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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).
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Has 911 Become a Government-sponsored Dial a Prayer?

You need to take 911 calls seriously.

April 25, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

I was working as the field sergeant when a deputy contacted me on the coordinating frequency and asked me to roll on a missing person call near the San Gabriel River bed run-off. Parking at the dead end of a cul de sac, I finished the trek on foot, hiking over a horse trail and down a waste-strewn slope that led to the polluted water's edge. It was little more than a stream, but according to witnesses, some guy had nonetheless succeeded in apparently getting himself drowned in it all the same.

The man had been seen drinking beer and acting the fool before slipping beneath the water without resurfacing. Someone decided to dial 911 to report his possible drowning.

On some nearby rocks we found the man's clothes and three medical cards indicating that he had been getting treatment in Oregon for tuberculosis.

That alone was enough to pretty much ensure that none of my guys were going to be performing any mouth-to-mouth on the guy anytime soon. Still, I was more than a little bit perturbed that fire and rescue wasn't requested at the time that our units were dispatched some 30 to 45 minutes earlier, for somewhere in between the situation had segued from a rescue attempt to a body recovery.

I instructed the handling deputy to request ESD (Emergency Services Detail) to roll. Whereas a preliminary courtesy sweep of the area by another agency's helicopter had failed to locate the body, LASD's Air 5 got low enough for the prop wash of the helicopter blades to sweep away the waters, revealing the man's body right where people had seen him go under. Two ESD drivers jumped in shortly thereafter and retrieved the body, dragging it to the river's edge where they—being paramedics—pronounced the man dead.

Using my cell phone, I called the watch deputy and asked him why he hadn't requested paramedics and fire at the time we received the initial 911 call. He gave me a dismissive, "I don't know." When pressed, he finally said that the call had been made by a nine-year-old and he didn't want to request fire because he didn't know if the man had drowned or was taking a crap in the bushes.

I told him that if he'd made all the necessary notifications and it turned out that the guy had been taking a dump, nobody would have blamed him for having fire and rescue roll. Conversely, if the guy had drowned, people would be looking at us and wondering what the hell we were thinking. I then asked him which scenario we were living out.

The incident came back to me when I heard of several recent 911-related misadventures currently making their way through the courts. One where a five-year-old dialed 911 for his mother who had collapsed, only to be chastised for "playing with the phone" while his mother died; another where a 37-year-old woman choked to death while veteran 911 workers refused to assist a trainee with the call. Upon hearing of her death, one of these employees was heard to comment, "I guess she bit off more than she could chew."

Looks like the agency bit off more than it could chew, as well, for it is now being sued.

How is it that so many 911 calls continue to be handled with similarly dismissive attitudes? You tell me. But whether it's manifest at the dispatch center or by the units in the field, someone inevitably pays an exorbitant price.

Having worked the long hot summer when Night Stalker Richard Ramirez was doing his thing and we were getting prowler calls up the ass, I'm acutely aware that there are times when you hop from one 911 call to another every minute of your shift and then some. And even if the field units don't get spread a little thin, the novelty of responding to B.S. calls and dealing with abuses of the 911 system wears off pretty damn quick, too.

Personally, I think such abuses should be vigorously prosecuted in every state, not only because of the "boy who cried wolf" mentality it fosters, but because of those whose legitimate needs for assistance can't get through.

Yeah, it's tempting to say the hell with it. But cops are not allowed that luxury. Whether answering such calls or being dispatched to them, officers have the responsibility to do something toward helping the person in need of assistance.

And if they can't do that, what the hell are they in the job for in the first place?

I've heard some jokingly refer to 911 as government sponsored dial-a-prayer. Sad to say, but in some cases, maybe it should be formally proclaimed such.

Because sometimes people are lucky if they get that much.

Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

CAPONER @ 4/28/2008 5:54 AM

I have listened to quite a few dispatch recordings from shooting incidents and I have found that 90% of them are poorly handled at the dispatch end. From the beginning "911 what is the location of your emergency?" we waste words when we should be listening.
Dispatchers ask curiousity questions not tactical ones. Example: Cop calls dispatch "We have an officer shot!" Dispatcher "How bad is it?" This is a curiousity question, it has nothing to do with helping the officer and who is supposed to make this assessment anyway, the other cop who is also under fire? How about "Where are you?" Now that is a question that will yield some tactical knowledge and direct a tactical response.
How about multi-jurisdictional 911 systems that won't give the exact location of a call while they are polling for the so-called nearest available car? They will waste 2 - 3 minutes checking and rechecking the location of every possible agency's car while someone might be getting killed and all cars could be heading towards the call.
Finally, the 911 systems that take all your info and then transfer you to another dispatch system to re-state all the info also get my goat.
In sum, call taking and dispatch often gives poor service to the caller and the responding cops, in my view.

angel_dispatch911 @ 4/29/2008 9:58 PM

I agree, just because the caller is a juvenile doesn’t mean the call taker should dismiss their credibility. A lot of times a juvenile will give the call taker more information than the adults involved (in a stressful situation they are less likely to lie or distort the truth). I also agree that it is far better to respond to several "BS" calls, than to find out later that the so called "BS" and dismissed call wasn't so insignificant after all.
Now for a response to Caponer: You stated that you have listened to a few dispatch recordings from shooting incidents and in your opinion 90% of them were handled poorly at the dispatch end. First of all I am curious to know how the lists of recordings were chosen. Were all of them from the same agency? Last, have you every "dispatched"? True not all calls will go as planned. When you pick up a 911 call you don't know what you are going to have on the other end. Some callers are frantic, sometimes the call taker has to calm them down to get the basic information and keep them calm enough to get the rest of the details needed for emergency personal to respond safely, quickly and efficiently. Then you have a caller that wants to start out telling about the incident that occurred 3-8 weeks ago (or more) that lead to the reason they are calling today only to find out the incident today is still going on and is a physical disturbance. So you can't tell me that '911 what's the location of your emergency?" is a waste of words. The location is the most important information dispatchers could possibly get. If absolutely necessary the responding law enforcement agency can figure out the rest if they have to. You can't ask a frantic or excited person "what's you address?" Often they will give you just that, their address, whether they are there or not! Yes, the call taker needs to listen but there is a chance precious time could be lost if the caller is allowed to ramble.
I'm not sure if I understood you correct

David Moore S-55 @ 4/30/2008 7:40 PM

Vital position Dispatch-911 the lifeline of Field Service Bureau /Patrol Operations backbone. Good training, solid SOPS, the right personnel (Communications) are the key here! With the software of today (CAD-GIS-RMS-AVLS-DORS-Blackberry), computers are doing much of what was done manually and had some delay for look-up. However, two major response issues continue today. They are 911 hang-up calls and cell phone calls from phones that are not GPS chip enabled or are not initialized…leads to :Unverified-unknown risk responses. Not initialized do not have service but you may still capable of dialing 911. All can result in vital information missing or not available a major safety concern for responding units. Not long ago the only history you had on trouble spots/residences was amount of calls for service to that location or you being dispatched there and memory! High emotion calls life or death screaming, fear, etc are very hard to make out both ends…always confirm wait for acknowledgement or you may be in for unwanted excitement/danger. When communicating with dispatch-call center raw/bare information cannot communicate motivation or expectation. The potential for miscommunication or non-communication rises. “Conflict will occur, not because people share information, but because they don’t. Stay Safe & Aware ALWAYS…

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