The longest day
A case study of how public safety dispatchers and patrol officers interact with mobile radio communications and how they depend on it ‘to protect and serve.’
Dum-da-dum-dum. This is the city-Lenexa, KS. [Sorry, we’ve always wanted to do that.] It is shortly before 3 p.m. on a warm June afternoon. In fact, it’s June 21-summer solstice: “The longest day of the year.” Through the good graces of MRT’s public safety consultant, David O. Dunford, who manages the technical support for the Lenexa Police, and Steve Davidson, communications unit manager, who runs the show, MRT has been invited to observe a typical day in police communications. Reporting will take place simultaneously from the points of view of the 9-1-1 PSAP/dispatch operators and from those of the officers on patrol.
Our aim is not to present an episode of COPS, full of car chases and busts, to MRT readers. Real police work is often tedious and grinding, and we’re here to examine how real human beings interface with almost 70 years of radio technology advancements.
Lenexa is a predominantly suburban community with a resident population of about 40,000 and a daytime population about triple that figure. Located about 15 minutes southwest of downtown Kansas City, MO, it serves both as a bedroom community and a host to numerous professional offices, merchants, warehouses and light manufacturing. It is a progressive city, rapidly growing as population has migrated out of the urban core. For a city of its size, Lenexa has invested heavily, in police/fire/EMS services and infrastructure.
We arrive at the Lenexa Police Department just as the third watch is beginning. Dispatch and patrol generally take their pre-shift briefings together so that both ends of the radio link are “on the same page.” Ushered through the security doors, we are quickly split up to our appointed tasks. Chandler will work at first with Dispatcher trainer Virgel Stigall, and Keckler will ride along with Officer Michael Bussell.
(Chandler) My first assignment in the Lenexa Communications Center is to join Virgel Stigall at his station. His role for the first part of the shift is primarily dispatching. Stigall has been with the communications center for 15 years. “I started doing this when I was 20. This is my first real job,” he says. Stigall, slender and young, but authoritative, speaks in a quiet voice. “We just changed shifts, so I’m really in a ‘state’ of confusion. I haven’t had a chance to get out of that ‘state.'” From what I can see, however, he has everything under control.
As I grow accustomed to what I am listening to and looking at, a call comes in for Stigall to dispatch-a diabetic is having problems, but it’s not urgent.
At any given time, three specialists staff the communications center, one taking the role of call-taker, one on dispatch and one on records management and backup. (Employees are cross-trained and can perform any function at any time). Joe Stancer, a former EMT, takes calls right now, while Kelly Lafary is on “Channel 2.”
Stigall explains that Lenexa police do not go on many ambulance calls-just the urgent ones-so an officer will not be going on the diabetic call. Each medical emergency call is routed from the Lenexa Communications Center, a primary PSAP, to the county communications center, a secondary PSAP.
“It’s kind of interesting for them when their 9-1-1 rings,” Stigall says. “That usually means they are going on a call. We get a lot of 9-1-1 calls where we really won’t go on a call.”
Right now, I am looking at Stigall’s main screen. The CAD system that Lenexa uses operates on the Alert computer system, which also runs other inquiries such as L-tests and N-tests. The ALERT system comprises several large databases running on an IBM mainframe computer. This CAD system was originally designed for the Kansas City, MO, police department. “It’s a homemade CAD program,” Davidson says, “Roll-your-own. Custom-written, we share it with four other departments.”
The black boxes located to the left of this CAD screen are an Orbacom TDM-150 console, atop a Zetron model 21D instant call recorder. Eight speakers line the top of the console, the portals to 30 radios and monitors. To the right of the main CAD screen is a smaller monitor displaying a touch-screen version of the Orbacom console, which accesses the scanning of area police, fire and public works agencies. To the dispatcher’s left, an ALI/ANI screen is situated above the phone-line buttons.
Lenexa’s communications center answers four 9-1-1 lines, eight administrative lines and five seven-digit lines (what used to be the emergency numbers before 9-1-1). Direct lines connect with other police and civic departments.
(Keckler) After I sign a liability waiver and undergo a quick background check, Bussell and I load ourselves into a black-and-white cruiser outside the police garage. First comes a quick synopsis of the rules for “ride-alongs” (in official terminology, “gratuitous passengers”) and an equipment review, including the shotgun and the MP-5 submachine gun. It is sobering that you might become an officer’s support in an extraordinary situation. The electronic equipment is a little more familiar to me, though no less intimidating. (See box on page 29, opposite.)
The ergonomics of driving a car and operating this electronic arsenal seem to work surprisingly well for the officer behind the wheel, but there is not much room left for portly “gratuitous passengers” on the right-hand side. No matter; Lenexa’s officers usually patrol alone. Consequently, backup often appears without being requested.
Oddly enough, despite all the technology and accessories, I discover during the day that the most indispensable items inside a police cruiser are strategically placed Velcro strips and 1/2″ rubber bands around the sun visors, which hold the miscellaneous “desktop” items and paperwork that an officer handles during his shift in this mobile “office.”
Bussell is usually in the Directed Patrol Unit (DPU) and spends much of his time working “plainclothes” in an unmarked car. The six-person DPU proactively focuses on crime within a narrow commercial corridor. “The thing I like to get the most is drugs,” Bussell says. For plainclothes assignments, undercover officers have started using Nextel Communications handsets instead of standard police radios, to avoid attracting attention. [See Dunford’s “Public Safety: ’10-2′” column in the February 2000 MRT.]
Bussell and several other officers have been preoccupied for four months with a multijurisdiction serial murder case that hit the national spotlight. With that investigation winding down, this is his second day to “relax” as a uniformed officer roaming the community.
“I’m having fun, just going out and working patrol,” Bussell says. A tall, brawny, mustachioed 30-year-old, he strikes an imposing figure that is only slightly softened by his summer uniform of white shirt and blue shorts, for which he takes some good-natured ribbing from officers who are still wearing navy blue, full-trouser uniforms.
In addition to the mobile radio and body mic, most officers carry a belt-clipped Motorola HT-1000, or HT600/P200, portable with epaulet mic. All personnel also carry alphanumeric pagers. Radio checks are performed for all systems. Officers can usually hear, sitting in roll call, how well the active mobile radios are performing for the previous shift.
“But I’ll give my ‘starting’ just to make sure, and right then [dispatch] will tell me, ‘Yeah, you’re pretty 10-1 (bad communications),’ and I’ll put this down and grab another,” Bussell says. His checks extend to sirens, lightbar and other equipment.
(Chandler) A call is passed over from Stancer for dispatch. A vehicle has hit a bank kiosk, and there is quite a bit of damage. This call didn’t come through 9-1-1; the bank has called the department directly.
(Keckler) 1515: We roll out as patrol unit “394.” As soon as we hit the street, we get our first call.
“394: Santa Fe and Rosehill.”
(Chandler) “Take information on a non-injury accident; occurred at the credit union [location]. Contact [manager] in the lobby. Customer hit a piece of their equipment outside and then drove home. They know who the party is.”
(Keckler) Bussell acknowledges.
(Chadler) Dispatch time-checks the call: “1520.”
(Keckler) We get acquainted as we drive to the credit union. Bussell has spent two years with Lenexa P.D. He had been an engineer with the Lenexa Public Works department for four years when he decided he wanted to go into policing. With the city’s roster full, he found a position for two years in a nearby city until Lenexa had an opening.
We pull into the credit union bank, and after a quick “just the facts” interview, the manager shows us the hit-and-run “victim.” A depositor snagged his pickup truck on one of the drive-through lane pneumatic kiosks, and after being unable to extricate himself, gunned the motor and ripped the device’s cowling to shreds. Undoubtedly scared and embarrassed, he drove off (probably remembering too late that he had just made a transaction with his name on it). The damage is estimated at about $1,500. I notice that Bussell is taking the incident information in the same low-tech fashion that I am: a pen and a small reporter’s notebook from his shirt pocket. When he’s finished, I ask whether any hand-held devices are used.
“If it was a big case, say it was a burglary of several items, I would go ahead and take this in,” he says, motioning toward the MCT laptop. “I would take the information down that way, serial numbers and such. For me, it has to be a pretty substantial case. I can usually just ‘jot it down’ on the non-consequential calls. Some of the guys carry around [Palm Pilot PDAs]. I don’t know if they’re on a trial basis, but the guys that have them really seem to like them.”
Dispatch supplies Bussell with a directory check on the phone number of the suspect in the “crunch-and-run,” and supplies other database info as well regarding prior arrests. Bussell uses the in-vehicle Nokia PCS cellphone to contact the suspect, asking him to go to the station and give a statement.
Tag-you’re it (Chandler) Back at dispatch, Lafary offers brownies to everyone who walks into the center. A sergeant walks in, asking for printouts of vehicle tags he had run earlier. He also needs the “criss-cross” city directory.
Stigall runs tags for another officer in the field. The officer is following a car, and Stigall reads the registration to the officer.
“What we do, if we have time, is we’ll check the name and the address on the registration to see if we can find any active warrants on these people, associated with the tag,” Stigall says. “No news is good news. Because I didn’t find anything, I didn’t say anything back to him. If I were to have found something, I would have called him on the radio again.”
These dispatchers are, indeed, doing more than answering calls and dispatching officers. They are always running tags and fishing for more information to help the police officers any way they can.
(Keckler) On the street, Bussell reflects on this support. “One thing I will say, and you can put me on record for this: We have some of the finest dispatchers and personnel that I could ever ask for. … These guys and gals, they work. It’s nothing for them to work 12 or 14 hours in a day if they’re [short-handed]. They’re always running tags. They may get a little short with me at the end of the night because I’m running so many tags, and I usually try to lay off, then. And they’ll dig-like Kelly, when I ran [the kiosk suspect]. She said, ‘Well, let me check another thing for you.’
“She didn’t have to do that,” Bussell says, ” I didn’t ask her to. She just does it. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”
(Chandler) “A lot of times, people will give the wrong information to the officer,” Stancer says. “So you really have to dig. That’s what’s difficult, is there are so many avenues you can look at.”
Stancer says he wants to work on increasing his speed in that area-he is still in his probationary period. He started with the communications center in February. That’s why he is wearing a dark-blue polo shirt and khaki pants. The other dispatchers wear standard-issue police uniforms.
Stigall is in charge of training other dispatchers. Sixteen weeks of on-the-job training is required, plus two weeks in the classroom. Each trainee is “plugged in” with an experienced dispatcher for four months. I wonder how they learn to listen to all the disembodied voices coming out of the speakers and through the headsets. So many people are talking at once, and these dispatchers and call-takers seem to hear it all (or at least what is important).
“You also have to keep your ‘third ear’ open to what’s going on in the room,” Davidson says. Call-takers and dispatchers will help each other out if possible, as they are listening to one another.
1535: An intrusion alarm call comes in. “Always dispatch those,” Stigall says. “Calling 295 and 334, respond on Brinks intrusion alarm at [location] residence. The garage door.”
(Keckler) 1536: Bussell, near the location, hears the intrusion call and drives over to support. Units 295 and 334 have the situation under control, and we hit the street again.
(Chandler) Lenexa is divided into four districts, with a car assigned to each district before the shift starts. When deciding what to dispatch, Stigall says, you start with the primary car. Any other car that goes along with it goes in the “assist field.”
1548: It’s almost afternoon rush “hour,” the busiest time of the day for the communications center. I notice that each one of the three dispatchers is calm and collected. If the world fell down around them, they would remain just as calm, their voices steady and clear.
“335,” Stigall says. “Respond to a non-injury accident, [location]. It’s a blue Explorer and a blue Forerunner.”
(Chandler) We hear dispatch send unit 335 to a non-injury accident. It prompts Bussell to comment on the route we’re taking, which he characterizes as “the worst stretch of road in the city,” with a deceptive grade and slick conditions during rains. “If there’s one accident, you can count on three,” he says. Street officers, it seems, are like the salesmen in The Music Man: “You’ve got to know the territory.”
(Chandler) On the screen display, Stigall points out radio numbers of the cars and call types. He can also pull up “incidents.” Each incident gets a number.
(Keckler) With rush hour approaching, we chat about traffic accident responses. Lenexa is bisected on a southwest to northeast axis, by interstate I-35, which is a heavily traveled commuter route within the metro area. City police are generally the primary responders for any accidents on the interstate, and there is little or no interoperability with the Kansas Highway Patrol (KHP). Any coordinating communications have to be relayed by Lenexa dispatch through a link to KHP headquarters nearly 180 miles to the west, in central Kansas, which then bounces the information back to area patrolmen. The patrol also essentially stands down at about 2300. “Any vehiculars after 11:30, until about 7:00 in the morning-that’s all ours,” Bussell says.
The accident situation is often confounded by “Good Samaritans” with cellphones, each with a “unique” description of where the accident has occurred, leaving dispatch to correctly sort out the location.
“But, we get a lot of good ‘drunks’ [calls] from folks with cellphones. They’ll follow them,’ Bussell says.
(Chandler) 1610: A 9-1-1 call has come in regarding a depressed person at a place of business. “Calling party said she was not suicidal, just wanted some professional help.”
Unit 394 will answer the call.
Lady in distress (Keckler) 1611: We’re rolling again, this time to a local business where an employee is having a severe attack of depression. Although suicidal complications are ruled out, her co-workers feel official intervention is needed. We roll up in less than eight minutes, and Bussell enters the business. He is joined by back-up. The two officers counsel the woman, who appears elderly and disoriented, while I watch through the storefront. (I forget to hit the mic monitor switch, so I watch the scene in pantomime.) After a conciliatory conversation, the officers have dispatch summon a Lenexa Fire Department Emergency Medical Response team. Regular patrol officers have to request fire/EMS services through dispatch, although patrol division sergeant’s cars are enabled for fire-and-rescue and public works channels.
(Chandler) It becomes quiet again, so I ask Stigall about the flashing light on the console in front of me. They are testing the 350kW backup generator, like they do every Wednesday. Stigall says that the dispatchers can turn on the generator anytime and transfer the power load themselves. In fact, they will usually switch the power over if there is lightning in the area, instead of waiting for the power to go out. Davidson, who has just walked in, reassures us that the center relies on 45 minutes worth of batteries for backup, along with two UPS systems.
While Davidson is here, I ask him about the homemade CAD system again. “We took the workflow we did on paper and computerized it. We used to take one of those cards, the call-takers would answer the call and hold those cards with the calls, then pass them to the dispatcher.” Davidson says that they have had the CAD program since 1985, and 9-1-1 since February 1983. They have been in this communications center for five years.
Something new, something old (Keckler) 1755: We listen to radio traffic. Lenexa monitors the adjacent jurisdictions for incident awareness and because officers in this area have cross-jurisdictional arrest authority.
Bussell says he feels lucky not to encounter the coverage problems experienced by some large metropolitan systems: “I mean, this job is stressful. I have a ball coming to work every day, but that’s just one less thing to worry about. I know if my portable doesn’t work, it’s probably because I was stupid and didn’t put it on the charger, or I put it on incorrectly.”
Officers are mindful of battery capabilities. “Today I turned in my DPU [portable] radio. It’s a special radio, but I don’t like it,” Bussell says. “One thing is, the battery won’t hold a charge for an eight-hour shift-well, maybe eight hours, but if I’m working 10 or 12 hours, it won’t hold it. That irritates me.”
What was nice about it, and the reason they gave it to DPU, Bussell says, was a scanning capability to track other jurisdictions. Although he says that feature is useful for officers such as the canine unit, which crosses jurisdictions frequently, Bussell finds the feature superfluous because he has a mobile scanner in the cruiser and a private scanner in his own car already. He also had trouble with accidental keying of the radio’s mic because of seat belts or other encumbrances, resulting in an open mic.
“I said, ‘Give me my old radio back. It works. Its reliable. I like it.” Although the new radio was lighter, and it had a digital readout, performance was what mattered.
Psych tests and psychics (Chandler) 1700: It is getting to be about 5 p.m., and I realize that the only way we know it is daytime is via the security monitors mounted along the back of the room. Each workstation has adjustable lights, but the dispatchers keep them dimmed to reduce the glare on their screens. Eight monitors flash images of the different areas of the police department, including the detention centers, front lobby and entry to the building. The center sits in the basement of the police department, with six workstations and a small kitchen. The dispatchers share lockers with the officers down the hall.
Lenexa Communications has 15 employees, and they do have a hard time finding people to fill empty positions. Davidson cites not only the 1% to 2% unemployment rate as a reason, but also the hiring process. Eleven steps are involved, including a psychological exam and a polygraph test.
“Obviously, we have to know that the people that are in here are honest, trustworthy, reliable people. In just the time we’ve been sitting here, look at the amount of information they have access to, and the bottom line is not to be overly dramatic. But when someone calls 9-1-1, I’m not the one to decide what we’re going to do. It is based, frankly, on their judgment,” Davidson says.
He glances over at Lafary, a blond-haired, petite and mild-mannered woman at the middle workstation. “Kelly’s one of those who reads minds over the phone. I don’t know how she does it.” Lafary has been taking calls for 18 years. With an average of 20,000 calls a month coming into the center, she has gained a lot of experience. Davidson continues. “It’s just that all of a sudden something might not feel right or sound right about a call, and she just has that intuition. You can’t train that.”
I ask about accents or foreign language. I think it would be challenging to try to understand some calls for help. They have a solution for that, though: the AT&T Language Line. The call-taker and caller will conference with this line, and the language will be interpreted. The line supports about 150 languages.
Every call has to be answered because you just don’t know what is behind each one. That’s the main, most important, policy of Lenexa Communications. I ask about other policies. “We have certain ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots,’ but for every one of those, you could probably think up a whole room full of exceptions to that.” He says that they don’t want to forget why they are there: “Do the job, answer the phones, take care of the people.”
Davidson rises to leave. He has already put in a full day, while our shift is not even half over. The usual shifts are 3-11, 11-7 and 7-3. The shift from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. is “60% of our business,” according to Davidson. The schedule is made for each month, and employees sign up for the shift they want, by seniority.
Now, my assignment shifts. I join Stancer, who is still taking calls. I take my headset and plug into his workstation. Davidson warns me that we never know what is going to come through the line, and I agree to report discretely. Goose chases and chicken runs
(Keckler) 1751: We return to the station. Bussell has been reassigned to undercover surveillance, so he will be leaving uniformed patrol duty for the rest of the night. Ofc. Brad Rechtfertig agrees to accept me as his ridealong, and I switch cruisers to join unit “336.”
Rechtfertig, in his mid-20s, is reddish-haired, ruddy, wiry and, like Bussell, loves being a cop. He has served six months with Lenexa, following about two-and-a-half years with the police department in nearby Roeland Park, KS. Although he prefers the traditional black uniform, he also prefers rock music from the dash FM radio while he works. This doesn’t interfere with receiving dispatches because the radio system automatically mutes the dash radio whenever there is communications traffic. Rechtfertig’s cruiser is equipped identically to Bussell’s unit, with the addition of a dash-mounted Silver Eagle traffic radar display in front of the steering wheel. His laptop remains open, and a sea-scene screensaver gurgles softly under the wash of radio activity.
1758: After about seven minutes to get acquainted, we get a dispatch to back up an attempt to secure a juvenile female runaway. A 17-year-old is suspected to be holed up at her boyfriend’s family home, and dispatch advises that she has been sought previously and is likely to bolt out the back door. We park about a block away from the address, and officers 335 and 337 join Rechtfertig on foot as they maneuver themselves into strategic positions to intercept a possibly fleeing teenager.
(Chandler)1811: Three Lenexa units are working a runaway call. It comes through the radio that the officers are circling the house and setting up a perimeter where the runaway may be hiding.
The placid Stancer says, “You could actually get a footchase here. Virgel is ‘preparing’ himself. In a footchase, you have to know where everybody’s at.” In other words, Stigall has to follow everyone’s movement through the radio.
An officer runs a tag of a car sitting at the house. “They want to get as much information as they can before they go in,” says Stancer.
(Keckler) The officers coordinate their positions using their portable radios and epaulet mics. Communication only breaks once when one officer gets too near a metal garden shed. The house is apparently empty, but the boy’s father arrives home and the officers’ communication skills revert to written when they discover that he is deaf. Their inquiries must be scribbled on the handy pocket note pad.
After 20 minutes, the operation is canceled. No girl. Just a wild-goose chase.
(Chandler) 1817: It’s getting close to dinnertime, and Stigall talks about getting something to eat. The Lenexa dispatchers do not take breaks. They eat at their workstations while taking calls and dispatching. Things are starting to slow down now, though. Rush “hour” is almost over. I look at the security monitors-still bright outside. Shouldn’t it be dark by now? No, it’s only 6:17 p.m., and another call rings into Lenexa P.D.
“Communications,” Stancer answers.
The call is from a bondsman. “The bondsman is going to pick up one of his subjects; has to go out to Merriam; he wants an officer to go with him to make contact,” Stancer says to Stigall through the radio. The subject works at a fast food chicken chain and is supposedly at work now.
“I was thinking about going [there] tonight,” Stigall says.
“Really? Maybe you ought to go right now-before they arrest him,” Lafary suggests. So Stigall takes orders and heads out the door.
(Keckler) 1842: Rechtfertig is called back to the station to pick up a bench warrant. We are headed south to Olathe, KS, where Rechtfertig is to arrest a man for non-appearance in court and to convey him to the county lockup. As we drive down, I ask about his interaction with his radio equipment. One criticism he has of standard uniform radios is the epaulet mic, which he says can flop and slide too much during foot pursuit. What he would prefer is an in-ear plug with a mouth-level boom mic.
1859: The arrestee offers no resistance, and compliantly allows himself to be handcuffed and transported to jail. Processing, though, takes some time.
2018: Back in town and patrolling freely, Rechtfertig encounters a motorist, truck hood up, stalled at an intersection. Pulling behind this apparently innocuous scene, he still goes by the book, running a tag on the vehicle and setting his camera before he steps out to assist. I observe from my vantage point in the front seat how effective this tool is, taking in everything that transpires. Rechtfertig uses his front push bumper to move the vehicle out of the intersection, and the motorist takes it from there, using his own cellphone to get a tow. A five-minute assist from Officer Friendly.
(Chandler) Stigall returns shortly with three-piece chicken strip meals. He says he didn’t see whom he thought was going to be arrested. The subject may have been in the back, or in the parking lot.
As the dispatchers eat dinner, we discuss the ergonomics of their furniture. “I like the stand-up consoles,” Stigall says. ” I like to raise the monitor to eye level.”
The calls are coming in less often now, so Stigall takes the opportunity to clean up the work area, and Stancer and Lafary do some paperwork.
(Keckler) 2025: I contact Chandler on my own cellphone. It’s long past the end of our workday, and she’s heading for home soon, but it’s about “lunch” time for third watch. Rechtfertig turns down my offer of a free meal. Like the dispatchers, he prefers to stay in-service during his shift. “Lunch” is an orange from under the seat and bottled water from a local convenience store. While parked there and supping with one hand, his other is busily running the Versadex v17.1 software on his laptop, checking the out-of-state tags on cars gassing up for possible ticket skips, a frequent occurrence in a state line region. A out-of-towner approaches, and it’s Officer Friendly time again, giving driving directions.
Energizer bunnies (Chandler) 2001: I walk out of the police department at 8 p.m., but the sun still shines. The dispatchers continue their noble work on the inside, communicating with police officers, citizens and each other, all at the same time. “We’ve got all this technology,” Davidson has said. “Bottom line is-this job still entails us talking to each other.”
(Keckler) 2020: Rechtfertig patrols for a while, then pulls into an alley near a local hotel on the interstate that has been the site of prostitution incidents. I marvel at the young officer, who simultaneously fields my questions; watches and listens to passing traffic noise, as well as to his scanner and to his favorite FM station; keys-in his incident reports; and, I discover, has been running three tag checks while talking to me. I envy his faculties and aptitude. Maybe all those parents who complained about kids doing their homework while watching television or listening to music didn’t realize we were breeding a generation of multiple-sensory-input wunderkinds.
2105: I’m all-in for the day. Rechtfertig has two hours to go, and he suggests that I call it quits. “This is the time of night that the next call you get will keep you out until midnight,” he jokes. He returns me to the station and I thank him for indulging us. As he drives off, I, like Sgt. Esterhaus on Hill Street Blues, I hope the young man will “be careful out there.”
The human factor What did we learn today? Lenexa is blessed, compared to other mid-size cities, with top-of-the-line equipment. However, the success of public safety mobile radio communications is not measured by how much it costs, or how well it is supported and advanced by APCO, radio manufacturers, government officials, technicians or industry technical journals. It is measured by how well it serves three people: the victim/citizen requiring assistance, the PSAP operator/dispatcher who is the lifeline, and the officer who renders that assistance. The other thing we observed is teamwork and personal excellence. The equipment only reaches its potential if it is put into the hands of people who can use it effectively.