My second class of the Fairfax County Citizens Police Academy, at the McConnell Public Safety and Transportation Operations Center in Fairfax, featured presentations on the 911 call center and the forensics lab. I already wrote about the Police Department’s crime scene investigations facility in December, so I’ll just report on the 911 operations here.
About 370,000 911 calls are made every day in the United States, says Sherrie White, assistant supervisor for training and career development in the Department of Public Safety Communications.
The first 911 call was made in Haleysville, Ala., in 1968, but Fairfax County didn’t adopt a 911 system until 1979, White says. The county now uses an enhanced 911 (E911) system, which automatically tracks the location of calls made on landlines.
The system also tracks the coordinates of a cell phone user within 50 to 300 meters of accuracy—but only for “phase 2” cell phones, which broadcast longitude and latitude. This doesn’t work with simpler phones, like pay-as-you-go phones.
Fairfax County is working on “next generation 911,” which would accept emergency texts, data, photos, and videos. The department also plans to adopt VOIP (voice over internet protocol) for emergency calls.
Fairfax County received 895,360 911 calls in 2010, including nearly 400,000 non-emergency calls and 7,800 calls for tow trucks.
“If it’s not an emergency, don’t call 911,” White says. The non-emergency number is 703/691-2131.
911 is purely for life and death emergencies. In one recent case, a victim of a home invasion who had been tied up was able to free her hands and make a 911 call, whispering the information into a cell phone while the suspects were upstairs. In response to the call center staffer’s instructions, she was able to tap the phone to indicate there were three suspects and that they had a gun.
It’s illegal to make false 911 calls if there’s a malicious intent, but not if it’s a legitimate mistake.
“Spoofing” was really big last year among high school kids but seems to have slowed down, White says. This is an illegal activity that involves making numerous 911 calls just to send a lot of fire trucks and police cars to a particular address.
If callers speak a language other than English, “we can get someone on that line immediately who can talk to them,” White says. More than 15,300 911 calls made in 2010 required language line interpreters. About 90 percent of foreign language calls are in Spanish, she says, but “we can get any language anyone speaks.” The language line is based in California, and the interpreters could be anywhere in the world.
Emergency calls are answered within an average five seconds. But White says, “Don’t hold me to that if Huntington is flooded, there is ice and snow everywhere, or if there is another earthquake.”
Nearly 76 percent of emergency calls are made from cell phones, including hundreds of accidental 911 calls every day. To avoid that from happening, she advises people to lock their cell phone keyboards.
According to White, “cell phones are a huge challenge for us.” If people see an accident on the beltway, the center will get lots of calls, which she says could be “a blessing and a curse.”
White offered some advice to help make cell phone emergency calls more effective: “It’s crucial that you know your location and your phone number,” she says, noting that many people don’t know their own number because they rely on having it in the system. She also urges people to create an “in case of emergency” list of contacts that a passerby can access in case you pass out.
Call takers have emergency medical dispatch cards that outline the steps to take for any situation, from chest pains to child birth. “We have a card for everything,” White says.
Police dispatchers have the ability to remotely lock the doors on “bait cars” when people attempt to steal them. Fire dispatchers have the ability to set off an alarm to wake up sleeping firefighters. Police dispatchers handled 908,200 “police events,” and fire dispatchers handled 169,530 fire and EMS situations in 2010.
When a call comes in, the information is typed up and sent to the appropriate dispatcher, who determines if it’s a priority. Emergency calls that involve a shooting, stabbing, or officer in trouble trigger an immediate response. “An armed robbery trumps a raccoon on your deck,” White says. If there will be a delay, the person who answered will call you back and let you know.
Often callers scream incoherently if they are exposed to a violent incident, such as an armed robbery, and 911 staffers’ first job is to get them to calm down. People often complain about having to answer a lot of questions. “We are trained to ask certain questions,” White explains. “We need to determine what type of help to send and make sure the responder knows what is happening. The person you are talking to is not the one responding.”
People often ask why the police doesn’t show up right away. White says officers usually form a perimeter around the scene before anyone sees them.
“We get cursed a lot. We don’t take it personally because we know you’re in crisis,” she says. “Don’t mistake our calm tone of voice for a lack of understanding about how serious your situation is. We must remain calm and professional to do our job effectively.”
If that’s the kind of job you want, you’ll have to pass personality, cognitive, and medical tests, along with a polygraph and panel interview. You also have to be at least 18 and have a high school diploma or GED, a clean police record, good comprehension of the English language, and the ability to multitask, prioritize, make decisions, and type 30 words a minute, White says. There are 10 weeks of classroom and six to 12 weeks of on-the-job training. Starting pay is about $38,000 annually.
There are 182 people working in the call center. They work 12 and a-half-hour shifts—days or nights—in two-week rotating schedules with three days off every other weekend. The center is always open, 24/7/365, including holidays and snow days.
“Every holiday we have to give CPR instructions, sometimes for an infant,” White says. “We have to be able to take a deep breath and live with it and go on.”