Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

911 should be a conduit not a disconnect

Post by Brian O'Neill on Feb. 12, 2012 at 12:09 pm with 11 Comments »
February 12, 2012 12:19 pm

Getting emergency help is supposed to be simple. When you need to get hold of the police, medical aid or the fire department all you need to do is dial three numbers – 911 – and the appropriate responders will be there right away. Isn’t that the way it should be?

Dispatcher on duty/ courtesy

Maybe in a perfect world.

If anyone were under the illusion that a call to 911 would be a simple matter, the recent spinoff story from Josh Powell’s murder-suicide should clear up that misconception. The mishandled 911 call, discussed in a 2/11 Trib article, has cast a shadow over  the Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA), Pierce County’s multi-jurisdictional dispatch center. Excerpts from the conversation between the LESA call receiver and the Powell’ children’s social worker, Elizabeth Griffin-Hall, demonstrate a classic case of framing a conversation to fit one’s perception.

Despite op-ed articles in support of the LESA call receiver, it is obvious that he made an early and tragically incorrect assessment of events. While Josh Powell was applying an edged weapon to his own children the call receiver was requesting superfluous information, such as Powell’s date of birth. While Powell was igniting his home the closest emergency responders were blissfully unaware of the crime because the call receiver had failed to broadcast the information.

There are mitigating factors to consider. First and foremost, our collective indignation is based on hindsight, a position from which Powell’s narcissistic and brutal nature is evident. There is also the human tendency to interpret a new event by comparison to all past events. In this case the LESA call receiver assumed that Griffin-Hall, an objectively rational complainant, was too calm to be describing a potentially fatal incident (he admitted as much in his televised mea culpa).

Unfortunately, he then went on to shove his foot back in his mouth: “Sheriff’s deputies wouldn’t immediately have kicked in the door to rescue Charlie and Braden Powell from their homicidal father, but most likely would have cordoned off the area and treated it as a hostage situation.”

As exceptionally skilled as some call receivers and dispatchers are, they are not trained to be the cops, firefighters or paramedics for whom they dispatch. Skilled dispatchers must make some assumptions, but anticipating a likely tactical response is simply grasping too far. That decision can only be made on the street by experienced first responders, by cops and firefighters who know their districts and the people who live there.

Patrol officers, who spend the majority of their shift working their assigned beat, are well aware of their most prolific criminals; that includes their houses and vehicles, family and friends, guns and weapons. This beat knowledge can be used to defuse situations, such as the aggressive actions of an individual whose improper medication is known to the beat cop. Conversely, officers can draw on past violent encounters with an individual as reason to escalate their response. In fact, had deputies immediately been dispatched to the Powell situation it is possible (however unlikely) that these officers could have used past interactions with him to articulate a reasonable assumption that Powell was in the act of harming his children. That could (again, however unlikely) have made immediate entry or at least an opportune peek in the window a valid option. Obviously, when a decision to delay notifying officers of a potentially serious incident is made at the comm center, the value of officers’ beat knowledge is nullified.

Discussing the “what ifs” in this 911 call is an uncomfortable exercise. It trudges over a heart-breaking crime scene with righteous hindsight, and seeks out alternate outcomes that are impossible to know. What is clear is that this call receiver made a mistake in judgment, an error that is just as likely to be made by police officers and other first responders on the street. A failure in this arena will, sooner or later, leave collateral damage. Now that we recognize this, is there any way we can help minimize the “human factor” and avoid future dangerous errors?

Before you find yourself in the midst of a stressful emergency, ask yourself how you would present the information to a 911 call receiver. Can you put together a brief description of the events? Can you convey your true measure of alarm with the use of examples or specific facts? Can you sell the true nature of the emergency while refusing to be sidetracked? It might be a good idea to think about these questions now rather than in the middle of the most traumatic event of your life.

There is little else I can recommend. We rely on our human-based systems to protect us from the monsters in human form, like Josh Powell. In a perfect world this system is fast enough to protect the innocent from harm.

But this is not a perfect world.



Leave a comment Comments → 11
  1. It’s easy to look down on the Amateur Radio Operator.

  2. Brian O'Neill says:

    These comm folks are not amateurs, Alinup. They’re professionals, which means they need to be held to a higher standard when they screw up.

  3. rivitman says:

    I heard the 911 dispatcher tapes. I also heard the call go out over the radio.

    I’ll address multiple issues here.

    1. Response time by the deputy’s.

    Response times in the county can be bad. Why? well, we have the level of law enforcement we are willing to pay for. The huge amount of resources dedicated to domestic disputes alone, which require 2 deputy’s and two cars to show up, places an huge strain on manpower.

    2. Deciphering which of these calls is an immediate life threatening situation and which are not then becomes necessary, if difficult. Domestic with a knife or gun? PCSD is all over it. Custodial interference with the smell of gas? Well, you make the call. Go ahead. Do you send it trough to radio and tie up multiple units leaving no coverage in many areas or not? Easy to do after the fact. Armchair dispatching. Near as I can tell, LESA can get a thousand or more calls per day.

    Everyone would like immediate response to every call. I would. Want to pay another public safety tax increase to hire more police, more jail personnel, more prosecutors, and bigger better prisons with sufficient staff? I would. You probably wouldn’t.

    3. The professional dispatcher, like the police officer, better have a thick skin or go mad. They talk to people in rough spots all day long, day after day. Really heartbreaking stuff. Meanness, cruelty, mayhem, murder, pure evil. They sound dispassionate not only as a matter of professionalism, but out of psychological necessity. (Cue PTSD) I’ve interacted with law enforcement, (not in a negative role) and found many to be friendly, and many distant and gruff. This I find understandable.

    I’m totally willing to give a pass on this to LESA, the dispatcher, and certainly the PCSD. All I could suggest is a policy making calls for assistance from an on duty DSHS caseworker a priority call. I don’t even know it that’s possible. That this particular dispatcher couldn’t divine the magnitude of the situation given the information presented is apparent, demanding that it be otherwise is misguided. Maybe this one person didn’t choose their words to well. And i certainly would have declined to talk to the media. Not a huge offense. I think they will learn from it. But the galaxy of possibilities for potential crimes means nothing is a sure thing.

  4. Look at the definition of the word ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’
    at the turn of the 20th century. The word amateur has been
    profoundly degraded. By Amateur Radio Operator I’m mean those
    licensed in the Amateur Radio Service by the FCC. I was in the
    Pierce County EOC on 9/11/01. I know that except in tiny
    enclaves amateurs are being shoved aside by Uncle George who
    needs a job.

  5. Chippert says:

    This was an extraordinary occurrence and, as such, has been afforded extraordinary attention and scrutiny. Thousands of calls come in each and every day containing everything for requests to help with homework to the frantic pleas of a domestic partner being assaulted. How many of these are “muffed”? I don’t know. All I can say is that this dispatcher had the best of training and a long, successful career as a 911 operator. I am sure he has saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives. Could he have done better on this one? Even he admits he could. One call does not a broken system make.

    There is little chance that these children could have been saved, no matter what. The only alternative would have been a policy that, as soon as the phone rang the dispatcher pushed the button to dispatch, police, fire, SWAT, ambulance, and whatever other resources before attempting to learn any details. After all, they can be recalled if it turns out to be nothing, right?

    He made a mistake on this one, a high-profile incident. I’d much rather consider the 911 system in its entirety. Can you say this mistake generally happens? If so, then action needs to be taken. If this is an isolated or rare incident then you need to evaluate the impact on future calls.

    In any case, get off this dispatcher’s back! He has beaten himself up enough and I am sure his management has talked to him. He (and the system) does not need the public to continue to berate him, and he certainly does not need police officers to try to place blame on him.

  6. Jammin45 says:

    From the get-go, this 911 dispatcher seemed to be playing a power trip with the caller with both his words and his condescending tone. Shouldn’t he assume that every call coming in is an emergency instead of assuming the opposite? Isn’t that why we have a 911 call center? This wasn’t just a lone mistake, this was an attitude that doesn’t belong in a 911 call center. He was not hired to play God.

    Over the years, I’ve had to make a few of calls to 911 for big and small situations and have never heard a response quite like his. He should feel guilty and then get some schooling on how to respect who is on the other end of the line.

    Brian, you did an excellent job with this very difficult issue. You said what needed to be said. Thank you.

  7. BlaineCGarver says:

    Generally, I’ve not been impressed 911 calls I’ve had to make. In a Lakewood neighborhood, in the early 90s, Safe Streets knew we had a gang problem and instructed us to call 911 when the Gang was all there….More than once, I’d get told “How you know they be gang?? You just see Black kids and thing they be gangs?” I pretty much gave up after that really pleasant exchange…LOL.

  8. igotdabombfool says:

    Wow Blaine-

    Hold a grudge much? Absolutely correct, huh? I guess nobody changes in 20 years.

  9. BlaineCGarver says:

    BombFool….what’s your point? No, I don’t think human nature has improved much in my lifetime. In fact, I see the downfall of civil behavior happening as we speak. You, for example.

  10. BlainccGarver,You made your point and it was excellent!

  11. Brian O'Neill says:

    Please stay civil.

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