Thursday, May 20, 2010

You just never know...

Last Friday, I attended a class for work in Sykesville, MD called "You Just Never Know" - it was put on by the Public Safety Training Consultants (PSTC911) and was advertised as their newest post in-service class for 9-1-1 professionals. Here is the class description: You just never know what is waiting at the other end of that next incoming phone call or radio transmission. What is your demeanor as the call comes in? Are you prepared to really listen to the next caller or are you about to make a snap judgment or poor decision due to being “burnt out” or under prepared for the call. The amazing instructional team has built a brand new class that prepares you for that next crazy, challenging, unbelievable or seemingly mundane call for service.

Skill building is our goal, increased performance is the outcome.

Now I'll be honest with you - the main reason I signed up to take this class was because I knew it would give me an "extra" night off (they had flexed me off of midnight shift the night before so that I could go to the class during the day on Friday, which was one of my days off) - I hadn't paid much attention to what the class was supposed to be about and the last thing I expected to do was actually LEARN something! Boy, was I wrong! It's not that I think I know everything but I guess that after 10 years of working as a 911 dispatcher, I've seen and heard just about everything imaginable... and even some things unimaginable! But despite the fact that I went to this class with a somewhat closed mind and not expecting to learn anything, not only did I learn ALOT but it also opened my eyes to some things that I've become very complacent about over the years, without even realizing it. I think that people in this line of work have a tendency to become jaded after awhile but I don't want to be "that" dispatcher you hear on the news one day... this class was my wake up call.

We talked about the types of incidents we handle on a daily basis: low risk/high frequency (alarms, notifications, road hazards, parking complaints, patrol requests, etc), low risk/low frequency (barking dogs, liquor law violations, banning letters, open burning complaints, fraud calls, etc), high risk/high frequency (domestics, assaults, traffic stops, 911 hangups, suicidal calls, DUI/DWI, disorderly, etc) and high risk/low frequency (active shooters, bank robberies, mass casualty incidents, plane crashes, terrorist events, bomb threats, etc) and the differences between each of those. We talked about understanding and focusing on what a caller is actually saying and not on how they say it. We recognized that what we say and do can and will have a definite impact on the overall call. I think sometimes we forget that part... I know I do. We talked about liability concerns and about our duty and what the community expects of us. We talked about sinking vehicles and what instructions we should give to a caller whose vehicle is sinking in the split seconds we have before the line disconnects. We watched a video that showed us just how fast a vehicle can sink... a reminder of what little time there is to help the people inside. We listened to 3 different 911 calls for people in sinking vehicles... sadly, not one of those people (Kimberlyn Rae Kendrick, Karla Gutierrez, & Umberto Delgado) lived to tell about it. I'm not going to say that the reason they didn't live was solely because the 911 dispatchers who took their calls didn't do what they should've done or were supposed to do, but it was very obvious that it was a contributing factor.

We listened to lots of 911 calls, most of which had poor outcomes... we talked about what we would've said or done differently if it had been us, but most of all we were able to learn from someone else's mistakes. These calls planted seeds that will help us to deal with similar situations in the future, should we ever be faced with them. We listened to a call in which a California Highway Patrol Officer, Tony Pedeferri, was on a traffic stop when he and the vehicle he had stopped were struck by a drunk driver. The vehicle he had stopped burst into flames and the driver was killed instantly; Officer Pedeferri was thrown 30-40 feet into a ditch that was about 5 feet deep and covered with heavy brush that was about 8-10 feet tall... once located, he was found to be in cardiac arrest. It is nothing short of a miracle that, although paralyzed from the armpits down, Tony is still alive today. He spent 5 months in a hospital and many more months after that recovering from his injuries and although they are very devastating injuries, I'm so thankful that he's alive!! Here's a link to his website, where you can watch a video about the incident... but make sure you have some tissues handy!

Another call we listened to was about a shooting; the 911 dispatcher who answered that call just happened to be the victim's mother. During the course of that call, the 911 dispatcher switched roles from 911 dispatcher to mother, back to 911 dispatcher. That's one fear I've always had while working this job... that one day the emergency on the other end of the line or the radio will involve one of my family members, because I'm not sure that I'll be able to function as well as that dispatcher did.

Another call we listened to was involving a girl named Denise Amber Lee. In January of 2008, Denise was kidnapped from her home in Florida by a man named Michael King. Despite the fact that Denise herself (calling from her abductor's cellphone) and several others had attempted to call for help through the 911 system, there was a lack of communication and she was not found until it was too late. Five 911 calls were made that day, including one by a witness who gave a detailed account of events as they unfolded before her. However, the information that the witness provided were never passed onto police in the area. Denise's body was found in a shallow grave a few days later; she had been raped and murdered. Denise was 21 years old... she was a daughter, a sister, a wife and a mother. She had a husband (Nathan) and 2 little boys (Noah and Adam) who will have to live the rest of their lives without their wife and mother... a big part of that is due to the HUGE mistake the 911 dispatchers made. I don't want there to ever be another Denise and I definitely don't want it to happen under my watch.

Another notable call we listened to (and probably the one I learned the most from) was from a woman who called 911 (listen to the 911 call here) because she was being held hostage in her home by a man who had broken in... but she couldn't tell the 911 dispatcher that because the suspect was standing right in front of her. She asked the 911 dispatcher a question about the paperwork that is required when applying to be a substitute teacher at a school... that question could easily have been brushed off or referred to somewhere else. In fact, the dispatcher even stated: "911 is for life or death emergencies... do you have a life or death emergency?" to which the caller replied "yes, ma'am". That gives me chills. Every single day, we answer 911 calls that are non-emergencies. Sometimes they're not even related to public safety at all... and they happen so often that it's easy to get frustrated and think to yourself "why are they calling 911 for this??" without considering that someone might be holding a gun to their head or a knife to their throat. I don't think I'll answer another 911 call without thinking about this call and wondering if my caller really dialed accidentally or if there is some emergency they're not able to tell me about.

"You Just Never Know" was not only a funny and informative class, but it was also the reminder I needed about why I come to work every day. I want all of my officers to return to their families at the end of their shift, even if they do drive me crazy sometimes. I want all of my callers to stay safe even if they do cuss me out and call me names once in awhile. Sometimes it's easy to forget that the reason I chose this line of work is because of my desire to help people in whatever capacity they need... no matter how silly the request, I want to make a difference in people's lives. And it's true what they say... you just never know!

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