Forensic Review

Eric Harne

Eric Harne

Best Practices

The forensic examination of 911 calls can provide us with valuable insights regarding caller and emergency dispatcher interactions. This is especially true when it comes to those involving criminal or civil liability against emergency dispatchers and/or the entities they represent because of inadequate training and/or policy violations. Sometimes a policy violation can stem from something as simple as an angry response to a caller.

The following case recounts such an outburst and the ramifications for the emergency dispatcher and his police department.

In August 2008 in the Midwest (USA), a police sergeant was working the 911 desk when he received a frantic call from a 17-year-old female. Her father had undergone brain surgery three weeks earlier, and on the day of the call he had fallen and had a seizure. According to the caller, she called 911 and no one answered, so she tried again. By the second call she was frantic, and the following is the recorded exchange between her and the sergeant:

Caller:    What the f**k? (Surprised that no one is answering)

Sergeant:  911.

Caller:     I need an ambulance at (provides her address).

Sergeant:  Well, first of all, you don’t need to swear over 911 and slow down.

Caller:    OK. Send me a f*****g ambulance!

Unbelievably, the sergeant hangs up on her. She calls back.

Sergeant:   911.

Caller:     Are you going to give me an ambulance?

Sergeant:   Are you going to swear again, you stupid a**?

Caller:     Are we going to have a f*****g problem?

Sergeant:   No! You’re not going to get one!

Caller:     Do you want to f*****g lose your job?

Once again, the sergeant hangs up. She calls back.

Sergeant:   911. 

Caller:     I just want to know what’s your name because you’re getting sued. 

Sergeant:   Good!

Caller:     What is it?

Sergeant:   Good! Good for you ’cause you’re a buffoon!

Caller:     Send the f*****g ambulance!

The sergeant hangs up a third time, but eventually calls the rescue squad to get help for the caller’s father.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. The teenage caller went directly to the police station and confronted the sergeant about the call. He arrested her for disorderly conduct and abuse of the 911 system. When the dust cleared, the sergeant was given a 10-day unpaid suspension and ordered to attend anger management classes. The charges against the caller were dropped, and her family received a $35,000 settlement from the city.

The irony of this case is that the sergeant was a 20-year veteran of the police department, considered a good officer, and had received citations of merit with no prior disciplinary actions against him. For whatever reason—and perhaps it was something as simple as having a bad day—he mishandled the call and it quickly spiraled out of control. The sergeant’s behavior was so egregious that when he filed a grievance through his union against the disciplinary action, an outside arbitrator upheld it. 

This incident may appear to be an extreme example of emergency dispatcher misconduct, but during any given year, violations of policies and protocols do occur and can be subject to legal scrutiny and analysis.

The most sobering part of this case is that the negative outcomes could have easily been avoided had the sergeant simply not been offended by bad language. Yet there are emergency dispatchers who respond to a caller using profanity by saying, “First of all, sir, you don’t need to be cursing at me, I’m just here to help!” Not only is that an inappropriate response, but it could also lead the emergency dispatcher down a path from which there is no return.  

I have written about the Angry Customer Protocol (ACP) in a past issue of The Journal of Emergency Dispatch. It encourages emergency dispatchers to follow its five simple rules to avoid the pitfalls of an emotional reaction to a caller:

  • Rule #1: There will always be angry/irritated customers.
  • Rule #2: They will often use insulting language.
  • Rule #3: Emergency dispatchers can’t change Rules #1 and #2.
  • Rule #4: Dodge the insults and grab the facts.
  • Rule #5: Resolve the problem!

Imagine the rules in a pyramid structure (see figure below), with Rule #1 serving as the base and the subsequent rules building upon each other until reaching the final goal of resolving the problem—without falling into the trap the sergeant did. In other words, it’s critical to respond rather than react.

Responding means the emergency dispatcher is self-regulating and in control, while reacting is a demonstration of unfettered emotion that can derail the entire caller/emergency dispatcher process. And when the process crumbles, unwanted consequences often follow. It’s a situation that most 911 call centers could avoid if emergency dispatchers would simply follow the rules of the ACP and not take things so personally. Our job is to always help, not hinder.

Angry Customer Protocol (ACP) Pyramid