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?
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.