doesn't even start up until you dial 911. So you've already had to ask for help. And, as Stephen was saying and the other were saying, I mean, the technology exists now to be able to find you. I mean, we just need the carriers to implement it and that’s why we really need to see the FCC move forward with doing it.
BARNETTI mean, they already have requirement that really apply to outdoors, although there's some reason to be concerned about that. We also need to extend it to indoors. That'll solve both of these problems. But we're becoming a wireless nation. And this is just part of public safety to make sure that 911 can find us when we need help.
GOLBECKJohn, the federal government's heading an initiative related to this called Next Generation 9-1-1, which will bring significant changes to your jobs in the months and years ahead. Can you tell me a little bit about Next Gen 9-1-1 and what it will mean when we call 911?
CRAWFORDAbsolutely. So Next Gen 9-1-1 simply means that people can text, send video or photographs to a 9-1-1 center. Universally what we're doing at this time is working with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax as a unified group to take a more universal approach to 911 next generation. So the first phase will be obviously being able to integrate that into your system. There's not anybody out there that has it fully implemented. There are some agencies that are doing what we call beta testing. But it's a very complex -- because most people are texting now.
CRAWFORDMost teenagers, they're not even talking anymore on their cell phones. They're just texting. And I think in certain circumstances, texting to a 911 system or center is going to be very advantageous to that person, especially if they find themselves like hiding in the closet or something. But there's also disadvantages to that as well. But I know that that's where we're going. That's the new technology and the way that everybody's been going to. So once it's universally accepted and integrated into a very complex telephone system that all of us centers have, then we'll be able to accept that information and dispatch first responders.
GOLBECKStephen, did you have thoughts on this Next Gen 9-1-1?
WILLIAMSNo. John covered it well. I mean, one of the things, you know, we have to look at with is, you know, text messaging is not quicker than talking. So, you know, there's going to be cases where it's going to be easier to pick up the phone to call in. But we also have to look at it from the standpoint of how do we train our call takers and dispatchers to handle text messages, to handle the videos they receive, the picture, because that's going to bring a whole new dimension to being a 911 call taker. And that's something that's very important to us as an agency and to the workforce.
GOLBECKJamie, thanks very much for calling and raising these issues. This is a fascinating conversation.
GOLBECKThanks. Before we move on to the next topic, I'd like to bring on our caller Jean from Washington, D.C. Jean, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JEANHi. I just wanted to congratulate you for discussing this topic. And all of the individuals that you have on are working with the Council of Governments and our 911 officials committee that we have here at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. As you may remember, in 2012 there was a derecho storm. And as a result there were 911 outages in northern Virginia and to some degree, across the rest of the region.
JEANAs a result, the regional 911 operators got together and did a groundbreaking report that so much of that was adopted by the Federal Communications Commission. And as a result they took historic action just last month to make sure that carriers -- phone carriers across the country and in this region make sure that there's backup power and service for everyone calling 911. So I just want to congratulate all your guests and everyone for discussing the important of this. And as John I think mentioned, they are meeting here at the Council of Governments regularly. But this is -- we've made great strides as a region and I think led the nation on this issue.
GOLBECKThanks very much for your call. Do any of our guests want to comment or respond?
CRAWFORDWell, that's exactly right because I think if this is going to be a regional approach, and should be a regional approach, and so that once we come up with the correct solution that we all move forward as a region and not independently as jurisdictions. And we have been working very close with the FCC. The Washington Council of Governments obviously is our leader that we turn to to get this regional approach accepted.
GOLBECKSo Lajuan and Lynne, let's turn back to you and we'll turn to Lajuan first. I'm interested in the impact that this kind of work schedule has on your days. Both of you are working 12-hour shifts, if I understand right? So how does that impact your health and your family life? How do you maintain a work-life balance?
SULLIVANTo maintain -- well, the 12-hour shifts actually works good for me apparently because we work no more than two consecutive days of 12 hours. The schedule is very beneficial. It gives us an opportunity to have days off, longer vacations and, of course, for my team, an increased staffing levels.
GOLBECKLynne, what about you?
PUTNAMWell, there was a lot of discretion for the past two years about it. We even hired a consulting group to come up with some schedules for us with the amount of personnel that we have. We have 60 dispatchers right now, not including staff whereas Washington, D.C. has many more. So we had a lot more to consider before going to these new eight- and ten-hour shifts. But speaking to my colleagues that I work with every day, a lot of them did not like the long hours. And a lot of us commute. I live in Stafford, so I'm 35 miles south. And after a long day of 12 hours, sometimes I wouldn't get home until 8:00, 8:30 at night. If it's a Friday night during the summer, 95 south traffic is just horrible.
PUTNAMSo that was a big decision because of the commuting time. So it's not only the working but also the commuting. And that made for a very long day and a very quick turnaround. Don't get home until 8:30 or 9:00, you have to be up again at 4:00, 4:15 in the morning. And that's just exhausting, especially at my age and the time that I have now.
GOLBECKStephen, this is actually a different move. The district has lengthened their shifts recently from ten hours to 12-and-a-half hours. What kind of impact have you seen from that, and what led to that decision?
WILLIAMSWell, one of the things, when our director Jennifer Green came to the OUC after retiring from being a police commander at NPD, she met with employees. And one of the big things at the time was there were two big concerns. And one of them was the shifts, the ten-hour shifts. The employees just didn't like the ten-hour shifts, a lot of them. I mean, some of them did, some of them didn't. So that was one of the things she took away from that was, let's figure out, you know, what's the best shift to have here.
WILLIAMSSo we spent a lot of time over that time before we implemented this about seven months ago, reaching out to various jurisdictions, a lot of the local ones and came -- and working with our employees to determine, hey what do you want to do? What works best for you? Of course, not everybody's going to be happy. So when we finally finalized the 12-hour shifts, some of the advantages and things that we've seen are, like Lajuan was saying, is that more people are allowed to get off work now. Before it was, you know, one to three people per shift could get off work. But now we can let up to five or six people get off at a time.
WILLIAMSAnd we're able to have more people off on holidays so they can be home with their families. They do have the three-day weekend twice a month, where before all they had was a either Friday, Saturday off or Saturday, Sunday. so we see some advantages to it, you know. Unfortunately not everybody's going to be happy with it. And it's not going to work everywhere. And, you know, there's variations of the shift. Some places have 12-hour shifts and 8-hour shifts. So, like, Arlington's going to the 10 and 8. Other places do the regular 8.
WILLIAMSSo it's something we're trying. We're, you know, constantly looking at the numbers to redefine to make sure this is the right thing we're doing . And right now we feel like it is.
GOLBECKWe have a lot of people who are interested in careers as dispatchers calling and sending us emails. We got this email from Laura who applied to be a dispatcher. And she says, "I recently applied to be a 911 dispatcher with Fairfax County. I just received my letter today from Fairfax Public Safety to go for the initial testing at the end of the month. I hope today's conversation won't scare me away. How does one address the daily release of adrenaline in your body? Any physical maladies that are related with this?" And she thanks you all for your service in public safety. So, Lynne, do you want to address that question?
PUTNAMSure. Well, congratulations. I hope you make it through and we'd love having you even if you're going to Fairfax. We have several things in place to help us out. One initiative that was started by a colleague of mine is a peer coaching group. And new employees are teamed up with seasoned employees so that they have any problems and things like that, that they can discuss with that other employee to make it a smooth transition for them, because it is a lot of training. It's very overwhelming, or can be.
PUTNAMBut you have to -- like Lajuan says -- she was saying that you have to put your training -- not your training hat on, but you put your hat on and you just do what you were trained to do. And in Arlington we have a minimum of 16-hour mandatory training every year. And most of us take more training just to keep our skills up.
GOLBECKLajuan, what do you think about this?
SULLIVANI think that you have to work through -- understand that you have to work through stressful situations and be good at working through stressful situations. It's a good career to have if it's something that you really enjoy doing. And also it's a linkup with your colleagues. And you have to balance your personal lifestyle with your professional lifestyle, so that you're not overwhelmed and you're not burnt out.
GOLBECKWe got a Tweet from Lisa who says, "Here's a public service announcement from a former 911 dispatcher. Please call 911 for emergencies only, and thanks for recognizing us as first responders." And this actually goes along with an email that we got from Ingo that says, "I wonder if there are statistics about how many calls to 911 are real emergencies and how many are not, like the neighbor knocking over the trash can. What do you or the police do about these nonemergency calls?"
WILLIAMSSo when we get the nonemergency calls, all calls that come into a 911 center are prioritized. So if it's a major incident that's obviously high priority, we want to get the police and fire to that quickly. The least -- the calls with the lower priority, those calls, you know, may have a little bit longer response time. If it's something that an officer definitely doesn't need to go to, we can -- you know, that's a nonemergency, we can take the report over the telephone in the district. We also have ways to file a police report online instead of calling 911.
WILLIAMSAnd so that's some of the things that we try to do to relieve that. We look at -- of those 4,000 calls we get a day in the district, there's probably about 2300 of those that are calls for new first incidents.
WILLIAMSThere's several calls that come along that they're for maybe a car accident, we maybe get 20 or 30 calls for a car accident. So those are duplicate calls. But we create about 2,300 to 2,500 events a day out of those 4,000 calls.
GOLBECKYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jen Golbeck, sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about 911 dispatching in a moment. Stay with us.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck, from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Stephen Williams, Lajuan Sullivan, Lynne Putnam and John Crawford about 911 dispatching. If you'd like to join the conversation you can call us at 1-800-433-8850. John, I wanted to pick up with you on a conversation we were having about the break about just what it means to have a career as a 911 dispatcher, what the benefits are, and your role in the whole scheme of first responders in emergency response.
CRAWFORDI think being a dispatcher in a call center, 911 center, is one of the most rewarding professional occupations there is. And I say professional because the men and the women who sit in these chairs, talk on these microphones day in and day out, sending first responders out in the field, they truly are the first of the first responders because they're the ones that are getting the hysterical woman calling in or the accident or my baby's choking or I'm having a baby, what should I do, so CPR and everything. It is a professional organization, each and every one of them, but it is -- to me, being a dispatcher is extremely rewarding.
CRAWFORDAnd it should be a part of the public safety spectrum, law enforcement, fire, police and EMS, all part of the public safety. And we call ourselves public safety professionals, but we're desperately trying to get into that field, to get the personal recognition, not only in the commonwealth, but across the United States, dispatches everywhere.
GOLBECKThat's a great point. And it's also a very stressful job. So we found a study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress that surveyed 171 emergency dispatchers from 24 states and found that even though they're experiencing these crises from afar, many report trauma serious enough to require mental health support. And 3.5 percent of those reported symptoms that were severe enough that they would qualify for having post-traumatic stress disorder.
GOLBECKSo you've seen movies and TV shows that dramatize the role of a 911 dispatcher, but would either you, Lajuan or Lynne -- do you have some particularly interesting stressful calls that you'd be willing to share with us?
PUTNAMWell, yeah. Just recently we had a gentleman to call 911. He was badly assaulted. He was in a neighborhood that he was not too familiar with. He was blind. He was visually impaired and blind. So that was very stressful because he was extremely scared, didn't know where he was. So we had to coach him and obtain landmarks from him. He was stuck in an alley. And we had to remain calm. The stress level requires you remain calm and talk him and coach him out of the alley. And we were successful in locating him and providing him with medical attention.
GOLBECKDo you ever get to connect with the people that you've helped or does the public ever reach out to meet the people who you've talked to?
PUTNAMYeah, just like Stephen talked about earlier, with one of our call takers who helped deliver a baby on the phone. The father reached out and the call taker was able to go out into the community and meet the family.
GOLBECKLynne, in Arlington, 911 operators also train as fire and emergency dispatchers, and you move to those different positions, like you talked about earlier. Can you give us an idea of what's it's like to wear these different hats during the course of a day?
PUTNAMI love it. It's very, very interesting. And just when you're getting -- like Stephen said earlier -- sick of the people calling because the neighbor put out the trash too early and things like that, all of sudden now you're assisting with the fire department and EMS units and helping the citizens of the county get the help they need, as well as the police department in the police dispatcher, which was one of my favorite things to do, sending them to calls for service. So it keeps my job interesting and exciting. And just when I think it's getting boring and I've heard everything, something else comes back and just surprises me. It's always something new and I think that's probably the best aspect of the job, is you never know what you're going to have from day to day.
GOLBECKWe have a lot of people who have called and are interested in being able to reach 911 from different jurisdictions. So I'd like to take a couple calls and an email and then get thoughts from the panel on that. Let's start with Ben, in Berryville, Va. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead.
BENHey, thank you for taking my call. So I do property inspections for banks. A lot of them are vacant. And cities have their police forces, counties have their police forces and I'm just trying to let them know that, hey, there's not a robbery in progress. I'm supposed to be in this house today. Is there a move for a nationwide 811 where, based on my GPS location, it'll connect me to the correct police department, based on where I am?
GOLBECKThanks, Ben. That's a great question. Before I have the panelists answer that I want to take some similar calls. We have Trudy, from Manassas. Trudy, you're on the air. Go ahead.
TRUDYThank you. Yes, I was curious if there was a way to reach a 911 number in, say, New York City. I had a friend who had a daughter who was committing suicide, had taken a lot of pills, and she really had a difficult time getting anybody that could help her out.
GOLBECKAnd then we also have an email from Karen, who says, "I live on the border of Tarkington and Fairfax County. Stuck in my elevator, I called 911 and I was told I had the wrong 911, Arlington and not Fairfax. And it took three tries to get a response that they would connect to Fairfax and get me help. This isn't the first time it's happened. What can be done?" And so I think all of these calls together is that people are interested in reaching 911 in different jurisdictions, for one reason or another. So can you talk about some of the technologies that might be coming up to help that?
WILLIAMSWell, one of the things will calling 911 from a cell phone is you're going to hit the tower that you're closest to, that the phone company put there for you to hit. And living in Washington, D.C. and in this area, you know, we get calls all the time from people who are in Arlington County, who are in Alexandria, Montgomery County, Prince George's County, Md., we transfer those calls with what we call one-button transfer. It's usually very, very smooth.
WILLIAMSIf you're calling about a car accident in Prince George's County and they could be busy when we transfer you. That's just the way it is. And it's the same way when people transfer calls to D.C. Unfortunately, right now all that lies with the wireless carriers. On the cell phone, when you call 911 it hits that tower. That tower's going to send it to the 911 jurisdiction that's programmed to receive it.
GOLBECKSo we have a call from Adam, in Washington, D.C. Adam, you're on the air. Go ahead.
ADAMHi. Thanks for taking my call. I've got a comment and a question for your panelists. Some time ago in downtown Washington I witnessed an accident where a pedestrian struck. I called 911 and waited. There was no answer for about two or three minutes. Following the incident I wanted to follow up with OUC. I did and I got an affable response. And the representative mentioned that there's a budget shortfall for the 911 call centers. So I wondered whether that was accurate.
ADAMAnd my question is, I have been told by police officers that if you need police assistance the only number to call is 911 in the city of Washington. And so I was wondering if your panelists could respond to that, as well.
GOLBECKThanks for your call. So, John, I'd actually like to turn to you first. This issue of lines being busy is something that happens, especially when we have big emergencies like the Navy Yard shooting or other events where you get lots of calls coming in. What does it mean when we get a recorded message when we call 911? And do you have a particular answers to the questions the caller just raised?
CRAWFORDI think I can answer the first part. The part about Washington, D.C., I'll let Stephen answer that.
GOLBECKI'll send that to Stephen.
CRAWFORDBut most call centers have what they call automatic call distribution. So when you come to work, you log in onto your computer. And then a 911 call comes in, it rapidly runs around the room trying to find the first available 911 operator. If everybody who are capable of answering 911 calls are busy at the time, it goes into what we call a queue system. And as it goes into this queue system there's a recorded message. And it's important. And the reason why is because we don't want people to hang up and then call back again saying I must have dialed the wrong number, so let me dial 911 again.
CRAWFORDWe have to answer all 911 calls, even those that hang up. Their called hang-up 911 calls. So we call them back to make sure that everything's all right. You just called 911 and so forth. So this is a very sophisticated integrated piece of machinery in our center, as in most. And it, again, it's that automatic call distribution. It picks up the first available operator. I don't know about the two or three minutes. If there's not a recorded message, I suspect that in some agencies -- I don't know of any in our area -- but in some agencies if they don't have a prerecorded message, that's exactly what will happen, it'll just continually ring and ring and ring.
CRAWFORDAnd the reason why we did it, as most did, is because we didn't want people hanging up, saying I must have dialed the wrong number, how come they're not answering my call? Two to three minutes though is an awful long time for anybody to be calling 911 and not getting an answer.
GOLBECKSo, Stephen, your thoughts on this, as well as the budget issues that the caller raised.
WILLIAMSYou know, what John was saying is exactly what we do in Washington, D.C. If you dial 911 and there's not an operator available, you will go into a queue and we do play a message telling you to hang on, we'll get to you. Unfortunately, that's the way the system works and it's not unique to D.C., like John was saying, especially when there's a pedestrian struck or a car accident or a large fire where there's flames visible. I mean, so many of our calls come wirelessly now that -- and if you get a pedestrian struck near the National Mall we literally will get 20 to 30 calls on that same incident.
WILLIAMSAnd that's one of the things we're so hopeful next gen 911 really helps us with, so we can parse those calls that are geographically located together so we can get to other emergencies. About the budget issue, I'm really not familiar with the situation or the email that was received. But we currently, you know, we're, like I said before, we have a few vacancies. We're fully staffed. Our budget is fine. And I can't really comment more than that on that question.
GOLBECKWe have a call from -- is it Chez, in Washington? You're on the air. Go ahead.
CHEZYes. Thank you. I train lifeguards and I'd like to know if I'm correct in trying to get them to -- when they have to call 911 to first of all have the street address. Whenever I have called 911 that's the first thing I've been asked, what is exactly my street address? Is that correct? Is that the first thing or first couple of things that you need to have prepared?
GOLBECKThanks for your call. Yeah, so what information should users have or callers have when they call 911? What should they be ready with?
PUTNAMWell, the first thing that happens when you call 911 is I say to you, Arlington 911. Where is your emergency? That's to get your location information as soon as possible. And then what is the problem there. And I can enter that call -- my personal best if four seconds, after confirming the address. But then I tell them, and I confirm on the phone with them, what the problem is, where they're located, but also who they are and if the person is breathing normally. I mean that's a big step. In Arlington we're trained to do EMD, which is the Emergency Medical Dispatch.
PUTNAMAnd I always assure them that the dispatcher has your information, has your call. I just need to keep you on the phone for a few more minutes to ask you more questions. This helps the police and responding units to ascertain exactly what the problem is and what equipment they might need to bring into that situation, and also to make sure the scene secure for my responding units.
GOLBECKSo we have an email from Phil, in Fairfax, who says, "I have a Ford Fusion, with automatic 911 in case of crash. If I hit a tree and I'm unconscious, my car will use my cell phone to call 911. What does it tell the dispatcher? I suspect it will be some Siri-like voice." Lajuan, have you ever received any calls from an automated system like this?
SULLIVANNo. Not for an automated 911 call for police. No.
GOLBECKStephen or John, do you know anything about these systems and functioning and what they say?
WILLIAMSYeah, we get calls from OnStar. A lot of people are familiar with that. And a lot of those calls today go through to a call center at OnStar who answers the phone. And a lot of the OnStar people are actually EMD trained, as well, because they get that first call. They talk to the caller. They find out where they're at. If the person's unconscious they give us the latitude and longitude of the vehicle. Or they'll give us -- if they're able to determine which street they're at they'll give us that information and we'll dispatch to it.
WILLIAMSWith next gen 911 there is going to be more of the automatic dial that goes to the right PSAP, skipping that other call center, like the OnStar call center, where it's going to automatically ring into the jurisdiction that the vehicle's in. That's one of the things coming with next gen 911. And some of the auto vendors out there today are actually putting that in their vehicle.
GOLBECKLajuan, we got an email from Cee, in the District, on how to locate people when they call 911. "Several times I've made Good Samaritan calls, like a dog locked in a hot car at a shopping center, and I had trouble because I couldn't tell the dispatcher the exact address where I was, only I'm the Target on Cherry Hill Road, for example. I understand that dispatchers may not have magic technology to instantly triangulate my cell phone like in the movies, but it was frustrating for both the dispatcher and me. Could you comment on how you handle this and how a caller can provide better information?"
SULLIVANWell, if the call is made through the cell phones, we use the tower location on approximate location of where the caller is. The call takers trained to abstract landmark locations from the caller. Our computer can provide locations for some of our major landmarks so that we can route that information to the radio zone to be dispatched.
GOLBECKLynne, have you had incidents like this one that our emailer has discussed?
PUTNAMYes. And luckily, we have commonplace names in CAD system. So if they were to say the Target and we had five Targets in our county…
GOLBECKWhat's a CAD system?
PUTNAMComputer-aided Dispatch System.
PUTNAMCommonplace names where people might be. We also have resource computers right next to us now. And believe it or not, a lot of us use Google to get exact address and confirm where they are.
GOLBECKSo we could talk so much more about this, but we're at the end of our time. So I'd like to thank all of our guests, Stephen Williams, Lajuan Sullivan, Lynne Putnam, and John Crawford. Thank you all for joining us.
GOLBECKI'm Jen Golbeck sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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