Top Questions We're Asked #3
We receive lots of questions during a year, by telephone, fax, e-mail and in person. Many of the answers end up on specific pages of our Web site, under a specific category. But sometimes the questions-answers just don't fit into a well-defined slot. So, we compiled a list of the most common questions and their answers and posted them right here.
A. Many states have laws which grant limited immunity to public safety dispatchers against civil lawsuits for their so-called "discretionary duties," or a lawsuit not based on an "intentional act or gross negligence." Here are three example sections from Alaska's State Statues:
Don't be fooled by the seemingly blanket nature of this law. They apply only to those "normal" decisions that a dispatcher are allowed (are required) by the agency to make in order to take, process and dispatch incidents. In non-legal terms, the law provides protection for "close calls," but does not give a dispatcher blanket protection against outright mistakes (failed to ask 911 caller pertinent information), or actions not covered by discretion (decided not to send any law enforcement response where caller said they heard "Help!" from street corner). By the way, most states require the agency to provide legal representation for their employees when named in a civil lawsuit You'll have an attorney, even though you may not have immunity.
A. Thanks to the folks at NENA, here is a list of on-line resources for you to get started:
A. Just download this article in Acrobat (pdf, 240k) format about "Junking the PBX." And like the 911/PBX problem, routing voice over an Internet protocol (IP) connection means that the 911 could be routed "out" of the system at a point far distant from the caller. That means the PSAP that receives the call won't have a clue where the caller is. Even if full ANI/ALI is routed to the PSAP, the calltaker would take precious minutes to transfer the call to, perhaps, another PSAP thousands of miles away for the call to be handled. Fortunately, the Internet experts are hard at work on solving this issue. Also check our VoIP/E911 Web page.
A. You should know that many states have specific laws that limit the civil liability of on-duty dispatchers in the performance of their duties, especially related to taking and handling 911 calls. For example, Virginia's dispatchers are covered by a portion of the state's "Good Smaritan Act":
"Any person serving without compensation as a dispatcher for any licensed public or nonprofit emergency services agency in this Commonwealth shall not be liable for any civil damages for any act or omission resulting from the rendering of emergency services in good faith by the personnel of such licensed agency unless such act or omission was the result of such dispatcher's gross negligence or willful misconduct."
As for liability insurance resources, thanks for Harry Marnell finding these resources:
A. Section 227 of the Communications Act of 1934 (U.S. Code Title 47) prohibits lots of different "automatic telephone dialing system" situations, and one of them is dialing "any emergency telephone line(including any '911' line." However, the law defines an "automatic telephone dialing system" as one that can "store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator." That seems to limit simple one-number speed-dial machines that might be used by alarm systems, etc. The law was really intended to eliminate totally random (or complete saturation) dialing by telemarketers, not the type of situation that plagues PSAPs. Check the entire Section 227 for your own interpretation, but also check your state's law for prohibitions against any auto-dialing of 911.
A. I've never seen a statistic about how often you might dial 911 in a lifetime. Numbers to support any accurate calculation are pretty hard to come by--there is no firm, national figure for 911 calls, numbers of emergencies, etc. However, I do know that:
Now, if you figure that the odds of dialing 911 are much lower if you're, say, 10 years or younger, then figure that you'd be dialing over a 62-year period of time (avg. 72-year lifespan minus 10). So that works out to 13.68 billion 911 calls during that period. Next, I believe if you divide the number of calls by the population, you'll end up with the average number of times a person would likely dial 911 in a lifetime: that would be 47.7 in this case. Note that this is different from "the odds that you'll need to dial 911." There are really no accurate statistics on which to support that figure.
Now, I have to say that NENA and others are claiming a very high percentage of 911 calls are accidental, unintentional, prank, inappropriate, false or otherwise bogus--some cities are claiming a 50-60% unintentional rate. If that were true, it would cut the 47.7 figure in half or so. Suffice it to say that the figures indicate that almost no one could get by without needing to dial 911 at least once during a lifetime.
A. Basically, it is not a violation of federal medical privacy laws, which are contained within the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. Both a reading of the law inself and our EMS legal contacts point out that dispatch agencies are not agencies covered by the regulations. In general, the law regulates health care providers who conduct certain electronic business transactions that contain medical information--that doesn't include public safety comm centers. (Note, however, that law enforcement officers and firefighters are covered if they provide medical services.)
However, your state's medical privacy law may or may not apply to this type of situation. We do not know of any state that specifically mentions dispatch-related communications in its privacy regulations. Many states with medical privacy laws have exceptions to the regulations for emergency situations, for which a 911-generated ambulance response would qualify.
However, again...broadcasting a specific "Victim is HIV positive" or something similar on the open radio channels could be considered a general invasion of privacy, regardless of your state's medical privacy statutes, and could be grounds for a civil lawsuit--just like everything else that you or your agency does. There is also the more general societal position that this information should not be broadcast on the radio, and you may run into political or community objections to the practice.
Lastly, it's pretty common for EMS crews to use "universal precautions" for all incidents. One must ponder the usefulness of broadcasting specific, personally-identifiable infectious disease information, the precautions that EMS crews routinely take, and the legal and social privacy protections that we all deserve. This includes the practice of gathering and storing medical information within a CAD premise database--legally, this is a very dangerous practice, and has lots of privacy concerns that generally make the effort (however well-intentioned) not worth the potential liability.
NENA researched a legal opinion on HIPAA, and concluded it doesn't really affect the basic operations of a public safety comm center.
As well, attorneys Douglas Wolfberg, Stephen Wirth and Cindy Staffelbach wrote an article in the Summer-2003 issue of "The National Journal of Emergency Dispatch" explaining that, "In most cases, dispatch agencies are free to do their jobs with minimal worries imposed by HIPAA. HIPAA permits all communications necessary to treat a patient--from call intake to initial dispatch to on-scene coordination to the communication of medical information to the hospital. However, some dispatch entities may themselves be "covered entities" under the HIPAA Private Rule, which means they have a host of administrative policies and procedures they must implement." The article notes that radio traffic does not need to be restricted, encrypted, etc., and unless your comm center operation is part of a health care plan, provider or clearinghouse, the law isn't applicable. Their law firm also issued a very clarification that points up specific dispatching issues that may arise (finding a victim's address, etc.), and how HIPAA does not restrict the flow of information.
You can also download (pdf) a position paper by th law firm of Page, Wolfberg & Wirth LLC.
A. Uh, what you need is a baby name book for streets! Well, there isn't really such a thing--you don't want to name the streets and places for prominent and historical persons? How about accepting $500 in exchange for naming a street after someone? OK, here's the best list of names and places we know--the USGS Gazetteer of place names in the United States. The downloads are huge, but they're available by state to make them manageable.
By the way, many jurisdictions require the naming of "driveways" if two (three, etc.) or more residences or businesses are accessible from that driveway.
A. There's no company that we know of, but Kansas dispatcher Dan Gruver is working on a project (mid-April 2002) to design, manufacture and offer a dispatcher-specific ring. Last we heard, he has obtained funding for the initial production costs (metal molds, etc.), and will then be able to take orders for the rings, which vary in price from $100 to $500, depending upon finish and gemstones. He's also posted some initial drawings of the ring on his Web site.
A. The following advice would be provided to citizens as pre-incident advice:
We've seen some advice to "open windows and doors in the area of the object." However, I'd consider that to delay the finder's evacuation, which isn't really advised. Now, as to questions to ask the caller if they report finding a suspected device...you should be focus on the location of the device in order to determine the safety arrival route for the emergency units. This is especially true if the object is outdoors...you don't want an officer or firefighter coming the wrong way down the street and driving up next to the object. You might also ask some quick questions about the object's appearance, for the same reasons. If you want to ask additional questions, I'd focus on its appearance, connection to other devices, any known motive (for an in-building object), etc.
A. There are two key call-handling durations: how long it takes to obtain sufficient information to dispatch units, and how long it takes to make the unit notification. Both can be quite variable depending upon the caller's knowledge and situation, the method of unit notification and how many units are notified. However, I must note that for medical calls, significant brain damage begins within four minutes of the heart stopping, which helps establish a guide for how quickly units should arrive, and therefore how quickly they should be dispatched. Also, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has established a standard for fire comm centers that the dispatch of the emergency response to be made within 60 seconds of the completed receipt an emergency call.
Bottom line: your incident handling procedures must allow for the efficient flow of information, including a way of quickly obtaining the essential information of an urgent call (the location and nature), and then immediately dispatching it via radio, pager, etc. On the law enforcement side, you should be able to broadcast qualified incidents (shots being fired now, etc.) on the radio within no more than 30 seconds after the essential information is obtained from a caller (whether you use CAD or manual methods). For fire/EMS incidents where unit recommendations must be determined before any dispatch can be made, you should be able to begin the notifications with 45 seconds. Depending upon the method of fire/EMS notification, the process could take up to 60 seconds. Remember: a "reasonable" dispatch time is usually only determined after a critical incident goes bad, and the politicians and media begin examining your operation. Examine your operation now to prevent later problems. Establish a reasonable dispatch time goal, and then contiue to find ways to improve it--don't ever be satisfied.
A. Sure do! Heartland Communications in San Diego County (Calif.) uses the following weighted formula to charge back participating agencies:
Simply determine the share (%) that each agency contributes in each of these categories, and then multiply them together. For example, if Oaktown PD contributed 30% of the incidents, had 30% of the total uniformed personnel, and was assigned 40% of the radios:
The 27-member DU-COMM center in suburban Chicago (Ill.) uses a different method. It's a 75-25 police-fire operation, and apportions charges like this:
The 75% police share is determined by dividing the total police operations budget by the total number of officers, resulting in per-officer figure (i.e. $245 per officer). They then determine each agencies budget share by multiplying that per-officer figure by their staffing. Agencies with more officers pay a larger portion of the police budget.
The 25% fire share is calculated by determining the assessed value of all property protected by participating fire departments. Then each jurisdiction's percentage of the total is then figured, giving the percent of each fire agency's contribution to the total. If an agency's assessed valuation is 12% of the total, they pay 12% of the fire operations budget.
A. I think the question you're really asking is, "How much did we spend when a dispatcher leaves just after we finished training him/her?" Well, the basic question is pretty simple to figure out, based on your local pay rates-- we've used the national average from our Job Openings page and training period of six months--plug in your own cost figures.
Note that this does not include the cost of overtime to fill the empty position the trainee will eventually fill. It also doesn't include the pay of anyone assising in the training, such as firefighters, officers or paramedics.As mentioned above, if a trainee drops out after the training is completed, you'll really end up adding this person's cost to the cost of the next person you train. If you end up training four people to get one dispatcher who stays on, you've spent over $200,000 for one position. Yikes!
A. Very simple...surf this Web site to find a list of cities that require the boosters, which help public safety agencies communicate inside buildings.
A. Yes, I do. Surf some of the following Web sites:
A. It's a complex subject...and so I've written a separate page of thoughts on the pros and cons.
A. Yes, there is. But first you should consider that you may have either immunity under state law for certain actions you take, or legal representation provided by your jurisdiction for civil lawsuits. You should investigate which of these protections and benefits might apply to you--before an incident occurs. That being said, there are companies that provide liability insurance for stand-alone comm centers, including dispatcher errors. Surf:
A. I've seen no survey, study or other analysis of America's public safety dispatchers to come up with any figure for their average time on the job. I do know that the Falls City (Neb.) police department boasts that its dispatchers have an average of 12 years of service, that tenure at Benton County's (Geo.) SECOMM averages 7 years, and the JEMS magazine's 2001 salary survey found the average dispatcher (mostly EMS) service was 5.6 years. On the other hand, the Headsets.com Web site states that, "It is estimated that the average tenure for an emergency dispatcher to be just about two-years."
The recent techno-bust and slowing economy has no doubt increased the incentives for dispatchers to stay in their current jobs. The trend towards improved benefits for dispatchers has probably also contributed slightly to increased longevity. Best guess: 5-10 years.
A. You don't want to get too wrapped up in the importance of one word! Each alternative has its advantages, mostly related to obtaining the critical information needed to dispatch. If I had a choice, I'd ask "What" rather than "Where," since presumably you're looking at the caller's location on the ANI/ALI display. The "What" also will dictate the remainder of your questions--or even make it obvious the person isn't reporting an emergency at all. As always, your agency should make its choice, back it up with articuable reasons, and make it mandatory for everyone.
A. There's no better way to stir up a hornet's nest than to ask this question! But quite simply, there is no advantage in paying sworn personnel to staff a police or fire communications center. No, their field experience, training or badge-holding status does not make them more qualified than a civilian. However, there is one qualification to this conclusion: a civilian dispatcher must have equivalent or more training than the sworn personnel, must be given the same level of authority to act, and must be properly supervised. A civilian can do the job as good as--and usually better--than a sworn employee, and the pay and benefits will, arguably, be less. Fire and police unions continue to argue otherwise, but--get over it!--civilianization is inevitable.
A. The problem you describe has its roots in the E911 side when asking for non-published subscriber information. Apparently not everyone on the wireless side has caught up. Some carriers ask for a faxed form before they'll give you the information. Other carriers require a subpoena after they give you the information. Some won't give out the information at all. You (and every other comm center) has two problems: convincing the wireless carriers that they can release the information, and then obtaining a 24-7 contact number and setting up a procedure to actuall receive the information when you actually need it. Federal privacy legislation has granted a specific exemption for releasing telecommunications subscriber information:
Note that the law doesn't require release of the information, but simply makes a specific exemption in the law for keeping it private. Now, once you've solved the legal issue, talk to each carrier to establish (preferably) a standardized procedure and/or form to use when requesting the information, and (important!) your own set of procedures for when and how to obtain such information. By the way, this issue is of growing importance (so many wireless carriers, so many no-voice calls), and NENA is pressuring the FCC to come up with a unified solution to obtaining subscriber information.
A. There is no federal law requiring recordings, although several states (including Illinois) require 911 call answering agencies to record incoming calls--check with your state's 911 authority. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requires logging and instant recorders for fire dispatch operations under its Standard 1221. Having said all this, it's fairly inexpensive and simple to install a digital recording system these days. Given the enormous benefits that recorders provide and their relatively low cost, absolutely no comm center should be without auio logging recorders.
A. We can tell you that the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) that administers the metro Kansas City (Mo./Kan.) 911 system offers these guidelines:
Communications personnel can disregard a wireless 9-1-1 call when:
A. Bexar County (Tex.) has provided one standardized method of determining when a street is really a "street." Check their definition here.
A. First, the National Fire Protection Association has published the voluntary Standard 1221 for communications centers that handle fire dispatching. Next, surf by the International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA) Web site, and if you scroll down, you'll see 2-3 publications related to the operation of municipal fire alarm systems that might be applicable to your operation. Next stop is the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Web site, where their Institute a course in fire dispatching that might be helpful. Lastly, the training company PowerPhone offers fire-related dispatching classes. By the way, if assuming fire duties means you'll also be handling emergency medical incidents, there are lots of other resources for that type of operation.
A. There is no national standard for answering 911 calls. Most 911 answering points are small in the U.S., and the one (!) dispatcher on-duty simply picks up the phone as soon as it rings. The question of answer times arises only at larger agencies where there are more calls arriving than calltakers to handle them. At these agencies there is a commonly-used criteria: answer 90% of all 911 calls within 10 seconds. I don't know who came up with these numbers first, or why they selected them. But it's a start. If an agency found they were missing this target significantly, they'd either have to adjust staffing--or change the standard.
As you can imagine, much of the question is determined by the community--if they dial 911 and are put into a queue, or hear a recording or busy signal, or just hand up in frustration, the local newspaper usually carries their complaint, and the 911 agency must then deal with the dissatisfaction. If there's no dissatisfaction, the 911 agency usually doesn't have an incentive to improve, unfortunately. But either way, the answer times are usually complaint driven.
I should note that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a standards-setting body related to fire protection, has issued Standard 1221 for communications centers that handle fire departments. Their standard says that 95% of alarms shall be answered within 15 seconds, and 99% of alarms shall be answered within 40 seconds.
In this case, an "alarm" is considered, "A signal or message from a person or device indicating the existence of a fire, medical emergency, or other situation that requires fire department action."
The NFPA also says that 95% of emergency dispatching shall be completed within 60 seconds. For fire comm centers that receive their 911 calls transferred from another agency, the transfer procedure shall not exceed 30 seconds for 95 percent of all alarms processed.
A. The only standards that apply, really, are those by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for fire comm centers. There are no national standards from the government or other organizations. Here the applicable NFPA standards, which are available for a fee from the group:
NFPA 1061 - Professional Qualifications for Public Safety Telecommunicator
NFPA 1221 - Installation, Maintenance, and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems
You might also review some of the other standards if you're building a new comm center, relating to life safety, fire protection for computer and information systems, lightning protection, etc.
A. Sure can! It's critical to set out your policy in writing (in the new employee handbook?), and make sure everyone is aware of it--have them sign a copy of the policy, and place that copy in their personnel file. Simply put, use of the Internet should be lawful, appropriate, and not distract from the duties at hand.
This means your policy must set out exactly what is considered illegal, what's "inappropriate" (porn sites, on-line gaming, etc.), and what Internet activities might be job-related. Remember that the Internet works both ways: your should have policies that restrict receiving and sending certain information (criminal histories, etc.).
-- Security: the Internet connection should limit what gets in, and what gets out. E-mail is the most common method of receiving viruses, so this is a good place to start. Either leave e-mail off the computers, or install a good virus protection program. Remember that viruses can travel along a city network, so even if your computers didn't receive an infected e-mail message, someone else in the city could receive one, and then the virus would travel to your part of the network. There is also the potential for information to flow outbound--the use of cut-and-paste makes sending driver's license information, criminal histories, etc. very easy. And if it's easy, someone will do it. You really need an expert to help with the techno part of this issue: a firewall, virus protection, etc. are easily installed, however. The issue of mis-use of information must be handled by policies and monitoring.
The following issues are all policy-related. You should have a written policy that all new employees receive and sign. Place it in their personnel file.
-- Use must be lawful: In some cases you might wan to spell out examples, including pornography, use of copyrighted material, gambling, etc. Either way, this is an absolute for any agency with law enforcement contacts...there can be no exceptions. This includes the "outbound" information security issue.
-- Use must be appropriate: Again, spell out what your agency considers appropriate, starting with "job-related tasks only," to "personal tasks that contain no nudity, violence, games," or whatever. Lots of agencies permit personal use, but provide some guidance on what's not appropriate to display on-screen.
-- Use must not distract: This is pretty easy...say just that. "Use of the Internet must never distract from any job-related task."
-- Use must be monitored, and action taken if violations occur: The employees should know that you're supervising the use of the Internet, either by having supervisors watch the screens, or by running reports on the Web sites they browse. And the policy must state that, "any infractions could result in discipline." And, yes, I've written a handful of stories about Internet violations. I have to say, they really look bad when exposed in the newspaper. One person's actions can make an entire comm center staff look pretty sleazy.
Overall, Internet access is a great benefit in the comm center--I wish I had it back in the old days just to find a bus schedule! But human nature being what it is, some dispatchers will take advantage of it to surf inappropriate sites, or send inappropriate e-mail. Like any other of your policies, you should set in down in writing , get a signed acknowledgement from the dispatchers, and then follow-up on violations.
Here are some on-line examples of Internet policies--feel free to cut and paste:
Q. I'm traveling solo across the country on a bicycle, and am taking a satellite telephone to keep in contact. Is there a list of 7-digit, state-level law enforcement agencies I can call if I encounter trouble?
A. Unfortunately, you've hit upon a gigantic flaw in the nation's emergency communications system. There are no single, state-level emergency telephone numbers for law enforcement agencies. Generally, everyone adopted 911 as their emergency number--but it has flaws. The 911 telephone system was originally designed for wired telephones, and the telephone equipment would know exactly where you are. But then wireless phones became popular, and there originally was no way to determine the caller's location. Now, slowly, new technology (Phase II) is being introduced to display a wireless 911 caller's location on-screen when he/she dials 911. In the meantime, lots of states urge all callers to dial 911, and the answering agency will route the call to the appropriate agency. Of course, this won't help you. My advice would be to take a cellular-type phone, dial 911 on it first, then go to the satellite phone if you're out of range, and dial one of the 7-digit phone numbers listed on my map of highway emergency numbers. By the way, the public safety industry is working on the issue of satellite phones and 911, but it's taken a back seat to solving other 911 problems. And you might also consider a Personal Locator Beacon, a device that will send a geo-coded signal to an international constellation of satellites, prompting a search-and-rescue response. FindHappy biking!
A. Yes, there are on-line sources for obtaining both types of information. First, the National Public Safety Information Bureau in Wisconsin offers separate printed directories of law enforcement agencies (local, county, state, federal and special districts) and fire departments. They also offer an on-line listing for a fee. And Carroll Publishing offers an on-line, searchable database for a fee of government agencies at all levels, along with their contact information (phone, fax, address, etc.).
A. First, the standard CHP stolen vehicle report form used by many law enforcement agencies in California includes a space for the vehicle owner's signature. Without the signature, you (meaning the department, D.A., etc.) might run into technical legal problems related to, "Oh, I didn't report that vehicle stolen!" Taking a report by phone, and not obtaining the complainant's signature is a sure way of running into trouble...eventually. Although it's not a legal requirement, personal contact is really advisable. Frankly, I'd say this is the biggest issue.
Second, there's nothing in the California law the requires a "peace officer" to take stolen vehicle reports. There <is> a requirement in 108500 V.C. for a peace officer to make the appropriate entries in SVS once the report is taken. But it doesn't indicate that a peace officer has to actually <take> the report.
Thirdly, Proposition 115 was passed by the voters and includes a provision related to "hearsay" testimony at preliminary hearings. This would be pertinent if someone was arrested driving a stolen vehicle which had been reported to a civilian employee. Penal Code section 872(b) allows a peace officer to testify instead of the actual victim---but this does not apply to a civilian employee. If a dispatcher takes a stolen vehicle report, the district attorney would have to subpoena the actual victim in the case to testify at the preliminary hearing to present the primary facts of the case (the actual victim has to appear in any full trial). If an officer takes the report, he/she can testify in place of the citizen. So there could be some D.A. issues involved in the situation of a dispatcher taking stolen vehicle reports.
Lastly, there could be significant union issues over this. I'm surprised that neither the union representing the police officers or dispatchers has questioned this extension (or shifting) of duties. I can see where the department wants to save time and resources by taking phone reports with dispatchers, but it also artifically masks the amount of "law enforcement" activity that's being reported, making it seem as if your agency has enough officers to handle the load. To me, stolen vehicles are an officer-related activity, and shouldn't be shifted. But....