Ensuring Trust in 911

Edward Trefts

Edward Trefts

Jenny Hurst

Jenny Hurst

Chris Olola, Ph.D
Director, Biomedical Informatics & Research (IAED)

by Edward Trefts and Jenny Hurst

The Public Trust

Public institutions like 911 depend on social trust. Without it, members of the public would not call Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) staffed by strangers in their moments of greatest need. Social trust manifests as a set of beliefs: These unknown persons will be competent and unbiased. They will treat patients or victims with dignity. And when they answer the phone, these strangers will work with callers to achieve a common goal—timely and appropriate assistance.1

If there were no trust in public safety institutions, people would never call 911. Instead they would seek help from their personal networks, relying on people with whom they have already established trust.

Ideally, the public’s trust in 911 would be ensured by simply providing the exemplary service you render every day as emergency dispatchers. However, the public’s trust depends on more than just your actions. Though you work locally, public perception is formed both locally and nationally. News of tragedies involving 911 can quickly spread, causing powerful ripple effects.2

Consider the recent murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man in police custody. This event sparked outrage and protests throughout the world. Though the incident was local, the ramifications were global with impassioned protests to end police brutality spreading to over 60 countries. Fairly or unfairly, the wrongful actions of those officers and the perceived failure of the law to hold them accountable eroded the world’s trust in the public safety system and paved the way for this moment of social unrest.

The example of George Floyd illustrates the common fear that when police arrive on the scene, they will violently escalate the situation. But it is important to keep in mind that mistrust in 911 is not the same as fear of police aggression. There are many nuances in public perceptions of 911, and different communities will likely emphasize specific fears or challenges.

Finding Fear and Mistrust in Local Communities

About two years before the tragic death of George Floyd, the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED) conducted focus groups with six diverse populations throughout Salt Lake County, Utah, USA. These groups were selected based on research that suggested “racial or ethnic-group” or “socioeconomic” disparities in health outcomes related to public safety services.3,4 With the invaluable assistance of representatives from Tongan American, Black, LGBTQ, Hispanic, Native American, and African Immigrant communities, we set out to learn more about attitudes, barriers, and expectations surrounding calling 911. In short, we wanted to gain insight into why these disparities exist.

Through frank and enlightening discussions with community members, we learned that despite obvious cultural differences, the groups held strikingly similar attitudes, the most crucial being that these diverse communities lacked trust in 911.

In many cases, the mistrust we documented was related to fear or anxiety—arguably you cannot truly have confidence in something that you are afraid of. Community members were afraid of being wrongfully arrested or becoming the target of disrespect, mistreatment, or even violence from responders.

However, their mistrust was not always connected to fear. Many community members also had little confidence in the effectiveness of 911 service, believing their calls for help would be met with neglect rather than timely aid.

Whether they were members of Black, Tongan American, or LGTBQ communities, our study participants generally worried that such treatment would be a result of their perceived identities—what they happened to look like, where they were from, or how they spoke. In other words, they worried about being victims of discrimination. Some of these anxieties were tied to participants’ personal experiences or stories heard from acquaintances and others were associated with viral videos shared on social media or the news.

911 is supposed to be the institution that makes people feel safer. But for many voices in these communities, 911 makes people feel less safe.

Ways to Build Trust

Listening to affected communities and becoming aware of these problems are only the first steps towards creating meaningful change. You also need to act. The following are recommendations for dispatch agencies on how to cultivate trust with the diverse communities they serve. These suggestions were offered by our study participants.

Cultural Training

Cultural training helps emergency dispatchers identify any cultural differences that might arise while interacting with the public, then provides them with the necessary skills to address these differences. Research has suggested that cultural training can help to close the gap in health outcomes between advantaged and disadvantaged communities.5

When we spoke with participants, many saw diversity training as a way for public safety workers to better understand their own communities and build trust. Additionally, some thought that this cultural training should directly involve community members to strengthen relationships between public safety workers and the public.

Hire Diverse Candidates

Members of the community were concerned that their unique identities were not adequately represented in the emergency services workforce. Therefore, they wanted ECCs to recruit more diverse candidates.

The motivation behind this recommendation is simple: When you feel like members of your community are part of the public safety system, you are more likely to think that system will treat you fairly.

911 Service Education

Community members had numerous questions about 911 services. In particular, the discussions revealed many gaps in their knowledge about the relationship between emergency dispatchers and police officers, with some focus group participants showing little awareness of the difference between these two vital public service roles.

Given this lack of understanding, participants emphasized the importance of 911 education both in and outside schools to better understand and effectively utilize emergency services. Educating the public that emergency dispatchers receive rigorous training and follow a strict protocol designed to minimize bias will help callers feel more confident reaching out when they need assistance.

Also, participants frequently believed that calls to 911 are handled by the police. Therefore, educating the public about the significant differences between the roles of emergency dispatchers and police officers is crucial.

Moving Forward

If your center is using medical, fire, or police protocols, then it is already meeting an exceptionally high standard of public service that should be recognized. By the same token, if your center is hiring more diverse workers or developing effective 911 service education, be sure to publicize these activities to your community. The public won’t know about these important efforts unless you do some outreach.

Outreach involves connecting with your local communities. You can start by reaching out to fire, police, and ambulance services in your area. Work with them to offer tours of the dispatch center, firehouse, police precinct, and ambulance hub. With COVID-19 disrupting public gatherings for the foreseeable future, you could work with these partner agencies to create Zoom tours or videos you post online. Putting a face with the titles of “emergency dispatcher,” “officer,” “EMT,” or “firefighter” humanizes the work you do and allows community members to ask questions and provide feedback.

Not sure where to start? Reach out to your local government office—they can connect you to influential non-profit and community group leaders.

Our Promise

The IAED is committed to providing you with resources to support your outreach efforts. In the coming months, we will be releasing a series of resources, including an Outreach Toolkit, college lesson, and podcast episode to help guide your outreach efforts to diverse communities in your area.

We here at the Academy appreciate your amazing effort in creating meaningful change within emergency dispatching. Now, let’s continue improving the public’s trust in 911 so that all communities feel confident calling for help.

1. Misztal B. “Trust in Modern Societies: The Search for the Bases of Social Order.” Polity Press; 1996.
2. Morin R, Parker K, Stepler R, Mercer A. “Police, fatal encounters, and ensuing protests.” Pew Research Center website. 2017; Jan. 11. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/01/11/police-fatal-encounters-and-ensuing-protests/ (accessed July 7, 2020).
3. Sasson C, Haukoos JS, Ben-Youssef L, Ramirez L, Bull S, Eigel B, Magid DJ, Padilla R. “Barriers to Calling 911 and Learning and Performing Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation for Residents of Primarily Latino, High-Risk Neighborhoods in Denver, Colorado.” Annals of Emergency Medicine. 2015; 65(5): 545-552.
4. Sasson C, Magid DJ, Chan P, Root ED, McNally BF, Kellermann AL, Houkoos JS. “Association of Neighborhood Characteristics with Bystander-Initiated CPR.” N Engl J Med. 2012;367(17):1607-15.
5. Downing R, Kowel E. "Putting indigenous training into nursing practice." Contemporary Nurse. 2011; 37(1): 10-20.

Edward Trefts is a Research and Technical Writer at IAED.

Combining her passion for travel and international development, Jenny has worked at nonprofits around the world. From participating in peace-building efforts in Northern Uganda to working toward the nonproliferation of chemical weapons in The Hague and closing student achievement gaps in the Bronx, Jenny loves learning about and communicating across cultures. Her current role is Community Outreach Coordinator at the IAED™.