Should 9-1-1 operators kiss your ass, or save it?

IMG_2363Recent news coverage of the escape of three women from a decade long imprisonment, after their kidnappings as teens, has many people commenting on a perceived lack of empathy or concern for the victims on the part of the 9-1-1 operators in Cleveland, Ohio.  Most of the criticism is unwarranted.

Amanda Berry, the woman who escaped from the house, can be heard calling 9-1-1, here. The call by the man who assisted her, Charles Ramsey, can be heard here.  Go listen, then come back and let me give you my take on the calls.

Ok, back?  Before we begin, a reminder:  I’m a 9-1-1 dispatcher.  I’ve been employed in this position by a county Sheriff’s Department in Central California since July of 1994.  Which county is not germain, as this commentary is my personal opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of that agency.

That said, now it’s time to decide – should the 9-1-1 operator kiss your ass, or save it?

A friend who is a licensed clinical psychologist at a nearby state facility, and people who have made comments in other forums, expressed some concern over how the call from Amanda Berry was handled by the 9-1-1 operator.  Comments at the YouTube site with Mr. Ramsey’s call are heavily negative towards that operator.  I hope I can shed a bit of light on the situation, and at least give readers an idea of what goes on in a 9-1-1 call center.

Cleveland is a city of almost 400,000.  That makes for a busy 9-1-1 center, at any time of the night or day.  Calls come in on 9-1-1 lines, as well as administrative lines, and they have to be answered as quickly as possible.  Emergency dispatchers are trained, and then discover first hand, that emergency calls can come in at any time, on any line.  Until you pick up the line and start the call, you have no idea what you will be handling.

The first call, Amanda Berry, was handled pretty well, all things considered.  We might have wished for more apparent concern on the operator’s part towards Amanda’s situation, and some have wondered why the operator did not stay on the line with her until police units arrived.  Let’s look at some of the reasons this call played out the way it did.

I don’t know the staffing levels of the Cleveland Police 9-1-1 center, nor do I know what their internal policies are regarding the handling of calls.  I have seen media reports that the operator handled the call within the guidelines of the department, so regardless of what else is determined, she at least followed the rules established by the City.  Traffic levels will also determine how much time an operator can devote to a caller.  If the call center is short staffed, and most of them around the country are, and the call volume is high, it may be realistically impossible for an operator to remain on the line with a caller until police arrive.  Once it was determined that the suspect was not at the scene, and that police would be there in a short time (and response time was 2 minutes in this incident), the operator could decide it was acceptable to end the call.

Another aspect of this call is both the unusual nature of the incident, and the difficulty in determining if the situation is as the caller is claiming.  Even a very experienced operator might have difficulty deciding if this is a real kidnap victim, or a spun out drug user.  The hysteria in Amanda’s voice is very similar to that of someone on meth.  The rapid speaking, the emotional roller coaster, and the exasperation with the operator all mimic the usual pattern of a person on drugs.  Very few 9-1-1 operators have ever taken a call from a kidnap victim, especially ten years after the crime, as they are escaping.  I can’t fault this operator if she had in the back of her mind that Amanda was a user.

The psychologist I mentioned earlier, concerned for Amanda’s mental health after a decade of imprisonment, and by her treatment by the 9-1-1 operator, expressed the thought that her treatment on the phone might cause further damage to her undoubtably fragile state of mind.  Personally, while I understand her point on this issue, I find myself wondering if Amanda will more than vaguely recall the conversation with the operator.  She’ll remember vividly, I’m sure, her contact with the police, social workers, doctors, nurses, and her own family, but I wonder how much of that phone call she’ll remember.  I doubt a 9-1-1 operator that was more emotionally involved (and we’re trained to remain emotionally detached from our callers in order to maintain the ability to help them) would have much effect on the overall mental health of a victim, especially one who has been in Amanda Berry’s type of situation.

Regardless of call loads, personal interpretation of the caller, or any other aspects that might have influenced the 9-1-1 operator, the call was entered into the dispatch computer, and police officers arrived on the scene within 2 minutes.  In the end, the process worked, and while in a perfect world we could hope for a caring, comforting presence on the phone that would calm and reassure the caller, this call went fairly well.  If I were grading it, without knowing the conditions in the call center at the time, I’d give it a strong “B”.

Mr. Ramsey’s call is another kettle of fish.  This operator is taking a lot of flack in the comments about his handling of the call.  Again, I can’t see that he could have done much differently.

Mr. Ramsey is calling 9-1-1 to report he’s just helped a woman escape from a house where she says she’s been held for ten years after being kidnapped, and he starts his report with a story about going to McDonalds?  He at least gave the address first thing, that’s something.  Now we have another situation where the operator has to decide, in less than two minutes, what he really has on the other end of the telephone.  Is this really a party reporting an escaped kidnap victim, or is it someone who has had a bit too much to drink, or who is on drugs?  Mr. Ramsey’s story is rambling and not particularly articulate.  On top of determining if the call has merit, the operator has to figure out a way to insure that what the caller is saying is an actual reflection of what is really going on.  It is not uncommon for people to “fill in the blanks” with information that is not accurate, in an attempt to be helpful or impress the operator.  It is also common for there to be a discrepancy between what the actual definitions of certain words are, and what someone may think they mean.  It is necessary for a 9-1-1 operator to determine if the caller actually means what they are saying.  Profanity and street slang are clear signs that the caller must be interviewed carefully to insure accurate information is provided.  That tends to result in callers getting angry about being asked questions several times, or in differently worded ways.  The operator cannot assume he understands what the caller means, and must find ways to verify the information. This often comes across to callers as being rude.  Callers also seem to think that help is not on the way as long as they are still on the phone.  Neither assumption is correct.

Mr. Ramsey could have been much more direct and concise with his call.  The operator did his job exactly as he should, and I have to give his handling of the call another strong “B”.

The reality of most 9-1-1 centers is that there are a limited number of people available to answer incoming calls.  As much as we’d love to see extra training in dealing with the emotional aspects of callers in distress, few agencies have the money, time, or extra staff to cover the center while operators are at specialized classes.

9-1-1 operators are trained to take command of calls as quickly as they can, determine what the situation is, decide the level of priority required to respond, and elicit information that accurately reflects the incident.  This often results in the impression that the operator does not care, is not interested in what the caller has to say, and is rude.  Even at that, what the emergency responders find when they arrive on scene is often very different than was initially indicated by the caller.

It takes a special person to be a successful 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher.  It’s a high stress job, the stakes are high, and you can find yourself on CNN at any moment.  (and it’s usually due to something that’s gone wrong, rather than something that’s gone exceptionally well)  That tends to result in people who are dominate personalities, or at least forceful when the situation requires.

That brings us back to our original question.  The answer is, and must be: “we’re not here to kiss your ass, we’re here to save it”.