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Communication Breakdowns

To prevent conflict and improve safety, field officers and dispatch need to learn more about each others jobs.

August 24, 2011  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

  • One officer's negative interaction transmits itself to another officer, especially during initial training. By the end, the young officers mirror their training officers.
  • Tone is often misunderstood by both sides since we can't see each other when we talk. Do not read too much into it.
  • Field units believe they are above us because they are out in the field and we are in an office setting. But our stress is just as real as theirs.
  • I don't take things personally so why should you? If you insult me over the radio with a snide comment, that's a different story.
  • I can't care more about your life than you do. If you don't check out on the radio, how can I send you backup when you scream for help?
  • We don't intentionally give out bad information.
  • We understand you deal with crazy people; we do it all day long; just over the phone.
  • Give us credit for all the calls we take care of that you never see.
  • I'm cussing at you just as much as you are cussing at me.
  • Listen to the radio and stop asking for the same thing your zone partner just did.
  • The instantaneous society we live in now puts unrealistic expectations on us. Not everything you ask for can get done in 30 seconds.
  • When you visit, you'll witness down times. But that doesn't mean we spend the day doing nothing. It's no different than us thinking all you do is drive around ducking calls.
  • Please don't send an officer up here as discipline; what does that say about us?

Creating Middle Ground

Instead of fighting with each other, we should be helping each other. By understanding what role we each play, we can create middle ground. When I was invited to give our Communications Section a class on the Road Patrol perspective, I jumped on the chance. I wanted to explain the how and why of what we do. I wanted them to understand what I needed as a Watch Commander. I also wanted to learn what they needed from me.

I explained how the road handled in-progress calls. I went through a mini-FTO program, including setting up perimeters, deploying K-9 assets, and how to use aviation. I talked about why we ask the questions that we do. One example I covered was weapon type. You can't throw a knife as far as rifle bullet travels so that information speaks to my approach and officer deployment. I stressed that I had to formulate a response based on the information they gave. Good information, good decisions; bad information, bad decisions. I also explained that I understood that they can only feed me what they have.

I answered many of their questions, and because of this open forum, they had many "I never thought of it that way" moments. It wasn't all peaches and cream for me, however; I had several of those moments myself.

Before I go running my mouth, I try to understand the other person's point of view. It's a fundamental concept in negotiating and problem solving for a road patrol supervisor. Whenever I observed an officer give dispatch a hard time, I sent him or her to work a shift alongside that communications officer. I made these officers walk a mile in the other person's shoes.

Usually after a couple of shifts, these officers saw for themselves what really went on behind the scenes. For example, they heard other officers show their ass and observed the frustration it caused.

When I first became a sergeant, a dispatcher got annoyed with me over the radio. I had asked what type of firearm was involved and was looking for whether it was a handgun or rifle. She responded back with an attitude and blew me off. She never did bother to find out. I later heard that she went on a rant about my always asking stupid questions and that I should just go to the call and find out for myself. Needless to say that didn't sit well with me.

I got with her supervisor and made arrangements for her to ride with me. Luckily when she did, we had a similar type of in-progress call involving weapons. Now that she was in the car, and her ass was on the line, the questions didn't seem so stupid.

It became obvious to her it's important to know what you are up against so you can plan accordingly. Later on she was very shocked when she heard the tone and attitude in some of her co-workers' voices. As I was taking a sip of coffee, she asked me if she ever sounded like that. When I almost spit my coffee out, she understood that to be a resounding "yes." We had a nice, long talk and things got better after that. Amazing how that "walk in someone else's shoes" thing can work.

It's understandable that our assignments and missions cause us to focus on our responsibilities. In this case, telecommunicators are about information and field units are about taking action. However, that doesn't mean we can't work together and help each other achieve a better outcome. At the end of the day, we may be in separate divisions but we are still in the same agency, trying to achieving the same goals. You may very well be in the field, but I can assure you, that a communications officer is right there next to you. If you don't believe me, ask one who was on the radio during a shooting. 

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has 24 years of law enforcement experience, and has been involved with martial arts for 38 years.

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Tags: Verbal Communication, Best Practices


Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

J.P. Fane @ 8/26/2011 6:05 AM

Thanks Lt, this is one of the best articles I have seen in a very long time that deals fairly with a daily issue. As an offcer with over 20 years experience I recently took over our Consolidated Dispatch Center. The daily riff between the field and the center is counter productive. I just wanted to thank you for a delivering this important message to both sides.

S. P. @ 3/5/2012 8:52 AM

I've been a dispatcher for 5 years and worked in a jail before that. This article couldn't be more perfect. Some of the quotes by the senior operator I have said myself. I feel all officers should have to work in dispatch once a month so they remember what goes on in here. Our dispatchers ride out with officers pretty often so we usually have an understanding of their end. Thanks for the article

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