Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"911, What is your Emergency?" - Emergency Communications Information for Writers



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Fiona - 
Hi David, welcome to ThrillWriting. Would you please introduce yourself to the readers and tell a little bit about your background and your writing?

David -
I am a retired 911 operator living in northern Kentucky. I also worked as an operations manager for a large transportation company and as part of my job investigated accidents. I worked as an emergency operator for the Department of Public Safety in northern Michigan until 2006. I have written in several different genres, mystery, romance, and even some literary, short fiction and novels. I have five published novels

Fiona - 
Is there a difference between a 911 operator and an emergency operator?

David - 
David Swykert
The duties would be the same. 911 is an emergency system. Houghton, Michigan had no 911 system of its own, neither did its neighboring city, Hancock. I worked for the Department of Public Safety for MTU, a large northern university. we were a state licensed police agency for the university, and also our officers were deputized in the county and assisted local law enforcement agencies. We contracted our emergency 911 services to the two cities, and their fire departments, as well as taking emergency
calls for the university. We also dispatched
the police officers for the two cities, and
their fire departments.

Fiona - 
Can you tell me about the qualifications and training of a 911 operator?

David - 
I was trained by the Michigan State Police to obtain a LEIN certification, which is an acronym for law enforcement information network. This certification enabled me to access databases maintained by the states, NCIC which is the FBI's database, which searched for federal warrant information and CMIS, which is a corrections database for prisons. The law enforcement training was done in house for operators by the Department.

Fiona - 
What do your duties entail?

David -

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Taking emergency calls, although, "emergency" is a pretty broad term. For some people this meant the neighbor's dog was barking.


We answered the phone like this: "Public Safety, what is the nature of your emergency?" 

At this juncture, you determined a course of action, i.e. my house is on fire. Or, my
husband is threatening me. I'm going
to hang myself. There was protocol
for almost every emergency you can
think of. 
* Fire - I would engage the alarms for the appropriate fire
   department and forward the information. 
* Police calls, depending on the nature of the call determined what
   action I would take. 
* Domestic violence, generally we would send a car and always
   backup. 
* Suicide call, we would try and keep the caller on the line and send
   initially a police car to the scene, the officers observations then
   would determine further action, i.e. notification of the emergency
   at the nearest hospital.

Fiona - 
In an emergency, do you talk the caller through stabilizing the situation? For example, in a fire do you make sure they leave the house?

David - 
Not in a fire. We would advise them to leave and wait across the street for the fire department. For a domestic violence call, I would ask them to stay on the line with me until the officers got there, and there is some information I'd want, for instance, "Is he armed? Are there weapons in the house? Are you injured?"

Fiona- 
Most common call was about what kind of situation?

David - 

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One of the most common calls we would get would be lockouts. "I locked my keys in my car." Our officers all carried a tool that would allow them to unlock cars. But the newer cars with all the electronics it's getting tougher. We insisted on the driver signing a waver, in case the officer yanked a few wires loose trying to open the vehicle.

Fiona - 
See and I thought that was a call to AAA unless my kid or dog was inside (which would NEVER happen).

David - 
Some police agencies refuse to do lockouts, too many damage complaints. But our officers were very proficient with a "slim Jim"; the tool they lifted the lock with.

Fiona - 
What was the most bizarre call you ever received?

David - 
One was a report of a large group of very naked young men running down US41 at about 3 a.m. The only officer on duty anywhere near the area was a young female officer. And yes, I sent her to investigate. She found them, got out of the car and went in pursuit of them. She cornered about a half of dozen of them and ended up with all of them, buck naked, in the car with her, crammed in the back, and she transported them like that to the jail. I asked if she wanted me to run any records on them. She said, "No, they're not carrying any ID, no wallets."

Fiona - 
Do you get to know the outcomes? Or is that protected under privacy laws?

David - 

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I took the job thinking it would provide me with great stories for writing. But, no, you often don't know the outcome of an emergency. You aren't at the scene, and you have other calls coming in. You take the call, you do what is necessary to handle the situation, then you move onto the next call. However, I would often see the officers coming on duty or leaving, or on quiet nights they'd stop by the station and
sit around. And I'd find out how
certain situations ended. 

Most of the calls are quite routine. We would answer what is called a call for a "well being check." Which mean someone was concerned about someone and asked us to check. Calls about murders and things are pretty far and in between. I worked with a couple of officers from large metro police departments. Even there, the kind of calls they responded to were mostly routine. We did have a couple of murders, but these entail investigations I would not have access to. I did take a call where there was a man stuffing a body into a burn barrel. At first I thought it would be just something he was burning. Nope, it was a body.

Fiona - 
When you're watching TV, or the movies,or reading a book that includes a call to 911, what are the writers getting incorrect in the plot line and is there an interesting twist that would change everything?

David - 

Found publicly on Facebook
The only TV shows I recall watching that involved 911 operators were shows about 911. And these were actual calls and operators. 

The operator is a very peripheral participant in the investigation. Our duty is merely to identify accurately the
nature of the emergency
and decide a course of action, 
which is pretty straight forward. 
Send an officer. But then our 
official involvement ends.

I learned a lot about how police departments function, but not a lot of information about a specific case, unless I followed it up myself on my time.

Fiona - 
Traditional ThrillWriting Question: Will you please tell us the story behind your favorite scar and if you have none, could you fill in with a harrowing story?

David - 
I have a long scar over my left eye. Did not get it on duty. I got it in an automobile accident, hit a tree.


The worst 911 call I ever took was from a woman who said, "I'm going to hang myself." Then she hung up the phone and hanged herself. She was found hanging from a basement rafter, deceased, when the officers arrived. 

I had another terrible call with a woman who called that her husband was unconscious and barely breathing. She was hysterical, and I had a difficult time getting the house address. The officers, and ambulance, I had called both, could not locate the house with the number. As it turned out, it was a newer home and the husband hadn't put the numbers out on the house yet. He also was DOA.

Fiona - 
That brings up a good point. Once my daughter was having a seizure - I had been through many of them but this was the first that my husband saw. I sent him to call 911 while I tried to stabilize her. When he got the operator on the phone, he could not remember anything - my daughter's age, the cause of the crisis, where we were. He just stammered into the phone. I could hear her prodding him - and started screaming the information out as loud as I could, so she could hear me from upstairs. You never know how you will do in a crisis especially if it's a loved one, and this is a first time. How do you help people in that kind of situation?

David - 

Found Publicly on Facebook
You're describing a very similar situation. The house was outside of our system, so I had to get the address from her, and she is just unglued, screaming, crying, and perhaps being a new house didn't even know what the address was. He had a heart attack. Anyway, by the time medical techs and our officers got there, he was blue and not responsive. He never regained consciousness. I think that's the 
worst call I ever took, you feel 
helpless, unable to help. By and 
large the job overall is very rewarding.

Fiona - 
Thank you kindly for sharing this information. 


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5 comments:

  1. In VA they use VCIN Virginia Criminal Information Network to access VA criminal files along with NCIC.

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  2. I have a friend who's a 911 operator. I once asked him how many of the calls he gets are actual emergencies and he guessed maybe 5% of them.

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  3. Hey Fiona,

    I'm a big fan. I think I've got on file every blog article you posted on Twitter. Here, though I was disappointed. Certainly not your fault or David's, just not getting the info I'm looking for.

    You can find a ton of info on 911 calls if you dig, (unfortunately a large percentage in the "FUNNY 911 CALLS!" category) but not so much on the other side of a call: the interaction and nuts & bolts of communicating with first responders.

    With all the recordings, mostly on Youtube, online there should be a ton of material out there but the vast majority of them are unintelligible. There are rare written transcripts which are gold.

    There's something about the tension and suspense of following officers on a foot chase through dark empty streets or into a creepy warehouse through the "eyes" of a dispatcher.

    My areas of interest is protocol. Things like car and/or officer designation, Officer to officer communication, Regular speech vs 10-code, use of emergency tones, and of course, what's the code for a homicidal monster that vanishes when shot at.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hey there,

    Thanks for your feedback - always appreciated.

    I agree with you, I am interested as well in the protocol and 10 codes, officer to officer communication, etc. and have planned a future blog(s) to cover those (So stay tuned).

    I think here we see that dispatchers have a very limited scope. Gather information. Send the right service in the right direction. The real "emergencies" are infrequent. So it might help writers limit the interactions that they might write for a 911 operator and not give them plot actions that take them out of the realm of a normal 911 operator's action plan. OR maybe they do step outside of their box and this causes problems with the officers. What if the 911 operator has a crush on one of the officers and so only sends her to benign calls like "lock-outs" to keep her safe - which effects her career badly? OR maybe he thought he was sending her on a safe call,and it is a call with a cop-killer? All kinds of ways to twist this job in a plot line!

    Cheers,
    Fiona

    ReplyDelete