Thursday, April 9, 2009

Problems with 911 Emergencies

I read a number of stories the last couple of days about 911 and the Pittsburgh police shooting. When the 911 call was made, the dispatcher was informed that the soon-to-be killer was armed. But the dispatcher wrote "no weapons" in her report. Police thought they were responding to a domestic disturbance call and walked into the ambush. 911 is a useful service to have, but there are all too many horror stories involving dispatchers who are either careless, or just don't take the job seriously enough. I've had one experience of my own with the service.

Back when I was in graduate school, one night after dark, my wife and I heard a woman screaming for help out in the parking lot of our apartment complex. Nothing like that had ever happened before, and it sounded like real screams, not someone just messing around. I quickly called 911 and explained the situation to the operator. She said she would notify the police right way. I picked up a gun and headed outside in case I could do anything, expecting police to arrive any minute. The nearest station was about five minutes away. The screaming had stopped and I couldn't find anything. I stood out in the parking lot waiting for the police. And I kept waiting. It took them about twenty minutes to arrive.

I never did find out if anything actually happened. Maybe the screaming was nothing serious, but it definitely sounded bad. Whatever happened would have been long over by the time the police got there. I don't know why the response time was so long, and whether it was the fault of the 911 operator or the police. But if I'm ever screaming for help and someone calls 911, I hope it doesn't take twenty minutes to get the police to drive down the street and check it out.

According to one jobs information site, the average salary for 911 operators throughout the U.S. is $39,000. Considering how much is riding on them, and the importance of their judgment when evaluating & reacting to calls, that seems low to me. Standards for operators should be high, and quality 911 operators should be well-compensated.

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