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No Mulligans Here: 9-1-1, the Media, and Public Judgment

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-05-13
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Nine-one-one calls provide a significant amount of provocative audio in the world of twenty-four hour news. Even when camera crews are not on the scene, there is always some dialog available to decorate the latest tragedy. Many times these calls are handled properly; sometimes they are not. Occasionally, the call itself becomes almost as compelling as the original story. Perhaps the most recent example of this involves Amanda Berry; the kidnap victim recently recovered in Cleveland. While the aftermath of the incident may prove to be a boon to the Good Samaritan and McDonalds, it has been less kind to the telecommunicator involved.

I’m not here to offer criticism; there’s been enough of that going around already. I also refuse to judge anyone’s career based solely on a sound bite. But, the harsh reality of journalism today is that this is what too often happens. I remember a high profile case a few years back when an ambulance wasn’t sent to a child’s 9-1-1 call because authorities essentially believed it was a prank. And when assistance was finally sent it was a patrol car to investigate the call rather than an ambulance. The child’s mother died.

While I can’t condone the call takers actions in that case, I can understand them. Completely.  I can imagine a night where a dozen kids had already called in bogus calls; some from unregistered cell phones that couldn’t be traced. Mix those in with short staffing in the center and phones that never seem to stop ringing. Add to that a ton of serious calls such as shootings, stabbings, and domestics and only a quarter ton of resources to send to deal with them and you’ve got your typical night in many a big city center. Maybe this was the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Or maybe this person just wasn’t cut out for the job. Either way, we’ll never know, because all we got to hear was a few seconds of a tape.

I recently read an article about an investigation into dispatchers sleeping on the job. In addition to the primary focus, it went on to discuss that a number of communications center personnel had been disciplined over the past few years. I came away not knowing whether this included the people who were allegedly caught sleeping, or not, and why the fact that people were disciplined was considered a bad thing. Granted, you certainly might be concerned if your local 9-1-1 employees were being written up for serious offenses on an hourly basis, but I think that I’d find comfort to know that at least some corrective action was being dispensed somewhere along the line. I can easily see the alternative headline being that despite all these issues, 9-1-1 never disciplines anyone.

With the amount of information being processed by the public and by the Public Safety Answering Point, the potential for error and confusion seems to be constantly increasing.  On any given day there are countless wanted and missing persons, stolen vehicles, BOLOs, and Amber and Silver Alerts entered into the system. It’s impossible for anyone to keep track of everything. When the motorist calls your center with information on the child that’s been abducted five counties away, will whoever answers the phone know what they’re talking about? If they don’t, does it make them a “bad” dispatcher? In essence, that sums up a lot of what we’re talking about. But there’s another very important aspect. And that’s how we sound.

Argumentative attitudes and distracted demeanor seem to be amplified by audio files, and are oftentimes the traits that show us in our worst light. The adjectives, “unfeeling,” “uncaring,” and “rude” are often applied to our behavior, and long pauses or constant questioning – even when legitimate reasons are involved – sometimes just sound terrible. For whatever reason, obtaining the true nature and location of the emergency, sending help, and staying on the phone when necessary isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Life would be so much better if we had a “do over” button that allowed us to correct our mistakes when we weren’t up to par. Or, like in a friendly game of golf, drop another ball and take another shot when we weren’t pleased with our performance. Unfortunately for us, we work at 9-1-1. The gallery is always listening. We have one swing – and one swing only. There are no “Mulligans” here.


Our 9-1-1 Center Management columnist Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.  As an independent columnist for 9-1-1 magazine, Barry’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.


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