Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy Field Trip: EOC

By Annette Dashofy

This week the Citizens’ Police Academy went on the road with a field trip to the Allegheny County Emergency Operations Center. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, when I was an EMT on the local ambulance service, I did a little dispatching. So this was something that especially interested me. We’ve come a long way from my days of a telephone and a radio!

There are 131 municipalities in Allegheny County and 88 communities in the City of Pittsburgh and calls for ALL of them come into the EOC’s 9-1-1 center. Not ALL of them are dispatched from there, but ALL the calls come IN to there. In 2007, 1.5 million incidents were handled through the EOC.

It’s a busy place.

If you call into the Allegheny County 9-1-1, the first question you will hear is “What borough, city, or township are you calling from?” It’s vital that you know this information. Don’t just say the North Side. Be specific. They want to get help to you as fast as possible and knowing precisely where you are is vital. Also know what street you’re on.

Yes, your phone number will pop up in front of them, but that’s not enough. These days, you can move and take your phone number with you. So exchanges don’t necessarily mean anything. And records may not accurately show where you live from you phone number any more.

Also cell phones are tricky. Their signals will be picked up by the tower closest to the call and thanks to GPS coordinates and triangulation, the TCO (Telecommunications Officer) will be able to get a rough idea of where you are, but only within 7 football fields. That can be a lot of area.

Another hindrance to finding a caller are PBX systems. These are switchboards used in some schools, colleges, nursing homes, dormitories, etc. You may be in a building in one place, but your phone call may go through a switchboard in a different location, even a different community. The location of the switchboard is what will show up at EOC.

The point is, answer the questions the call taker asks you. Don’t waste valuable time arguing over why they need to know.

Notice I said “call taker,” not dispatcher. They are not always one and the same. Often times, a call taker picks up the phone and then sends the information to another computer, perhaps clear across the room (and it’s a VERY large room!) to the person who actually dispatches help, be that police, EMS, or fire. This happens seamlessly thanks to their CAD system or Computer Aided Dispatch.

Besides location, there are other questions you will be asked, depending on the purpose of your call. Just answer them. Stay calm. Remember, the person you are talking to has already sent the location information to the dispatcher and in most cases, help is already on the way.

Some of the other information they need to know is to help keep the responders safe. Did you hear shots? How many? How fast were they? If you saw a gun, what kind of gun was it?

Of course, not all incidents have top billing. If you are calling to report that your car has been egged and the kid who did it has run off and meanwhile, your neighbor is calling in to report that someone is breaking into her house, HER call is going to get a more immediate response.

But don’t just fabricate stuff to make your call APPEAR to be a higher priority. False information can result in injury to a field unit in response.

Where? What? When? Who? Weapons when applicable and any injuries? These are the types of things a TCO needs to know from the caller.

Under the “who,” there is information on a suspect that you may be able to supply to the TCO. Such as name and address, if you know them. Also, a physical description and their means and direction of travel.

When describing clothing, start at the top and work down. Shirt color and style, coat color and style, pants, shoes. And food for thought: someone who has just robbed a store might swap out their clothes, BUT they rarely change their shoes. Same thing with a child abductor. They will change the child’s clothing, but not their shoes.

When getting a description of a vehicle, think CYMBALS: Color, Year of vehicle, Make/model, Body style (2-door, 4-door, convertible, etc), Additional information, License number, State of license.

And one last note of interest, there is something simple we can all do to make tracking down a loved-one easier should we be in an accident and can’t tell the emergency personnel who to contact. Program an ICE number into your cell phone’s address book. In Case of Emergency. More and more emergency responders are being trained to check cell phones for that ICE number.

Next week: Safe Driving


Tory said...

Very interesting, Annette. Keep 'em coming!

Annette said...

Thanks, Tory. Hey, CPA gives me a ready-made topic for blogging every week. No struggling to figure out what I'm going to write each week. I will definitely keep them coming.

Joyce said...

Thanks Annette.

Mind if I add that it's not always seamless? There is one dispatcher in particular who is as dumb as a rock and never gives the right info.

And on Monday there were two calls that came in and were never dispatched--one was for a domestic/PFA violation, which could have had tragic consequences if the man hadn't decided to leave the house. We only found out about the other call three hours later when an irate man called the station wanting to know why the police never showed up at his house.

Also, PLEASE get a license plate number when you call about a speeder, a suspicious vehicle, someone cut you off in traffic, etc. That's the ONLY way the officer is going to be able to find the vehicle. "It was a blue car" doesn't cut it.

Annette said...

Joyce, I don't mind at all. I guess I should have said it's SUPPOSED to be seamless. Any system is only as good as the people working the equipment. And what I didn't mention is the high rate of turn-over due to the stress of the job. Therefore, there are always trainees and they are always short staffed.

Mike said...

Great info, Annette. I can imagine how difficult it must be to get some of that info out of hysterical callers. I was also struck by the number of "incidents"--I assume that means incoming calls--you cited: 1.5 million in one year? From a an estimated city/county population of 1.27 million? Must be a lot of repeat callers.

Annette said...

Mike, that number seemed staggering to me, too, but I wrote it in my notes exactly as Diane Beatty, the training officer for the EOC said it. She had it broken down by category, but was speaking too fast to get ALL the stats.

One thing that might put it into perspective for you is the fact that they handle the county police, the county sheriff, municipal police departments, City of Pittsburgh Police, volunteer fire departments, Hazmat, the fire marshalls, Emergency Management, ambulance services, both paid and volunteer, Animal Control and nine county parks. So they cover a lot of ground.

Gina said...

Great blog, Annette! I love the way you manage to condense a 3 hour class into a few paragraphs. That 1.5 million calls is right - I heard it, too.
In addition to a classroom presentation, we spent some time in the 911 center. It was strange to overhear a call taker asking for specific information about a stabbing that took place on Churchland Street (where I grew up!), then seeing the story reported later on the tv news. Another call that came in involved an injured child; the call taker kept repeating instructions about pressing a clean dry cloth against the wound to someone who was apparently too upset to follow through effectively. Which brings up another function of the EOC - providing emergency first aid instruction about what to do until help arrives. Information is available to the call takers in hard copy, arranged for easy access by type of injury or symptom.

Annette said...

Gina, thanks so much for confirming that I heard that right. There is sooo much information given at these sessions, it's impossible to report it all here. That's why I highly recommend everyone take the CPA for yourself next time it's available.

And, Gina, how did you like the "mood lighting" in the 911 Center?

Gina said...

Mood lighting? Jeez, Annette - I didn't notice. I was too busy trying to eavesdrop!

donnell b. said...

Annette, I agree with the other bloggers, you're doing a wonderful job. On another note, I wonder if it's made you pay more attention to people. Before I did the citizens acad. I tended not to notice what people wore, features, etc. Knowing that I may someday be called to describe someone for police made me pay attention. Thoughts on this?

Annette said...

Gina, the lights were very dim in the 911 center. Pearl asked me about it and I said I figured there was so much stimulation coming into the TCO's ears that they kept the lights low to limit other forms of external stimulation. Just my guess. I should have asked, but like you, I was too busy eavesdropping.

Hey, Donnell! Funny you should ask. The other day after I had checked out at the grocery store, I followed a woman with a cart full of bagged groceries toward the door. Then, she LEFT the cart and groceries just inside the store and left. I followed her out, thinking it was strange, but maybe she was going to bring her car to the curb. No. Instead, she got into the passenger side of a car and they drove off.

So there I am, thinking, "did she leave a bomb in the cart?" I still don't know what was going on, but if I'd heard on the news about an explosion at the Giant Eagle, I'd have had a good description of the woman, the driver, AND the car including the first three letters of the plate. Sorry, Joyce, that's all I could do without physically chasing the car out of the lot. And if they were mad bombers, I didn't want to draw that much attention to myself!

Gina said...

It is hard not to notice things like that, but then the question is always whether or not to act and, if you act, what do you do?
Shortly after 9/11, when I was really highly sensitized to anything out of the ordinary, I was standing in line at an airport ticket counter when a Middle Eastern-looking young man ran up behind me, put down a box, and hurried away. I froze, uncertain whether to scream, run, hit the floor -- ??? -- which is just as well, because he returned an instant later helping a woman (apparently his wife) with more luggage and 3 little kids.

Mike said...

Ooops, I just had one of those "Duh!" moments. I was one of those repeat 911 callers last year, now that my memory has returned from vacation! Inexplicabbly, two rival gangs of teenagers appeared in front and around the school a block away from the house, making threateninig noises, etc. I was just one of several neighbors who called 911, and in my case, made a second call when the police didn't show up as quickly as I would have liked. Helps to explain that 1.5 million figure.

Gina said...

I think Mike got it right - a lot of those calls were probably multiple people calling in to report the same thing, or the same people calling back when police didn't arrive immediately. I know from working with Duquesne Light -- which only has a little over 1/2 million customers -- that, if even 5,000 (less than 1%) of them happened to lose power during a bad storm, a tremendous number of calls would come in, and people would keep calling back again and again, complaining if they didn't get through to a live operator right away. Maybe they thought the utility kept hundreds of people on phone duty 24/7 -- imagine how high the bills would be then!

donnell b. said...

Oh, my gosh, I had to smile at Gina's post. I was traveling to Memphis after 9/11 and paraonoid as all get out 1) it was a scary time, 2) I have a way overactive imagination. I saw someone I thought looked suspicious so I moseyed up next to him. Next thing I knew they were calling my flight, and they were checking my shoes, my purse, my driver's license ... very carefully. :)