July 29, 2011

The Literature Corner: 1-800...

This Literature Corner for this week is a tale of the sometimes dysfunctional relationship between patrol officers and dispatchers, and a case of divine, comic inspiration.


I was finishing up the last set of bench press reps in the weight room before beginning another patrol shift when that annoying commercial popped up on the TV again. It was the hearing aid commercial with the tag line call 1-800-MIRACLE EAR. I winced as the announcer droned the tag line for at least the 20th time in 30 seconds. I groaned the bar up and into place and shut the TV down. No one minded.

Early on it was obvious that it was going to be a really annoying shift. The Dispatch Center was training new dispatchers againstill--and it was as though they--and the cops on the street--were in alternate universes. Tempers were flaring and the only thing keeping the beleaguered cops from hustling into Dispatch with murder on their minds was that it was a day shift and it wasnt too busy, so we didnt have to rely too much upon Dispatch.

Dispatchers are literally the lifeline for cops and the public, particularly for police forces without mobile data terminals (MDTs--computers). Good dispatchers have a sense of whats happening out there in the real world and can anticipate what an officer might need next. They can do more than one thing at once, can prioritize calls, are calm, efficient and professional and are a joy to work with. Poor dispatchers cant do any of those things well, and some not at all. They range from annoying to actually dangerous.

Because dispatch pay is even worse than police pay (hard to imagine but true), and because the work is very stressful, people dont tend to stay in the job for very long. And as with most of the rest of the world, the best dispatchers are chased out by the mediocre. Only the truly horrendous tend to ever be fired, and usually only after their inability causes injury or it becomes painfully obvious--so obvious that it cant be ignored--that it will, and soon.

A slow dispatcher can blow cases, even put officers at risk. Sometimes, dispatching issues are literally life and death. Police lore is full of true stories of dispatchers receiving panicked calls from citizens whose homes were being burglarized, only to have the dispatchers forget or assign a low call priority, leaving victims to fend for themselves. Sometimes the victims are beaten, raped, even murdered. Talk about your basic public relations nightmare!

Tom Turnwait wasnt having a good day. Tom was a former Marine and a funny guy. A relatively new cop, Tom pretty much took things in stride. But for some reason, the dispatcher was extraordinarily slow in responding to every request Tom made. We all noticed it, but because dispatchers were hired and fired by another local governmental entity, we had no real control over them. The result was often citizens calling in and reporting police officers pulled over at the roadside, their faces bright red, their eyes bulging out and clouds of steam jetting from their ears, just like in the cartoons.

Tom finally had enough when he made a traffic stop.

Dispatch; Car 8, Tom said. No answer.

Dispatch; Car 8, Tom repeated calmly. STILL no answer.

Dispatch; CAR 8, Tom said again, aggravation creeping into his voice. No matter what they were doing, every cop in town was now listening more closely to the exchange.

DISPATCH; CAR 8! Tom was really annoyed, and with justification. He had pulled over a traffic violator and it would be unsafe for him to leave his car and approach theirs without Dispatch copying down his location and the plate number of the violator. If Tom got shot, wed have no idea where he was or who might have shot him. But if he waited too long, the violator would probably get out of their car and approach him. Not a good thing. Cops need to control their environment, and timing is a large part of that control.

Car 8; Car 10, I said. Go ahead, Ill cover you.

Thanks Car 10, Tom said, obviously relieved but still pretty upset. He gave me the location and license plate information and I copied it down on the notepad I kept on the top of the visor above my head. Because every other cop was convinced that the dispatcher didnt have a clue and wouldnt get one anytime soon, they would also copy it down in case Tom yelled for help or didnt check in within a few minutes. In case of trouble, Dispatch sure couldnt tell us where he was. In a few minutes, Tom tried again.

Dispatch; Car 8; registration check, Tom said, his voice back to normal. No answer.

DISPATCH; CAR 8; REGISTRATION CHECK! Tom was really hot. Finally, they caught on.

Uh, go ahead Car 8...

Tom read the license plate number, speaking very slowly and distinctly. By now,
every cop in town was paying close attention to the exchange. Most were shaking their heads in disgust. Tom finished reading the plate number.

Uh, could you repeat that Car 8? The dispatcher said.

Tom repeated it clearly, slowly, chewing each consonant and vowel, 2 Adam Boy, 3-6-9. Strangely, his voice was normal again.

Car 8, was that 2 Adam Boy 2-6-7?

2 Adam Boy 3-6-9, Tom said, his voice absolutely calm, steady and crystal clear.

2 Adam Dog, 2-6-5? Repeated the clueless dispatcher.

2 Aaaadummm Boeeee thuh-reeeee sicksssssssss nnniiiiiiuuuuuunnnnnnn, Tom said, exaggerating each sound.

Car 8, could you repeat that? The hapless dispatcher said. I was staring at my radio speaker in amazement. Thats when Tom received a burst of divine inspiration.

Dispatch; Car 8; ready to copy a phone number? Tom asked, supernaturally calm.

Go ahead Car 8. Amazing; they got it!

Absolutely deadpan, Tom said: 1-800-Miracle Ear.

Uh, could you repeat that Car 8?

All across town, bewildered citizens were treated to the spectacle of policemen abruptly pulling to the curb and literally laughing until they cried. The shift supervisor ordered Tom to meet him at the station, but he didnt give him too much trouble. After all, it was divinely inspired. How do you blame a guy for that? Tom was our hero for weeks.

Posted by MikeM at July 29, 2011 10:42 PM

Am ROFLMAO!!! Will definitely pass this on! Have HS friend who still works for Cheyenne PD, and a cousin with Campbell County Sheriff . . . plus a few dispatchers I know will get a kick out of it. Stories like this are the fun part about working as a consultant for Public Safety! You can't make this stuff up!! ;-)

Posted by: Nina at July 30, 2011 12:22 PM

The same goes for cops, as well as dispatchers the only extremely dangerous ones actually get fired. Makes the rest of the cops look irresponsible and ignorant of the constitution. My uncle recently was murdered by a drunk illegal immigrant, he was Azusa, CA pd.. A lieutenant I think, But when i went to the funeral it felt like a cult meeting basically they made it all about themselves and how "we take care of our own". What about the people and the constitution you took an oath to defend?

He also was the founder of the "explorers program" for young people who want to get a jump start to being in law enforcement, I'm not fond of authority or especially kid's indoctrination camp. But honestly it was a good thing, But after my uncle's death I read of 2 officers near LA who were on patrol with 2 underage girls in the Explorer program, Well they got caught making the girls give them oral sex.

Like i said I'm sure there's plenty of "Good" cops that obey their oath and carry themselves with morals and integrity, and my belief is that there are just as many "good" cops as there are the "bad" cops.

Posted by: KeplerTheSovereign at July 30, 2011 12:53 PM

Loved the story! A little frightening to think that some dispatchers are so inept.
I do feel the need to comment on your statement "Because dispatchers pay is even worse than police pay....". Perhaps some police officers need to come to Tucson to work! Of the 200 highest paid city employees in Tucson, 105 are police officers. All make over $100,000 a year. Included in the top 200 are all judges, attorneys, City Administrator, etc. I don't mean to doubt the officer's worth, but they don't seem to be doing too badly here! Several Sergeants make $123,00+.

Posted by: carol at July 30, 2011 09:53 PM

One thing you run into, some places and frequencies you get a LOT of interference when sunspot activity is up. And, be it said, there's an 'ear' for working radio traffic: some have it, some can develop it, some never get it. I had a hell of a time on some calls for about three months, then it was like a switch was thrown: I could understand almost ANYTHING that came over the radio.

But I caught hell a couple of times during that three months.

Posted by: Firehand at July 31, 2011 11:04 AM