Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Case Exit

By Audrey Fraizer

Editor’s Note: Welcome to Case Exit, a new column that will appear on the last page of each issue of The Journal. The column will advance emergency communications through articles describing trends in the industry, what other agencies are up to, progress of Next Generation 9-1-1, and—a favorite fall back—history of the system. We kick off the series with a column highlighting the Massachusetts’ Silent Call Procedure. We are certainly open to ideas and articles and invite your submissions to The Journal’s Managing Editor at audrey.fraizer@emergencydispatch.org.

A silent call in Massachusetts has all the characteristics and potential to make it anything but ordinary, but it took the final touch of social media to make it really stand out in a crowd.

“Facebook and Twitter are giving it a lot of attention,” said Monna Wallace, Director of Programs, Massachusetts State 911 Department. “People who have never heard of it or had forgotten about it are now learning about this lifesaving tool.”

In March, the Massachusetts State Police posted the long-standing news about the Silent Call Procedure on its Facebook page, and in 24 hours there were 1.5 million hits on the post; 676 people had signaled thumbs-up (“Like” us) to something new to most of them.

Posts have been mostly positive and in line with the following: “Thank you for this. I am sharing”; “This is the first time I ever heard this. Thank you for letting us know”; and “I have made a copy for my purse. Thank you.”

The positive response on social media prompted the Massachusetts State 911 Department to take the social media plunge and open a Twitter account.

The Silent Call Procedure allows 9-1-1 callers to communicate without saying a word. When a dispatcher is met by silence on the other end of the line at any 9-1-1 Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) in Massachusetts, the dispatcher can prompt the caller to press 1 for Police, 2 for Fire, or 3 for an Ambulance on their touch-tone phone (landline or wireless).

The button the caller presses displays on the dispatcher’s screen and, from there, the dispatcher can gather more information using the extended numbering system prompting the caller to press 4 for Yes and 5 for No. Callers knowing how to use the Silent Call Procedure can begin the process by pressing numbers when the dispatcher answers their call.

The procedure was introduced over 20 years ago after a group representing people with disabilities approached the department to create a feature that would assist a person unable to communicate with requesting emergency services. As Wallace explained, the state was in the late stages of deploying E9-1-1 and agreed to look into the request.

“After some research we found that if the caller pressed numbers on a touch-tone phone, the numbers would appear on the 9-1-1 screen for the dispatcher to see,” Wallace said.

The Silent Call Procedure has exceeded its initial expectations, said Wallace, who has seen the advent of many changes during her 20 years with the department.

Dispatchers are trained to use the procedure for any emergency in which the caller is unable to communicate, including domestic violence and home invasions, and for people with disabilities. The procedure can be invaluable in these situations.

In March, a Waltham, Mass., dispatcher effectively used the procedure to help a boy who was home alone and hiding in a closet after hearing someone break into the house. The dispatcher gathered information leading to the boy’s safety and the suspect’s apprehension.

The feature has become a department staple. Each time the department upgrades its 9-1-1 system, the Silent Call Procedure has remained. It is covered extensively during training as part of the state’s program mandating minimum training requirements for 9-1-1 dispatchers.

Wallace is well acquainted with 9-1-1 operations. She started her career working for a small police department when she answered a “help wanted” ad in 1984 and was hired to dispatch emergency calls using a three-phone and numbering system. A red phone rang for fire and ambulance; a blue phone rang for police; and a white phone rang for business. She rose to become supervisor and, at the same time, a part-time police officer.

She accepted a position with the state in 1994 while E9-1-1 was going statewide.

“I thought that E9-1-1 was the best tool ever handed to public safety,” she said. “An address with a phone call made all the difference. Now with wireless call volumes exceeding wireline call volumes, we are seeing progress for locating those calls as well.”

And as in the past, the Massachusetts State 911 Department is advancing along another new era in communications as it prepares to deploy Next Generation 9-1-1 and the ability to text to 9-1-1.

Wallace is a 20-year veteran of the Massachusetts State 911 Department and is responsible for overseeing the training department, public education, and the MassRelay and Massachusetts Equipment Distribution (MassEDP) programs.

Despite the role Facebook might have played in promoting silent calling, the Massachusetts State 911 Department coordinates a successful and continuous education campaign. Material relevant to 9-1-1 communications available online includes public education kits for kids and forms individuals can voluntarily complete to designate accommodations necessary in an emergency.

“Whenever there’s an opportunity for 9-1-1 public awareness, we’re there,” Wallace said.

As detailed on the department’s website, MassEDP provides sliding income-based access to telephones for residents with permanent disabilities related to hearing, sight, speech, and cognitive thinking. The telephone device designed for people with cognitive disabilities, for example, features photo-memory buttons and voice clarity to make every word clear and free of distortion. The wireline phone operates even when power is down.

MassRelay provides help and equipment (text telephone, TTY) for people with hearing or speech disabilities to communicate over regular telephone lines. A Relay Operator (OPR) completes the call and stays on the line to relay messages electronically via a TTY or verbally to people who can hear. The OPRs provide exact transcriptions of the exchange, unless the caller directs otherwise.

Note: The Silent Call Procedure may not work with 9-1-1 systems in other states.