June 12, 2014
By Tracey Barron
Police dispatch research has been one of our greatest challenges.
The law enforcement mindset is hard to change because of a perception that resists change.1 “We have always done it this way, and it works,” is the message we commonly hear or take away from agencies long-serving familiar communities.
The “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude implies that something is working so well that attempts to improve it would only break the process. A “leave-it-alone” philosophy might have worked in the emergency communication services of the past, but not today. Change happens rapidly and to ignore reality flies in the face of quality improvement and performance.
That says, in a nutshell, why police and fire dispatch research is essential. What worked a decade ago or even five years ago is probably not generating the level of quality that modifications in the system could produce.
But before we suggest topics requiring further research, we need to demonstrate to more police agencies the crucial need for emergency dispatch protocol. We need to identify and validate the benefits that outweigh a reluctance we can attribute to misperceptions in the process. There’s a belief that questions will prolong response times or, in broad terms, agencies claim the questions hamper their cut to the chase.
Protocol does get to the point without wasting time—and agencies using the Police Protocol can testify to that. However, to confirm the advantages, we would welcome research comparing average time of dispatch between Police Protocol users and non-users. Obviously, we know there are other benefits that agencies rip from the use of protocol, e.g., quality data collection in terms of data completeness and accuracy. Consistency in collecting data is also a huge benefit that unified protocols provide as well. Additionally, the collected data is also readily available to users to immediately inform effective decision making.
Reality on the ground would go a long way in laying to rest misconceptions and clarifying the communication process developed to safeguard the public and responders while, at the same time, getting the situation under control.
Topics for police dispatch research only grow from there. For example, most agencies capture data but the capture tends to stagnate—the categories stay the same—or the captured data stored is seldom analyzed. Agencies would benefit from taking a closer look at the current data collection and, if necessary, updating the categories according to agency objectives that tend to change in each administration.
For example, Chris Knight illustrates in his article1 that one of the most pressing problems in police dispatch is identifying the amount of time elapsing between the initial call receipt in the communication center to the dispatch of responders.
An interesting column in the Wall Street Journal addressed this very issue.
According to Carl Bialik, response times (how long it takes for police officers to respond in person to a 9-1-1 call) are a staple of law enforcement measurement, at least for political reasons; politicians want the data (as long as it’s good data) as evidence of the success in their police initiatives.2
However, according to Bialik, law enforcement experts and police chiefs don’t say much about police success beyond response in terms of speeding to the scene—and every city wants the fastest response times possible. Yet as Bialik also points out, response times “don’t even do a particularly good job of measuring that, partly because of inconsistencies in how local departments define the measure.”
Agencies don’t have the technology in place to track response time using the same technology. And even if they did, a multitude of factors can get in the way of response time, including traffic congestion, weather, and (according to an article in American Police Beat) getting proper information from dispatchers to officers.3
Now doesn’t that tell you something? We need to get the word out. We need to conduct the research.
The Academy looks forward to the day when it has the police data sufficient for replication studies. Researchers delight in preliminary findings that stand up to repeated research. This is validation. γ
1Knight C. Research and the Realities of Police Dispatch. Ann Emerg Disp Resp 2013; 1(2):5.
2Carl Bialik, Giving No Time To Misleading Police Stats, http://blogs.wsj.com/numbersguy/response-times-detroit-giving-no-time-to... Aug. 2, 2013; accessed Dec. 10, 2013.
3Response times – city to city, American Police Beat, Dec. 1, 2010; accessed Dec. 11, 2013, http://apbweb.com/featured-articles/1188-response-times-city-to-city.html.