Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Civilian Police Academy - Class 4 - Road Trip!

What I'm reading: (more conference giveaways) A Tall Dark Cowboy by Mackenzie McKade; To Marry the Duke by Julianne MacLean

What I'm writing: Chapter 29

First -- I've been having a great time hooking up with old friends. Someone started an on-line reunion of our Jr Hi School class, and I've touched base with people I haven't heard from in decades. One, another aspiring writer, and I have had many exchanges about the writer's life.

On to our Civilian Police Academy class. We drove out to what seems like the end of the earth between the road system and rush hour traffic, but arrived on time at the Communication Center, which, for security purposes, no longer has any department logos or other signage on the building to identify it. We all promised to forget where it was. Not too hard for me, since I get lost in elevators.

The center houses the emergency Operations Center, where communications are open in times of emergency. People who worked there got all too familiar with it during the spate of hurricanes in Central Florida.

Upstairs, we toured the room where the 911 operators and dispatchers work. It's an amazingly stressful job. In 2006, a million and a half calls came through the system. Even though the county has a non-emergency line, more people are familiar with, or prefer to use the 911 lines, which puts an amazing burden on the operators, who have to deal with crank calls, or people calling with the brilliant question of the year: "What's the number for 911?"

We got to peek over the shoulders of the operators, with their three computer screens that showed maps, what was happening with the call, and all the information the computers pick up when the call is activated. Address information pops up, and there are all sorts of other bits and pieces--like if the caller has called numerous times before with the same complaint.

These folks have to be responsible for deciding how to prioritize a call. Since so many calls are not true 911 emergencies, yes, they're going to put you on hold if you're calling to report a noisy neighbor or a barking dog. And what seems like a true emergency to you might not be the same to the definitions used by the Sheriff's Office. If you come home and your front door is open, odds are greater that the burglar is long gone than if he's inside waiting for you. So if there's another call with shots being fired, you might have to wait. There are only so many operators (a lot fewer than I expected) on duty at any one time, and, as I said, they have to answer all the calls.

And when you call, you're going to have to answer a bunch of questions. Operators have books with all possible types of calls, and all the questions they need so they can send the right kind of help. If you've been robbed or attacked, they're going to want to know the description of whoever did it, if he's gone, which way he went, and how he's traveling. On foot, they'll send the dogs. In a car, maybe a helicopter.

The dispatchers communicate to the officers, and officer safety is a major concern. These folks need extra arms, ears, and mouths, as they have even more to deal with. Their computers give them location and status of all the officers out there.

The stress level has got to be unbelievable. They work 10 hour shifts, 4 days on, 3 off. Turnover is high; at least 1-2 operators drop out every month, so they're constantly recruiting and training. There are 4 weeks in the classroom, then 480 hours on the floor watching someone handle calls before they're allowed to begin working. Dispatchers get an additional 640 hours of training. And the pay sucks. There's also little time for closure on a call--the officers on the call see what's happening and usually can follow things through, but the operators might be dealing with a person whose life is being threatened, and once the officer is assigned, they have to move on to the next incoming call.

Not sure I could handle anything remotely like that. For those of you reading this, find the Non-Emergency number for your local law enforcement and use it. Yes, it might take a little longer to get to a human, and yes, your problem seems important, but don't waste the time of a 911 operator who is trying to take care of the life-threatening stuff.


Dara Edmondson said...

Wow! I had no idea all the training it took to do that job. You've got to respect those folks - where would we all be without them?

Terry said...

I agree, Dara -- the one thing that has impressed me with the classes I've taken so far is how dedicated all these people are, and what they have to put up with. Lack of respect, lousy pay, long hours.