Urgent Matters

When a telecommunicator is on her game, it’s a beautiful sound

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A Texas telecommunicator's skillful handling of a 911 call from a 12-year-old boy--alone in his house as it was being burglarized--is a prime example of the value of good training being conducted in call centers.

Last week, I wrote about an educational session at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in Anaheim, Calif. During the session, Briana Kelley, training specialist for the Alachua County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office, provided quite a few tips for handling a 911 emergency call placed by a child.

Kelley said it was important that 911 telecommunicators use a calm tone when speaking with a child. Just as important are finding out where the child is, providing clear instructions to the child, and praising the child often. Also, it is vital to get down to the child’s level, in part by speaking in terms that the child will understand—for example, using “bad guy” instead of “suspect.”

Over the weekend, I saw an ABC News item about a 911 call from a 12-year-old boy who was alone at home in Port Arthur, Texas, when burglars broke into the residence. Usually, the mainstream media only cover the 911 sector when something goes awry, but that wasn’t the case this time.

In the news clip, one can hear the terror in the boy’s voice as he speaks with the telecommunicator. The adroit manner in which she handled the call might lead one to think that she had been trained by Kelley, if not for the fact that they live in different parts of the country.

The telecommunicator reportedly told the boy to hide in a closet and later was able to determine that the closet was located in the mother’s bedroom. She asked questions and she provided law enforcement with valuable input, based on the boy’s answers—at one point she told arriving officers that the burglars had entered the bedroom where the boy was hiding.

Further, the telecommunicator referred to the burglars as “bad guys,” which made me smile as I recalled Kelley’s lecture. The telecommunicator gave clear direction, at one point telling the boy to be quiet, because the burglars were in close proximity. She was very reassuring, first making sure that the boy knew that officers were on their way and then letting him know that they had arrived. She also praised him, saying that his mother would be proud of him. When he said that calling 911 was the only thing that he could think to do after the burglars broke a window in the home to gain entry, the telecommunicator told him that he was a “very, very smart boy.”

So, the telecommunicator pretty much did everything right, and whoever trained her did an excellent job. This incident had a happy ending—the boy was unharmed, and the burglars were apprehended by police in a nearby woods—precisely because she kept a terrified young boy calm and kept her wits about her. This was possible, because she knew exactly what to do and how to do it. And that is testimony to her training.

It would be nice if every telecommunicator across the land were trained so well. Unfortunately, telecommunicator training varies wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The establishment of national training standards is something that APCO and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) jointly are working on.

I hope they can get something done soon. It’s a lot more fun writing about happy endings than tragedies.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

Randy K. (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2013

I already know who has my vote for telecommunicator of the year. As I listened to the media accounts of the story and later to the recordings, it made me think of how proud her supervisors were of her actions and the positive image set forth by her calm and reassuring tone which eliminated panic and kept the right information flowing from the young caller. I urge PSAP managers and trainers to get their hands on this recording and to use it as a benchmark of how bad situations can be handled and the positive outcomes that are possible with proper training. If you have a moment, send the folks down at Port Arthur Tx. Police an email and thank them for a job well done!

Cindra Dunaway (not verified)
on Sep 4, 2013

Love it! We have standardized training here in Fl - but we still have a long way to go.... train, train, train!

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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