It’s a crazy world inside a PSAP, because the world has gone mad
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While much has been reported in the media about the spate 911 calls over the last several months that have reported fake emergencies at the homes of celebrities—a practice known as “swatting”—a far more dangerous type of call is happening more frequently. Diversion calls are intended to focus a massive amount of police resources in one area, leaving the rest of the municipality vulnerable and creating opportunities for criminals.
Leslie Whitham, a 911 telecommunicator in Chino, Calif., who also is an instructor for Public Safety Training Associates, said someone made a 911 call from a payphone in the north end of the city, claiming that a bomb had been planted at the electrical facility located in the south end.
“It was a Tuesday afternoon, and there wasn’t anything else going on … and all of a sudden, our AVL was showing that every one of our police cars was down near the south end of the city—every single one,” Whitham said.
At this point, a supervisor remembered recent guidance from the FBI concerning diversion calls—“Our ‘spidey sense’ started to tingle,” Whitham said—and a decision was made to send 20 undercover officers who just happened to be in the facility for a briefing into the field to cover the city’s banks. That was the good news. The bad news was that not one of them logged in, so telecommunicators had no idea who they were or where they were. Compounding this dilemma was the fact that the city’s primary channel operates in radio silence—emergency calls only—during a bomb threat, and all of the undercover officers decided to jump onto the primary channel when they entered the field.
A short time later, one of the undercover officers happened upon a bank robbery in progress and engaged in a parking-lot gun battle with the robber, who was wearing full body armor and wielding a “tommy gun,” Whitham said. The officer was shot in the leg.
“So, as officers do as soon as they need help, he picks up the radio and starts screaming,” Whitham said. “We don’t know who he is, we don’t know what call sign he is, we don’t know where he is—we have nothing. Talk about ‘Pucker Factor 10.’”
All of these scenarios have one thing in common: they fall into the high-risk, low-frequency category, which is the most problematic for PSAPs. To better prepare for such events, Showalter suggested that centers create “menu books.”
“How many of you have menu books in your centers that have all the local [restaurant] menus?” Showalter asked rhetorically. “How many of you spent a long time putting those things together? But how many of you have been sitting here thinking that you have to be prepared for chemical suicides, active shooters, all of these things? … They spend so much time on [restaurant menus] but they don’t spend time on things that are wildly important.”