9-1-1 - What is the Nature of Your Intolerance?

The day after we celebrate our independence is as fitting a time as any to discuss a burden from which we have yet to be freed: Racism. It is a particularly pernicious form of prejudice that exists both overtly and covertly in our society. Because this malady is woven into the fabric of our lives, it should be no surprise that 9-1-1 would get involved. We are, after all, the pacifiers of the public, there to cure all problems imagined and real. The past few weeks have shown us a bumper crop of incidents, starting with the now famous call from Starbucks where the police were summoned on African-American men whose only offense seems to have been occupying a table. This was followed up by a report of a young lad actually – gasp – mowing lawns, and girl who was selling water. The complainant in that case has come to be known as “Permit Patty,” who allegedly called the cops on the 8-year-old for purveying goods without the proper paperwork. She is not to be confused with Peppermint Patty who is a beloved character from the comic strip Peanuts, and who, as such, stands for diversity and inclusion. Since then, the list of negative examples has continued unabated.

When all is said or done we cannot hope to know what was in the hearts and minds of those who chose to get the authorities involved in any of these cases. What I can say for sure is that people will call 9-1-1 for anything, and that some of the toughest calls to screen are those involving suspicious activity. What makes it suspicious? Are the subjects darting in and out of the shadows? Are they carrying weapons? Making loud threats? All too often, the answer is, “I’ve never seen them in this neighborhood before,” which quite frankly translates to “they’re black.”

It is my observation that in the post 9/11 world there has been a growing inclination to report someone as being suspicious simply based on his or her appearance alone. The fear of Muslims translated to the scrutiny of a wide variety of tan skinned people, including many whose attire by itself denoted that they were not followers of Islam. This, however, does not remove us from our quandary, because no matter how bigoted a call may seem, we still have to dispatch it. Just as the color of a person’s skin does not make them a criminal, neither does it make them a saint, and we must dutifully pass along what we were told to the troops in the field to sort out.

Like many other events that cross our consoles in any given day, we can count these among the ones that we wish people could sort of for themselves. Since that’s not likely anytime soon, we’ll sit down and get ready to answer the next call. Because regardless of their race, gender identify, religion and the pureness of their soul we have to treat them all the same. Prejudice is the one thing we can never let get in the way of providing proper service. 

Never Mind Negligent Retention. How about Negligent Attention?

 As agencies do their best to hold on to existing employees, the discussion often turns to the issue of negligent retention. As the pickings get lean, it is tempting to justify a lowering of standards, because having a warm body at the console is better than having nobody at all.  Well, in theory anyway, but we all know how that goes in practice.

Seemingly at an increasing rate, news stories appear about a screw-up at 9-1-1. Now first off, we should be happy that this is considered news. Certainly, we’re not thrilled to get the coverage, but as long as things going wrong are considered noteworthy and out of the norm it suggests that most of the time we’re doing things right. The trouble is, nobody ever hears about that. We only seem to garner the negligent attention.

My personal viewpoint of dispatching has always equated it to the submarine service. We’re always around, but no one ever acknowledges us until something blows up. Then they assume we did it. As to why we don’t get more positive press, I can offer several reasons. For starters, let me say that the nature of our jobs requires us to do good things. Anyone who needs public reinforcement for performing those deeds that come along with the territory is clearly in the wrong profession. Still, when someone goes above or beyond, it would be nice to get the same level of media coverage as we do when we don’t live up to standards.

But the hard truth is that we often suffer from lack of a positive public perception because we are either reluctant to publicize our successes or don’t know how. The age of social media has given us an enormous capacity for outreach, but even then, we can become known by our careless missteps. In the 2010s an agency cannot afford to be without a proactive online presence. We certainly can’t compete with other public safety providers.  When we do good, people think they called the cops. Firetrucks have lights and sirens. Even the medics get seen about town while we labor in some lonely abyss.

While being visible today makes you susceptible to review by anyone with a smart phone and a Facebook account, being invisible is still worse and contributes to our identity crisis. We’ve busied ourselves with studies and buzzwords. “Hey, I’m a telecommunicator!” you say. “Great” says the Labor Department. “Now get your ass back to the secretarial pool with the rest of the clerical help.” How’s all that working out for us?

The bottom line to gaining progress in improving both staffing and benefits is to cease suffering in silence. You can’t expect support from citizens who only see stories about 9-1-1 employees who either sleep on the job or hang up on people who call. We’ve got to break the mold. Many of us have been raised not to shout, “look at me!” but there comes a time when it is in our professional interest to do just that. Because without knowing the good, all people can give us in negligent attention. 

A Caller By Any Other Name

Frequent Flyers. Frequent Criers. Pains in the Ear. You know the ones I'm talking about. The people who, when their name or number appear on ALI or ANI cause a collective groan throughout the room. It's not like we don't have enough work to do with all the real calls, and all the calls generated by technology that allows you to dial your cell phone by sitting on it. These folks call on a weekly, daily, and sometimes even more frequent basis. Most of the time, it seems, these calls are viewed as a waster of time, or at best a muted cry for help from a lonesome soul. But in our frustration and occasional sympathy, it's all too easy to lose our objectivity. A center I managed had its share of characters, including an older lady who new our number by heart. She was prone to reporting some of the most outlandish stories I've ever heard. One day she told us there was a Martian of her porch. A Martian! We dutifully dispatched a deputy who found a juvenile who had been huffing green paint wandering around her yard. That was her little green man! What makes sense to the caller does not always make sense to us. My own dad, as he neared his end of days, was likely considered a candidate locally. Like many people growing long in years he became increasingly concerned with the changes in his health, and sought occasional reassurance. Having survived multiple heart attacks I am sure that some of his concerns were well justified. 

Then there is this. An old freind of mine shared this with me today, and gave me permission to share it with you. So, before judging the next frequent flyer, remember that you, too, may someday find your membership in that club. 

I write this from the perspective of a retired public safety telecommunications technical specialist and manager.  I’ve designed three iterations of my own center, managed repair facilities for municipal and state agencies, and consulted with agencies across the U.S.  In other words, I spent over 35 years on the “inside” of 9-1-1 facilities.

This is being offered to share my experience not from the inside, but as a user of the 9-1-1 emergency system.

Over the last few years I’ve had a number of medical issues that usually resolved fairly easily.  More times than I would have liked my wife decided that my pain or inability to fully respond required her to call our local 9-1-1.  Always an emergency response team, usually our local fire station plus an ambulance, responded.  Many times the issues got resolved without any transport.  Occasionally transport was needed and lasting damage was avoided.  As far as the local dispatch center or even the responding team knew I was just another senior who called in a few times a year.  None of them ever really knew the final outcome.

Until May, 2018 things were all pretty routine.  In early May my wife woke to my labored breathing late in the night.  It would not clear and I had some difficulty responding to here questions so after several minutes of worry, once again 9-1-1 was called.  The paramedics did all the appropriate protocol and even though it looked like another “pain, but no other complications” event I did have chest and back pain and they recommended transport to a nearby ER.  We agreed and I went in to ER. 

The local hospital did all the checks for heart attack, which happen to take around 6 to 8 hours and include waiting for a variety of blood and other test results.  All looked just fine; no heart attack, nothing horribly out of the norm so they sent me home, but with a referral to a cardiologist.

We did follow through and visit the cardiologist.  A few more checks and things still looked good.  The evenings issue was probably something non-heart, but with the chest pains he recommended a stress-test.  Since it had been quite a few years since I’d done one we decided to give it a shot.

I found in research that stress-tests are pretty coarse in their diagnosis.  Really they only show:  Nothing wrong, relax; Humm, something strange, better get it checked; or Oh My – get that fixed NOW.  Mine was in the middle, strange results and very unusual reaction to the nuclear medicine stress test (I couldn’t do the treadmill due to other issues).  On to a heart catherization. That found at least 3 blocks, one at 100%.

After some discussion we decided to go for a stent on the partially blocked artery.  Now this is supposed to be “simple” and some patients go home the same day, some are observed overnight.  However it turns out that’s not always the case.  It seems I presented a lot of complications during the surgery, including keeping me running with a temporary pacemaker “several times”.  After the surgery proper it took something like 6 hours to bring the bleeding from the incisions under full control.  I’m told that my blood pressure went down to something like 20/13 and my wife, in the corner of the hospital room, said that they had 12 to 15 folks in there “working frantically” for a couple hours.  I came to in ICU, never having seen the first room and told “You can’t bend your legs, try to sit up, or raise your head until 6 hours after we get the bleeding fully stopped.”  That meant quite a while planted in place. 

After a day in ICU and two more in a regular room I made it home.  At this point things are now back to mostly normal, although my blood is so thin I’m considered a “fall risk” for the next year. 

 The point of relating these events, including trying to present the idea that the final issue addressed was indeed severe, complicated, and well out of the normal, it all resolved well thanks to the intervention of the local 9-1-1 dispatch team and emergency responders.  Had any of those folks simply shrugged the incident off as “just another call from the guy with some gastro-problems, we’ve been down that road before” this could have ended very differently.

 The cardiac surgeon commented at one point that I’m the kind of guy they worry about: No normal symptoms.  I’ve never (including that night in May) had “shortness of breath”, heavy or crushing chest pain, or other heart symptoms.  The only thing that caught this was 9-1-1 dispatch treating my recurrent case just like a brand new caller; everyone following the established protocols and not a single person missing or bypassing the “next step” recommendation.  It didn’t hurt that my wife helped influence my decision making process to go ahead and follow up with the hospital and doctor’s advice.

In this particular case I happen to be active in our local APCO chapter and have access to our local 9-1-1 staff.  They will indeed hear how it worked out and why it’s a great result.  Most folks simply don’t know how to go about doing that.  This life-event is offered through some very good, longtime friends offering 9-1-1 training and consulting to try to let each and every call-taker, dispatcher, supervisor, trainer, manager out there in public safety communications realize that your efforts are recognized and do pay off.  Sometimes that frequent caller really does have an underlying issue but that his or her responses are not normal or typical.  We are the hidden patients who, with no control over the situation, just don’t fit into neat diagnosis packages. 

I’ll end with an admonishment to keep up the good, no the Great Work!  Even though most of the public can’t reach out and tell you it is truly appreciated.

Lex Rutter

​APCO Senior and Life Member


Yanni and Laurel Call 9-1-1


What we can learn from the latest internet quandary

"Do you hear what I hear?” may be a line from a beloved Christmas song, but it is also the most frequently asked question on the internet this week as people try to determine whether they hear “Yanni” or “Laurel” based upon listening to a sound bite. A number of so-called experts have chimed in discussing frequencies and offering scientific explanations, while another faction has been hard at work developing memes and videos playing off of this divisive question.  Now, what, say you, does any of this have to do with 9-1-1? I’ll tell you. An alert friend of mine asked me this morning if I, or any of my employees, had ever heard something completely different than what the caller said. My immediate answer was yes! On more than one occasion I’ve reviewed a tape and the information seemed crystal clear, yet the telecommunicator headed down a completely different road. Why? In many of my classes I discuss what I call “tunnel listening.” Now, we all are familiar with the concept of tunnel vision, where somebody sees exactly what they want to see. It’s sometimes called target fixation, when all outside activity other than the object on which you are focused is ignored. That’s why you’ll often get variations in accounts of the same incident as viewed by different witnesses.

Since we are not yet a visual service, our prejudices inject themselves into our audial realm. Sometimes we hear what we want to hear. We listen for the familiar. Given two similar sounding street names, we’ll likely act upon the one we know. Even though we’ve been taught to be open minded, our initial questions, at least, may focus on landmarks, businesses, and intersections that make sense in that scenario. Hopefully, negative answers to our queries will force us to examine other options. Unfortunately, there may be times when we insist that the square peg fits perfectly into the round hole, and, despite the protestations of the caller, dispatch resources to the one that we know is “right.” Common business names can also lead us into the same trap. In many jurisdictions there may be a number of the same fast food restaurants, service stations, and drug stores in operation, even on the same street. A scan of the news tells us that these mistakes can, and do, happen.

One of my pet peeves involves scripted protocols. EFD, EMD, and EPD are excellent tools and have a great track record. However, when agencies insist that every question be asked in order regardless of response, and when call takers lose critical cognitive skills due to an over reliance on cue cards, tunnel listening creeps in. How often have you heard a caller asked to provide information that he or she had already given simply because that information was “the next question on the list?” While I understand checks and balances, if we failed to process all information provided to us out of logical order, we’d never get off the phone. Plus, operating by rote creates the one thing that we should always work to avoid – a disconnect with the caller. We become so fixated with filling in the blanks that we stop listening for what’s really going on.  Reporting party: “My husband’s been completely decapitated!” Telecommunicator: “Is he conscious and alert?” You get the picture.

Regardless of the name you hear, take some time to think about the much more serious implications of your listening skills, and what can be done to avoid the pitfalls presented by tunnel listening. When you’re done, you might also work on the solution to a previous online dilemma. Because whether the dress is blue and black or white and gold, Next Generation 9-1-1 will test your visual skills in the not too distant future. And 9-1-1 will need to have the right answer.