KANSAS CITY—Watch any law-enforcement movie or television show that depicts a hostage situation and the person negotiating with the bad guy is going to be a grizzled police veteran or some sort of psychologist. It’s never a 911 call-taker. But in the real world, the reality is that the emergency call-taker is the very first negotiator—and often the sole negotiator—in such situations, according to a speaker at this week’s Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference.

Bernard Brown, 911 operations manager for Greene County, Va., said call-takers assume this role for every call they field, not just those that involve hostage situations. For instance, call-takers who take emergency calls from persons who are threatening suicide might find themselves in a position where they have to try to keep them from following through on the threat.

“Every call is a crisis situation,” Brown said.

Brown stressed that he wasn’t suggesting call-takers take over for law-enforcement negotiators in hostage and suicide situations. However, he did emphasize that call-takers needed to be better trained to hold the fort until law enforcement can take over. Sometimes, that handoff never occurs, because the call-taker has established a rapport with the caller, and the caller doesn’t want to talk with anyone else—making training an even greater imperative.

Unfortunately, that training is rare, because of budgetary and manpower constraints, Brown said. Emergency call centers often fall under the aegis of police and sheriff’s departments, and the limited dollars that are available usually go to train officers to negotiate, not call-takers. Also, smaller departments might only have one or two call-takers per shift. Consequently, it is difficult to justify taking one off line to train them for a task that most police chiefs and sheriff’s don’t want them performing.

It’s an attitude that’s going to be difficult to change, Brown said. “They’re not going to accept the idea that dispatchers can be negotiators.”

But it needs to change. The worst reason to do anything is because that’s the way it’s always been done. The best reason to do something is because it makes sense. In this case, training call-takers for a role that they are destined to play makes perfect sense.

They may not realize it, but police chiefs and sheriffs have a vested interest in such training, as a call-taker trained to defuse a situation—or at least keep it from worsening until more experienced negotiators arrive on the scene—could keep the incident from taking an unfortunate turn that costs lives, such as those of first responders in their command.

E-mail me at glenn.bischoff@penton.com.