By Special Guest Writer
Communications Supervisor and Training Coordinator
When I first started as a dispatcher, I was only nineteen years old. I had accidentally found this career after searching for a part-time job. All I knew about dispatching then was I would be answering phone calls and sending responders to calls. My training would be an eye-opening experience. Training consisted of the ordinary jurisdiction, map reading, ten codes, fire protocols, radio operations, and call-handling. However, the one training exercise that benefited me most was my ride-along.
The first officer I ever rode with was Officer Anderson. He was a member of our county dive team and was as country as one could get without having udders himself. We both lived in a rural part of our county and could tease each other about how country we each were. He raised chickens and goats, and I had just graduated from a high school where it was common to see John Deer tractors parked in the student parking lot. During that shift, Officer Anderson and I responded to a burglary, runaway juvenile, a domestic, and several traffic stops. He got a kick out of trying to scare me by running code to any call he was able, and he learned that I had a sarcastic side and was hard to scare. This ride-along was twenty-two years ago. But it remains one of my most valuable training activities.
Nine years after that ride-along, Officer Anderson and I had both left our first agency years earlier and had no contact with each other during that time. In June of 2008, I started with my current agency and was full of nerves and anticipation. The years had made me more introverted. I knew I would have a more challenging time getting to know my co-workers now than at my first agency. Except, it wasn't. One of the first people I was introduced to was this tall country-looking officer who spoke with a drawl that competed with my own. When he turned around, I knew who he was. It was Officer Anderson. That ride-along nine years earlier had just made my ability to adjust to a new agency easier. I knew one person; everything else would be gravy.
Fast forward about five years, and my department had started suffering from growing pains. At first, having relationships with my officers was as easy and laid back as that first ride-along with Officer Anderson. Things were never the same once we moved from our small, old building into our new, state-of-the-art, multi-story facility. Our small building forced us to interact. The new building allowed us to spread out, sometimes going days or weeks without seeing those we saw daily in the small building. The relationships that were formed previously remained. However, new employees started becoming just voices. We might hear that voice out in the parking lot and try to put a face to it, but it was few and far between.
Dispatchers were always required to have ride-alongs with officers as part of their training. These would assist in teaching jurisdiction, which is how we framed the need. However, the most crucial aspect of a ride-along was to change at least that one voice into a person for our dispatchers. Just as I had with Officer Anderson, dispatchers and officers would get to know each other a little better. Our dispatchers were made aware of officer safety issues that aren't taught as well behind the console. During these ride- alongs, dispatchers can understand why officer safety is our number one priority. The random numbers we call out over the air are not random. They represent a person for whom we are responsible.
Although these ride-alongs helped our new dispatchers, they did very little to help new officers to understand how their lifeline works. We would get an attitude when we asked officers to repeat themselves because their traffic wasn't clear. Some officers believed themselves to be immortal and only wanted to tell us what they thought we needed to know but would keep their location secret. Officers believed that the radio dispatcher's only duty was to be there when an officer called out. For them, there were no extra duties that a radio operator should have to do. Overall, our officers had no idea what was going on behind our bunker door. Dispatchers are expected to understand the demands of an officer's job. Demands of the dispatchers were not considered. Something had to change!
I will be honest, it took some time, but we were able to change the officer's field training to include time in radio. There were several conversations with some old-school officers who refused to see the need. Their thought was dispatchers should do their job and deal with what officers give them. The main reasoning behind this thought was you should always make radio priority. The belief was that making radio priority equals officer safety. The two are linked. However, radio priority does not create officer safety.
Think of this. You are working radio when a multi-vehicle accident comes in. There are five officers on that call. Then a domestic comes in, and you send two officers to that call. Once the officers on the domestic arrive on scene, they ask you to run someone through computer databases. When that officer unkeys, an officer from the accident keys up, asking you to run several tags and driver's licenses. After you copy the last request, one of the officers from the domestic advises they are hands-on with an armed subject. If you could have looked at the first request made, you would have seen the person has a violent history and is known to be armed. This information could have better prepared your officers on the domestic. But instead, you had to take time to copy requests from one of five officers on an accident. You made radio priority, but it did not make officer safety priority.
Today, this change has helped create a more united front between the road and radio. Training officers in radio better prepares them to be on the road and work with dispatchers. During their time in radio, officers can see that they play a role in our department's mission to keep officer safety a priority. Officers understand why we need them to follow radio etiquette policies. Showing officer's how CAD works will do more than any supervisor telling them how to call out traffic. Tasking officers to take simple calls from the phone and radio creates an even broader understanding. Hands-on training such as this helps explain why radio asks for information in specific patterns or orders. Officers' time in radio also teaches that as focused as they must be on the one call, dispatchers have to be just as focused on every call all the time. They now understand why they would be told to stand-by on a non-emergent request. The dispatcher is not ignoring them but working on a higher priority issue. Because officers come into radio near the end of their field training, dispatchers have already heard how they utilize the radio. Dispatchers are then able to provide critical feedback on their traffic.
It may seem that the most significant benefit for officer sit-alongs would go to the dispatcher. If the officer is more educated about how things work, the dispatcher's job will be easier. That is true; however, the most significant benefit we have seen is understanding. Sit-alongs, in addition to ride-alongs, help create relationships between parts of the whole. In your department, your whole may be divided in different ways. But the constant remains: it is harder to work with each other if you do not understand each other and other duties besides your own. We have found that creating these bridges of understanding has shown benefits for everyone involved.
I work for a PD, so the only responders that will sit with us are our officers. However, these benefits can be seen outside of law enforcement. Having your firefighters, EMTs, medical air pilots, air nurses, or any member of your agency participate in a sit-along with radio could only improve morale and understanding. Now you may be sitting there thinking, "Yeah, right, my agency would never do this." I had that same thought when I started pushing for this. But I can attest that the work it took to make it happen has been proven worthwhile in the long term. Not only have the officers' understanding of how we work improved, we, as dispatchers, better understand them. Take a leap of faith and start working your chain of command. The worst thing they can tell you is no, and no is just a starting point.
About the Author:
Kimberly Taylor is a thirteen-year veteran of the Lawrenceville Police Department (GA). She has been a Training Officer for eleven years and is currently the Communications Training Coordinator for the department. Kimberly has a passion for training and constantly looks for ways to improve training. Beyond training and her work in the Communications Division, she serves as Secretary for the Lawrenceville Police Benevolent Fund and is a member of her department’s Peer Support Team.