On The Inside -- Philadelphia 911

aired February 9, 2000 on the Discovery Channel

by Gary Allen

It's not often that television viewers look "On The Inside," but The Discovery Channel's weekly series gave just that type of perspective during a one-hour devoted to Philadelphia's police and fire communications centers. For citizens it was no doubt absorbing, but for anyone who has performed the job, it may have missed the mark in explaining all the in's and out's of the job.

The "On The Inside" series has profiled all sorts of occupations and industries over the years, including the CIA, the Secret Service and FBI, as well as skyscrapers and aircraft carriers. In this 911 show, video cameras prowled the separate police and fire comm centers, and linked that video up with shots taken in the field as police and medical units handled the incidents. The concept of showing both ends of the chain of communications was great, but lots of the details were missing--where were the call backs to the reporting person, to request a tow, to coordinate with other agencies? How about the inevitable coordination among the radio dispatchers themselves, or between police and fire?

To its credit, the show didn't shy away from the off-microphone chatter that is common among dispatchers. And the producers included a frank and thoughtful discussion of the "dark day in 1994," according to the show, when 16 year-old Eddie Polec was beaten to death, despite 18 phone calls over 30 minutes reporting a wild gang of youths waving baseball bats. That event triggered improvements, which today's center amply reflects.

Even so, I would have liked the show to concentrate more on the thin thread that ties incidents together, and to show the interaction between witness/caller, the calltaker, the radio dispatcher, and the units in the field. It would have been interesting to follow an in-progress incident where the caller is kept on the phone, the dispatcher obtain and relay updated information to the officers, etc. Now that would have been compelling and educational to the viewers in how to participate in the process.

For that matter, the show didn't really reinforce any of the advice that dispatchers would like to give callers--let the dispatcher ask the questions, don't hang up until the dispatcher says to, try to remain calm, be observant, etc. In fact, I'm not sure viewers came away from the show any better prepared to dial 911. The show's ending credits did include NENA, but it wasn't clear from the show what part they played in the production.

Overall, it was an "OK" show--nothing particularly bad about it, and some parts emphasized the human element that is so important.

The Stats

Sgt. Greg Masi, technical supervisor for the Communications Division, poked into the show intermittently to give details on how it operated. But mostly the show circled the comm center, picked out a calltaker or radio dispatcher working, and then followed that incident out into the field as either a police officer or paramedic responded and handled it.

From the video, I could tell that Philly dispatchers don't wear uniforms, use PRC's computer-aided dispatch (CAD) at 38 consoles with individual lighting, take three million 911 calls a year from its 1.5 million population--that's about 8,000 calls a day, with about 800 of those transferred to the fire department comm center (about 185 calls per day are cranks or hoaxes). The CAD software has 103 incident types defined, with priority zero being the highest. More interesting was the staffing--the center has 261 authorized positions (a 35% increase from pre-Polec days), of which 40 resign each year, or a 15% annual turn-over rate. Training for new dispatchers is now eight weeks, compared to just five days before the Polec incident. According to the show, a dispatcher can handle 200 incidents during a typical shift.

On the fire side, dispatchers are trained in emergency medical dispatch (EMD) and give callers pre-arrival instructions when appropriate. There are at least four calltakers on-duty at all times at the fire comm center.

Helping People

The show said the show was about "the high technology and high drama" of Philadelphia's 911 center. They added that it's "basically a story of people helping people." Police dispatcher Patty Smith and Fire dispatcher Donald Stokes helped give an explanation of how calls are answered, prioritized, entered in CAD and then relayed to the radio dispatchers. The show then showed the response for a missing 4 year-old girl, who disappeared during a street festival.

The incident was entered as a "missing tender age," which is Philadelphia's terminology for a juvenile under the age of 10. That type of incident is a Priority 2. Officers from the 3rd District were dispatched, along with a sergeant that was being shadowed by the video crew. On the CAD screen, one could see the incident was received at 16:45:26, entered at 16:45:55, and then dispatched apparently almost four minutes later at 16:49:49. As the minutes went by and the child was not found, the sergeant began widening the search perimeter and requesting additional units to respond. All 3rd District units were eventually committed to the search, and others in the adjacent 4th District were also pulled into to look for the child. Within an hour, the child reappears--a family friend had noticed her wandering alone and took her home.

"Back at 911, the workload never ends," the narrator said. Indeed, we hear a high-pitched female voice saying, "Two guys are covering each other!" According to the narrator, "In the midst of this unrelenting barrage of voices," the dispatchers have to continue tracking incidents and units.

The show then dipped briefly into the relationship between officers and dispatchers. "The bond between officers and dispatchers is radio," the narrator said. Sgt. Michael Bloom explained how dispatchers are his life-line, and dispatcher Caneshia Speech said, "We're taking care of these people."

To illustrate the point, the TV show then followed one snippet from a violent disturbance call. The officers, unit 2502, did not respond to radio calls after they arrived on the scene. The dispatcher continued to call, but then dispatched other units Code 3 to check on them. You could not hear the actual broadcast, but the narrator said the officers finally responded on the radio--no doubt slightly embarrassed that five police cars had raced to the scene to check on them.

The show again pointed out that, during all this, other incidents were "piling up" and that the dispatcher had "no time to catch her breath."

That point--no time, lots of stress--was reinforced by the narrator's statement that, "A career in 911 is not for everybody." They explained the drop-out rate (15% a year), then added, "But for the right kind of person, it can be the best job in the world."

Dispatcher Rita Utsey, who said she'd be a dispatcher for 11 years and four months, then gave some of the show's most thoughtful explanations of the job. "My job means a lot to me," she said. "It means a lot because I'm here and I'm helping someone." The video cut to Utsey at a console, in the midst of an off-mike admonition to a co-worker. "Don't even bother! Don't tell him! Don't tell him! We ain't got time for that. He should've been listening!" Utsey said. The narrator explained, "The constant give and take between dispatcher and officers sometimes requires a little venting." The camera showed a cartoon of Garfield stuck under the glass of a console--he looks normal in one panel, but then completely frazzled in another--just like a dispatcher.

After that, a drug task force unit is trying to have uniformed officers stop a car. But they're either cagey or uncertain about the location, and their radio keeps cutting in and out. Utsey tries to get the information on the radio and relay it to patrol units, but she's obviously frustrated. "You see that gray?" she asked the camera, pointing to her hair. "That belongs to the south end. That belongs to all those guys out there."

Dark Day

The TV show then moved to 1994, when Eddie Polec was set upon by a gang of baseball bat wielding youths and beaten to death. The narrator said Philadelphia is proud of its 911 system now, but that the Polec incident taught the city some "hard lessons." [search for Eddie Polec stories in the archive]

"The job that we do is responsible for getting him the help that he needed," Utsey said. "And we failed. Bottom line, we failed." She said it was the worst experience she had experienced. "That was the hardest time we had to go through," she said.

The show explained how Philadelphia had improved its police comm center: upgraded CAD, more dispatchers, MDTs in patrol cars, increased training.

Dispatcher James Dooley then appeared on camera as he took a series of 911 calls. The first was from a very insistent woman who kept yelling, "Just send someone out here!" Dooley admitted that the stress is great. He likened it to the gut feeling you get when someone cuts in front of you while driving--except as a dispatcher, it happens six or seven or eight or nine times a shift, he said. "Stress has an enormous impact over a long haul," he said, "and you're not aware of the impact it's having on you." He fielded another call, obviously from a child playing on the telephone, while the narrator said about 185 calls like this are received every day.

The show switched to the fire comm center, and explained how they take 800 calls a day, triage them and, if necessary, give the caller medical instructions. Chief fire dispatcher Michael Moore explained how the calls are answered, entered into CAD, and then dispatched while the calltaker is still handling the call. In many cases, the calltaker is still giving medical instructions while the medic unit is responding.

Fire dispatcher Richard Moszczynski explained how calltakers must talk some callers down before they can provide instructions to help. Fire Dispatcher Jim Smith was shown handling several medical incidents at the console.

The show ran some animation that demonstrated how an automatic crash notification (ACN) system works, and predicted that soon many vehicles would be equipped to dial 911 for help on their own. They show then turned back to give some history of Philadelphia Police communications:

  • Alexander Graham Bell makes first "911 call," when he said, "Mr. Watson. Come here. I want to see you." "
  • 1856--first Philadelphia police telegraph system
  • 1928--first Philadelphia one-way radio system
  • 1945--first Philadelphia two-way radio system
  • 1968--first 911 call in Haleyville (Ala.)

The narrator then said that, "No challenge looms larger than cellular phones." They show explained that wireless phones don't report their telephone number of location, but that FCC regulations would soon change that. Jack Flynn, a services manager with Bell Atlantic, explained how the wireless 911 will eventually work.

Most recently, Philadelphia's police comm center has installed mapping software to locate each 911 call as its received. Within the next year, the mapping capability will be extended to patrol cars when automatic vehicle location (AVL) units are installed in all vehicles.

The show closed with an emphasis on people. The narrator said that, "911 is more than technology." Sgt. Masi then added, "The center works well because of the people. The people make the system work."

Web Links

You can find information about the Discovery Channel on the Web. We have learned that the TV network has no present plans to re-play the Philadelphia 911 episode, and a video of the episode is not available from the Discovery Channel on-line store. However, the network programming execs will be finalizing their Spring schedule in late March, and may decide to replay the episode. We'll keep you posted.

The Philadelphia Police Department does not appear to have a city-based Web site with extensive information. The only page we could find had a single page of general information. But check these other private Web sites:

Police Department, city site,
Fire Department, city site
6th District Police
How 911 Works
Fire Dept. history

Personnel Mentioned In Show

Sgt. Greg Masi, technical supervisor for the Communications Division
Dispatcher Patty Smith
Fire Dispatcher Donald Stokes
Sgt. Michael Bloom, PD
Dispatcher Caneshia Speech
Sgt. Gary Neill, PD
Dispatcher Rita Utsey
Dispatcher James Dooley
Fire Dispatcher Jim Smith
Chief Fire Dispatcher Michael Moore
Jack Flynn, Bell Atlantic services manager (talking about 911)
Fire dispatcher Richard Moszczynski
[At least two dispatchers were mentioned only verbally, and their names were not spelled out in a graphic--Sorry. We don't know how to spell your names!]