June 2, 2018
It's My Party And I'll Call Who I want To!
For the weekend, let’s start with a story that should resonate with my 9-1-1 and firefighter friends alike. It comes from
Pennsylvania, where a state commission has been charged with investigating a fatal fire where the nearest mutual aid department was bypassed and other more distant resources were called. I don’t claim to know all the facts of this case, nor do I have any idea as to whether or not their response would have altered the outcome. What I do know, however, is that once an outside agency gets involved in scrutinizing your daily operations, lawyers are sure to follow. It’s already been reported that the family of the deceased is considering a suit against the borough.
As fire officers, we expect our decisions on the fireground to be carried out. Certainly, input is helpful in making these decisions, but in the end, it is truly “our call.” That’s why they are called orders. However, especially in this day and age, we can almost automatically count on criticism from the Monday Morning Incident Commander Club as our strategy and tactics are dissected on YouTube and social media. Cell phones and helmet cams provide an almost never-ending online menu of fires and accidents to view. Sometimes the view is positive, and the video can become a valuable training aid or public relations tool. Other times, not so much.
The main take away is that none of our decisions are beyond reproach. We, like those who use free speech as their defense, must come to realize that our right to exercise a behavior does not make us immune from being answerable for our words or deeds. My involvement in public safety dates back to 1970, and in the almost fifty years that have passed since then, I have been privy to some of the best and worst examples of emergency response. I’ve seen agencies totally buy in to the closest unit concept, automatically assigning a neighboring engine when those from the designated entity were farther afield. Many also recognized that limited access highways may sometimes be more easily serviced by another jurisdiction. Conversely, I’ve seen career and volunteer departments share a border and nothing else, resulting in lights and sirens responses past occupied stations.
I’ve seen agencies develop run cards for their districts, with mutual aid response based upon distance and types of apparatus required. Sadly, I’ve also witnessed the dilemma that occurs in dispatch when there is no plan in place, and seemingly no rhyme or reason as to how and where to get sufficient help. And while hedge hopping departments in order to backfill empty stations is a potentially desirable way to distribute localized impact, special calling someone to the scene is an entirely different point. Can there be compelling reasons to do so? Of course. But unless I’m totally off base, an RIT team, for example, is a critical and time dependent entity. Requesting one from another area code without some defendable rationale could easily put the Incident Commander in an unhappy place should they be quickly required. The rationale need not be defended to me. I’m just the messenger here. Nor will it need to be defended from the outrageous slings and arrows of the Internet Fire Brigade. You outrank them. It will, however, potentially need to be defended in a civil proceeding, because the same set of laws that provide you with your authority also allow those seeking damages from your decisions to seek recovery. You make the call.
May 29, 2018
Did You Read the One About the Rape Victim Mocked by 9-1-1?
On May 26th, a website published a report of a man vacationing in California who called 9-1-1 after becoming the victim of a rape. The call taker then laughed at him and used a homophobic slur. This is just the type of news we didn't need after our very public embarassment concerning our hanging up on people during the previous weeks. Except it didn't happen. Well, the article did, because it was featured on a site that specializes in content that is "satirical in nature." But the 9-1-1 call never did, nor did the crime. It was the complete fabrication of the author. Personally, I find no humor in sexual assault, and am deeply concerned that anyone thought this was funny. We can do enough damage to ourselves without "Fake News" further eroding the public trust. Past that point I am alarmed about how information like this - even from a source that identifies that, "All characters appearing in the articles in this website – even those based on real people – are entirely fictional and any resemblance between them and any person, living, dead or undead, is purely a miracle," gets passed along at the speed of light and represented as gospel truth. Granted, the story which appeared here is very authentic looking, but the disclaimer is clearly posted directly below. While our national attention may be focused on Russian hackers and disinformation, it's high time we took a look at ourselves and assumed some personal responsibility for fact-checking what we share. The late Jack Webb, who was responsible for the shows Adam 12 and Emergency!, also played tough-talking detective Joe Friday in their predecessor, Dragnet. All Joe wanted was, "Just the facts ma'am." And that's all we should want. The skills we use every day in our professional lives should be put to good use when we surf the web, and compel us share only those things which we know are true instead of those that somehow support our personal beliefs. Like our belief that Detective Friday ever uttered that famous phrase. While he said some things that came close, that exact string of words never crossed his lips. Whether you've grown up hearing that "fact", or just bought into it now because you read it here, on the internet, it only goes to show how readily we believe facts that are not facts. And that's a fact, ma'am.
June 28, 2018
To Call or Not to Call – That is the Question!
Whoever said you can never have too much information never worked in a 9-1-1 center. A lively debate can ensue when discussing the questions we ask of our callers. How much is too much? Which ones are truly critical to public safety and which ones slow response? While I’m a supporter of scripted protocols, I secretly long for the days that “where are you and what’s your problem?” was the only information gathered. Still, I’ll save that discussion for another time and turn my attention to a news story that came across my desk today.
Station WGRZ in Buffalo, New York brings us this update on two men who drowned in the Niagara River. One entered to gather driftwood for a project. When he became distressed, a second entered to assist. Tragically, both were swept away by the current. A sad story indeed, but one (or something like it) that all of us in public safety have experienced at one time or another. However, one particular line in their coverage jumped out at me because it is something that we have all also experienced a number of times. “Everybody was screaming. There was about six people around us that seen the whole thing. Everybody was calling 9-1-1,” Christina Williams said.
Now these few words may not catch the eye of the citizen reader, but they did mine. About six people saw it. Everybody was calling 9-1-1. We can rationalize that people in different vehicles may independently report an accident. They want to do the right thing and are perhaps unaware that anyone else has called. But why do a half-dozen or more people standing right next to each other feel the need to all call 9-1-1 at once? Yes, I get that we may get more information from multiple witnesses, but that likely doesn’t trigger the reporting reflex and still doesn’t explain the phenomena. As a caller, do I think my account of events is somehow better than yours? Even though I know you’re reporting the emergency, can I do it better than you? Do I not trust you to handle this? Do I feel like I haven’t helped if I don’t call?
We’ve spent years telling people to call 9-1-1 in an emergency. It worked. Do we now have to retool our public education to be more specific? Or is this human behavior over which we have no control? What’s your take? I’d be happy to hear your comments on this.
May 30, 2018
To App or Not to App?
To App or Not to App? That is the question. Today's discussion comes courtesy of the folks at Uber, who are trying out a 9-1-1 feature in their App in selected cities. The good news? It promises to provide better wireless location information to call takers. The bad news? Well, it's an app, and should anyone have to install an app to get 9-1-1 to work the way it should? Here's a link to a background story. What do you think?
June 1, 2018
"The Dreaded C Word"
Ah… the dreaded “C” word. Nothing strikes fear into hearts more quickly than its mention. No, I’m not talking about cancer, I’m talking about consolidation. While several states and regions are moving in this direction either voluntarily or by legislative dictum, others are digging in their heels and fighting tooth and nail to preserve the status quo. Why is there such diversity in opinion? This story out of Washington State sheds light on some of the issues. First, is the lack of information. Municipal leaders called for more facts before making a decision, and rightly so. However, it is often hard to quantify the coordination provided by a unified PSAP. Sometimes service improvements don’t necessarily equate to dollars saved. Then there’s the employees involved. What happens to their jobs moving forward? With the ongoing shortage of telecommunicators, the specter of layoffs should be greatly lessened. And frankly, were we to take a realistic look at staffing nationwide, we’d probably wind up hiring more people to do the job the way it should be done. Lack of control always is the silent partner in these matters. I’ve seen a number of government services consolidations shot down simply because those at the top had something to lose. I may be chief of a two-person department, but dammit, I’m still a chief. If Mayberry merged with Mount Pilot, Andy might be demoted to lieutenant. Funding, technology, and people are the least of our concerns. The biggest elephant in the room is, and will always be, politics. Aside from that, public safety as a whole shares the mores of the fire service, who are often identified as having centuries of tradition unimpeded by progress. That about sums it up. The fear of the unknown, coupled with the “We’ve always done it this way,” factor oftentimes adds up to deal the death blow to even the smallest hints of change. When broad sweeping projects such as consolidations loom, these come to center stage. Are all proposals good? Even though I am a strong supporter of consolidation, my answer is still no. But, unless we engage in open discussion, and put our facts and our fears on the table, we won’t know which one serves our citizens the best. And failure to achieve that task should always be our biggest concern.
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July 2, 2018
When our lips move, do our noses grow?
"At some point, someone's going to die over all of this, and I guess that's when you will see a change." Those are the words of Derrick Ryan - president of the International Association of Firefighters Local in Hillsborough County, Florida - referring to the effects of personnel shortages at the local dispatch center. The firefighters he represents were speaking out after a reported delay in answering a radio call. Local officials had previously been made aware of the deficit by a letter from a former dispatcher, who alleged that employees were getting physically ill from stress, among other things. The Public Safety Answering Point dutifully responded to these comments in the manner you'd expect. Whether or not there is validity to these accusations, I am uncertain. Departing employees are not always unbiased, and union reps have to talk like union reps. But, the old saying, "where there's smoke, there's fire" leads us to an uncomfortable truth: somewhere, someday, somehow, someone IS going to die because of the telecommunicator staffing crisis. Maybe it has happened already.
As a former emergency communications director, I fully understand the need to assure the public that all is well. Thanks to the skill and dedication of our staff, often times it is. But other times it isn’t. Like the paramedic stoically telling the dying patient that they're going to be just fine, we keep a stiff upper lip when our citizens ask if they are safe. Unfortunately, this glossing over of disquieting facts serves to hurt our own cause in the long term. If we can't be honest about the magnitude and impact of our current dilemma, how can we expect to garner support to fix it? I direct this to everyone currently facing the challenges that I once did: When you tell a reporter that your agency can manage being short-handed by a measurable percentage of employees, how do you answer when the follow up question is, "So did you originally have more people than you needed?" Think about it. If we assert that things are operating smoothly without an impact to public safety when ten/twenty/thirty percent or more of our dispatchers are not present, how do we defend having that many "unnecessary" personnel in the first place? I don't think we should need to, and I don't think we can.
No one of us individually started this mess, but we all must work together to get out of it. This starts by not sugarcoating the truth. We can’t handle the workload thrown at us on many a day with a full complement of butts in the seats. How, then can we be expected to carry on flawlessly when there is not? It's just a wild guess, but I'm betting that whoever wins the World Series this year does so while having nine players on the field. Like them, our team cannot properly perform unless all of our positions are filled. Unfortunately, the cost of errors is significantly higher in our game.
So will it, as firefighter Ryan said, take a death to effect change? Perhaps the public will come to arms when a Kardashian call for help goes ignored. The sad reality is, there are equal odds that some unheralded firefighter will succumb to his or her injuries when a dispatcher misses a mayday while otherwise occupied. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. And let's hope that we become more forthcoming in our assessments before it does.
May 31, 2018
"Works as Designed"
“I could be dead now!” That’s what Renee’ Grissom thought after real-life interfered with her 9-1-1 call. According to the Kansas City Star, the 64-year-old was taking a shower when she heard a crash. When she went to investigate she found that someone had kicked down her front door and was possibly in her house. That’s when life, as we know it, intervened. Her call was placed on hold. She hung up. The center called back. She was transferred to the right PSAP and placed on hold again. Police arrived to find her shaken but safe. The string of events, and the article here, detail much of what those of us in the industry see happening on a daily basis. The idiosyncrasies of wireless 9-1-1, our fragmented system, and the shortage of telecommunicators all result in the delivery of service that is considerably less than public expectations. While our first and foremost challenge should be to fix those obstacles that interfere with our giving less than the best, we must also turn our attention to informing our citizens what to reasonably expect when seeking help, especially on a cellphone. While this incident serves as a prime example, by no means are these issues limited to one jurisdiction. The fact that they are nationwide makes them even more onerous. All too often agencies are quick to calm fears after things go south, issuing soothing statements assuring that any lapses were isolated and will be fixed. While our system remains strong overall, and there is no need to create panic or distrust, it’s not to anybody’s benefit to completely ignore our shortcomings while we carry on with business as usual. For decades we’ve rightly encouraged everyone to call 9-1-1 with their problems. It’s time to be open about ours.
June 8, 2018
All In A Day's Work
Are we gonna die ma’am? That has to be about the hardest question a call taker has to hear. But, telecommunicators in Howard County Maryland answered that and more as flood waters recently ravaged their area. Panicked citizens sought help when they were trapped in their homes and businesses as the situation rapidly deteriorated. Staff was faced with allaying people’s fears and getting assistance to them quickly in what videos reveal to be unimaginable conditions.
This news story gives an overview of some of the challenges 9-1-1 personnel faced and brings to light two very important points. The first is that floods are the natural born killers of weather related events. They develop quickly and release phenomenal energy. Nothing is safe from the sudden and massive wall of water. Depending upon where you live, emergency preparedness and the media may largely focus upon blizzards, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes as a clear and present danger. While all of these events can cause loss of life, the truth is that floods are much more dangerous. Take a look at the historical statistics, and you’ll see that floods top the list of life-threatening occurrences, and by a good margin. In Ellicott City, Maryland, a National Guardsman was killed while attempting to rescue others. And while this situation was unfolding, similar conditions were being dealt with in the Carolinas and as far afield as Missoula, Montana. You might not always equate a mountain state with being prone to flooding, but dispatchers there had to deal with days of just that.
The second take-away should be that despite our own self-deprecation and frequent lack of acknowledgment we do good work. There are scores of people alive and well across the communities effected because of the advice and actions of telecommunicators. Yes, many of our calls on a daily basis can be frustrating and oftentimes unnecessary, but when the chips are down we do our best work. Natural disasters are perhaps the most trying times we experience due to their widespread coverage, high cals volumes, demand on resources, and potential impact upon our own homes and families. Yet this is when we shine. We save lives.
But the final, and most important, lesson to be learned is that our caring comes at a cost. While we’ve seen a few examples lately of how not everyone in our ranks is worthy of praise, I invite anyone to watch the faces and listen to the voices of these telecommunicators as they recall what they heard that day and think that these people do not care. Days after the event – and potentially for the rest of their lives – they will recall the emotional energy spent in doing their ordinary jobs, on what was a very extraordinary day.