OPINION: Dispatchers are highly specialized in that 911 moment

Let's imagine (notice, I said, "imagine") that you are driving down the road and see someone in another car jump out and start shooting at everyone driving by, hitting some and making others have a wreck. So, what do you do? Yep! You call 911 immediately and make sure you are not in the line of fire. You're safe, but a lot of other people are either wounded or killed, and the shooter is still shooting. How do you stop this killing and maiming? And, who's in charge?

Believe it or not, the above scenario happens all the time, not necessarily with the details of a terrible shooting incident like the one listed above, but involving a serious situation that needs someone to help, and fast.

When a 911 call is made, the response is not directly with a law enforcement officer; it first goes into what we call dispatch, a group of men and women hidden from view and normally not known. The men and women in dispatch handle at least 95% of all the calls coming into law enforcement offices through 911 calls. They have to understand the call, evaluate its severity, and then send out -- e.g. dispatch -- appropriate law enforcement personnel. They "dispatch" officers. So, who are these men and women handling the dispatch office?

First of all, they usually are not located at the police station or the sheriff's office. They normally are located in another facility somewhere else. Those facilities have to have adequate communication equipment which is separate from the communication systems people use. For instance, if there is a severe storm and the electricity is knocked out, there is a great need for law enforcement personnel (and emergency responders) to communicate with one another in order to handle emergencies. That kind of communication involves having backup generators for electricity, a special frequency for radio transmissions, and the proper kind of communication equipment.

Secondly, dispatching requires a lot of specialized training. There are computer skills, learning law enforcement programs, and security protocols. It really is not possible to just hire someone off the street and hope he or she works out while learning. There have been too many situations where a dispatcher has made a serious mistake and people's lives were put in jeopardy. When someone calls 911, there are a wide range of ways that the calls come in. Some people are very logical and clearly state the facts; others are so hysterical that they make no sense at all. Somehow the dispatcher has to sort through these calls and make the correct determination. It's radically different to receive a call about a raccoon in the garage chasing people than an active shooter maiming and killing people.

Third, there is a high level of security involved. Dispatchers have access to both the personal data of Arkansas (ACIC – Arkansas Crime Information Center) and the national data for almost everyone in the United States (NCIC – National Crime Information Center). In addition, dispatchers have access to all of the emergency numbers, and have no problem reaching any of the national agencies they need for information. It normally takes a dispatcher about as long to run someone's personal history as it does for a law enforcement person to call it in. Also, because of the personal security information involved, no one is allowed to enter the dispatch 0ffice unless they have received special training. I used to stop by to minister to the dispatchers, but I had to take a special course in order to do so even as a sworn chaplain.

So, the question about who is in charge is a little complicated. When an emergency call comes into the dispatch office, the dispatcher on duty is in charge and makes many important decisions in a matter of seconds. However, once law enforcement personnel have been dispatched to the emergency scene, they are in charge; and, at that point, even dispatchers are required to answer to them. Depending upon the emergency situation, it is normal for the first responder to be in charge, but in many situations today that burden is passed along to the law enforcement officer with the highest rank.

Dispatching is a very specialized field, and we should do well to recognize the importance of our dispatchers when we place a 911 call.