Updated: Oct 16, 2019
Ryan Dedmon, 911 Training Institute
Christine Bannister, ENP, Dispatch Supervisor
Emergency call-takers and dispatchers for police/fire/EMS ask lots of questions when you call 911 for help. Here is what you need to know about those dispatchers and their unique process.
Dispatchers gather information and ensure appropriate and sufficient resources are sent to handle reported incidents in a timely manner depending on the totality of circumstances. The method by which dispatchers gather all this critical information necessary for field response is called “Line of Questioning”. Dispatchers ask lots of questions because they handle both external and internal communications, but there is a method to the madness.
External and Internal Communications
First, we start with the basics. External communication is the exchange of information between dispatchers and public callers who dial 911 for assistance. Internal communication is the relay of that information between dispatchers and field-responders (police officers/firefighters/paramedics).
External communication is the gathering of necessary information from callers needed for police/fire/EMS response. This information may include, but is not limited to: the location of the incident, contact information for the person reporting the incident and a brief summary of the incident. Dispatchers will also attempt to get additional details on description(s) of subject(s)/vehicle(s) involved, direction of travel if applicable, weapons used if applicable, and extent of any injuries.
Internal communication is the processing and filtering of all that information reported by callers and then relaying it to personnel in the field. The information is condensed and put in specific order to increase efficiency for dispatchers. Then it is entered into computer systems before it is relayed to field-responders. The relaying of this information allows field responders to effectively prepare for the incident. It is for their personal safety, the safety of people directly involved in the incident, as well as the greater safety of the general public in close proximity (bystanders/passersby).
Primary and Follow-Up Questions
Line of Questioning is much more complex than just who, what, when, where, why and how. When people call 911, they are generally reporting dynamic incidents that are ever-evolving at a fast pace. Line of Questioning protocol can be divided into two parts: Primary Questions and Follow-Up Questions.
Primary questions seek information regarding the incident that is most critical to the safety of field-responders and the greater general public. Follow-up questions find supplemental information that will further assist field-responders in providing aid and resolving the incident. Dispatchers ask all these questions to help give responding police officers a plan to take action and to give responding firefighters and paramedics an idea of specific fire/medical equipment they will need upon arrival. This helps them to effectively provide the best care for a patient(s)/victim(s).
The 911 callers have the power of observation, so dispatchers use Primary Questions and Follow-Up Questions to gather as much information as possible. The answers to all these questions help dispatchers and field-responders paint an accurate picture of the totality of circumstances occurring. Primary Questions and Follow-Up Questions are asked in specific order and then relayed to field-responders in specific order to help paint a vivid picture of the incident.
Imagine with us for a moment that you are a police officer dispatched to an armed robbery that just occurred one-minute ago at a local Mini-Mart. While one dispatcher is still on the phone with the caller gathering information, another dispatcher is already starting to relay this information to you over the radio. There is a strong likelihood the suspect might still be in the area since this happened only one minute ago. This is a serious crime so you turn on your overhead lights and siren because you want to get there as quickly as possible.
The dispatcher will continue to update you with information via the radio. However, you need this information broadcast to you in a specific order to help you formulate a mental picture of what has occurred. It is the dispatcher’s responsibility to gather information by asking Primary and Follow-Up Questions, organize information received, and then broadcast it to you in the correct order so it helps you formulate an accurate picture of the incident and people involved.
This presents a unique challenge because most of the time dispatchers are working with several different incidents reported at the same time. Imagine again that armed robbery that just occurred. And now imagine a medical emergency, injury traffic collision, runaway juvenile, and a burglary report all happening at once. Dispatchers use priority call-taking protocols to determine where on the spectrum of response a reported incident will be prioritized. The incident’s priority usually depends on the type of incident it is (crime/general disturbance/report call) and the time delay in reporting (in-progress vs. several minutes/hours old).
When you call 911, dispatchers know that you most likely did so under extremely exigent circumstances. It can feel frustrating having to answer so many questions. Remember, dispatchers are typing as you answer and help can already be on the way to you even while you are still answering questions. Rest assured that the questions dispatchers ask are relevant, reasonable, and helpful to those who need it most. There is a method to the madness. Ultimately, they want to help you as best as they can and sometimes that means... One... More... Question.