ANAHEIM, Calif.—There is no end to the challenging calls that 911 telecommunicators must handle on a daily basis. Perhaps the most challenging involve emergency calls placed by children, according to Briana Kelley, training specialist for the Alachua County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office. Kelley spoke on the topic this week at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference.

“Talking to a child is like talking to someone with a language barrier,” Kelley said. “All calls are stressful, but calls involving children often are worse.”

Often, kids accidentally make 911 calls from old, non-initialized phones that their parents have given them to play with. But Kelly said that it is important that telecommunicators not assume that such a call is an accident, or a prank.

She added that it is equally important not to infer anything from the child’s tone of voice and that telecommunicators should use a calm and steady tone when speaking with them.

“The tone of your voice can calm the child,” Kelley said.

Though it sometimes can be a challenge to do so, projecting empathy can really pay off, she said.

“You have to remember that calling 911 is a scary situation for a kid to be in,” She said.

It’s even scarier when an actual emergency is ensuing, such as a house fire.

“To a kid who’s hiding under a bed or in a closet, a firefighter can look like a monster,” Kelley said.

Children come in all shapes and sizes, and they come from all sorts of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. Consequently, it is vital that telecommunicators establish a rapport that is unique to them.

“Scripts don’t work,” Kelley said. “You have to adapt to them, not them to you.”

She told of one call that her agency received from a child, who said that his house was “beeping.”

“The first thing we had to do was get him out of the house—we weren’t going to let him stay there while it was ‘beeping,’” Kelley said. “When firefighters arrived, they found that a carbon-monoxide alarm had gone off.

“Three- to four-year-olds think of things very concretely. So, it’s a little more difficult to understand abstractly what we hear.”

 When giving a child direction, it is important to use short sentences and to avoid giving them multiple things to do at simultaneously, Kelley said.

“And you want to ask them only one question at a time,” she said. “Even with adults, rapid-fire questions can be overwhelming.”

It’s also important not to speak in jargon, according to Kelley.

“A five-year-old doesn’t know what the word ‘suspect’ means,” she said. “Instead, use ‘bad guy.’”

Kelley offered several more tips for handling 911 calls made by children:

·         Reassure the child often

·         Praise the child often

·         Don’t make false promises

·         Never bribe, threaten or bully a child

“We want things to move more quickly, but threats won’t make the call go faster,” she said. “Kids don’t want anybody to be mad at them.”

Another tip Kelley offered is to rephrase questions, as often as necessary.

“If a kid doesn’t understand what we’re asking, we’re not going to get what we need,” she said.

It’s really important for telecommunicators to confirm that the child understands the information being shared and what needs to be done, according to Kelley.

“Have you seen the clip where two hunters are hunting and the dispatcher says, ‘Make sure he’s dead’ and the hunter shoots him again?” she said. “The same thing can apply to when you’re talking to children. It’s important, especially when we give them something to do, that we have them tell us what we’ve just asked them to do.”

Even if a telecommunicator were to follow all of the advice above, a 911 call from a child can take its toll. Kelley offered one final piece of advice for when that happens.

“Take a deep breath—it will restore your perspective.”