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The Need for Police Protocol Research

Mar 01, 2013|AEDR 2013 Vol. 1 Issue 1|
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The most pressing question in dispatch research, and in particular police dispatch, is: How can we accurately measure event outcomes?

Police calltaking and dispatch is perhaps the least measured of all emergency call processing methodologies. Traditionally, police organizations view the communications center as playing a minor role in event outcomes. This could not be further from the truth. There is no shortage of call examples where the lack of information regarding a police event (i.e. not enough good information collected at the time of calltaking) has had a significant negative impact on the event outcomes. It is in the police communications centers that have adopted structured calltaking and dispatch protocols that vast improvements in both the accuracy and quality of event information have been realized. Unfortunately, the missing link is the yet to be studied impact of dispatch center actions on every element of a police call.

For example, there is no question that inaccurate information such as the lack of a clear (or no) suspect description seriously reduces the chance of apprehension. In my own personal experience as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer (1972-1995), there were numerous instances when on my way to a call, I drove right past the suspect vehicle or the actual suspect. In those days, the police communication center gathered only rudimentary information prior to dispatch. General information such as address, name of caller, and call type was the only information provided to responders. I believe that in dispatch centers that do not use a structured protocol, this situation remains largely unchanged.

And when it comes to scene safety, many times the decision to ask about the presence of weapons is left up to the discretion of the calltaker. Risks of this magnitude can no longer be tolerated by any law enforcement agency.

Police organizations were the last public safety entities to adopt a structured approach to call processing. Up until 2001, structured protocols for police calltaking and dispatch did not exist. The International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) police protocol has existed since 2001, yet during my years as a Priority Dispatch Corp (PDC) Police Consultant, I heard many comments from the police community about why a structured protocol in law enforcement call processing won't work. The most common reasons offered are:

  • Police calls are too broad in nature for a protocol to work
  • Police calls are too specific in nature for a protocol to work
  • We need to be able to customize it to our own agency
  • Police calls here are different because we are a small agency
  • Police calls here are different because we are a large agency
  • We have been doing just fine here without protocols
  • I have been doing this job for many years and do not need a protocol to know what to do
  • This looks like too much information
  • We want to be able to ask our own questions
  • And so on and so on and so on.

Indeed, it has been a journey to introduce structured calltaking protocols to the law enforcement community. For many reasons, it was far easier to rationalize the use of Emergency Medical Dispatch protocol systems. Forty years ago, the need to provide life-saving emergency medical pre-arrival instructions was considered too risky and communication centers, as well as responders, worried about liability issues. Gradually, the principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch proved to be an effective use of medical protocol to save lives, and now it is a legislated requirement in most jurisdictions. Emergency Medical Dispatch has never looked back.

Police and Fire protocols, however, have proven more difficult to accept, not only by communication centers, but by firefighters and law enforcement personnel as well. The introduction of Emergency Fire Dispatch protocols over the past decade has seen less resistance as many of the fire suppression agencies provide EMD services, and there is now a general acceptance and understanding of the use of structured calltaking protocols. Emergency Police Dispatch protocols are another story.

Although in today's public safety arena it is well understood that accurate information is essential in all police events, there is still a lack of understanding of how structured protocols mitigate most of the problematic issues facing police calltaking and dispatch. The cause of this situation rests squarely on the shoulders of police management. Police agencies are notorious for adopting a "hands-off" approach to communication center operations. Quality assurance is, at best, a measurement of caller satisfaction and little else. In other words, call review and calltaker remediation occur only when a call has gone wrong. And it is only when a call has gone horribly wrong that an analysis of calltaking and dispatch processes occurs. Even then, police management tends to make uninformed, "knee-jerk," and generally poorly-researched business decisions to try to improve call processing.

Another contributing factor is the resistance of police telecommunicators to adopting structured calltaking and dispatch protocols. It has been my experience that when faced with a protocol implementation, telecommunicators start dredging up a litany of reasons as to why structured protocols are not a good idea. Everything from "police calls are all different" to "I have been doing this job for twenty years and have managed just fine without protocols" is presented as an argument against protocols. Unfortunately, management often buys into these reasons, mostly to appease the telecommunicators and not "upset the apple cart." The irony is that once telecommunicators are required to use a well-designed protocol, and an effective quality assurance program is established, the rationale for using protocols becomes evident to most participants.

One thing remains constant in all of this: Structured protocols greatly improve the standard of care and practice in the delivery of emergency services. The quality and consistency of police call processing, when properly supported by a standards process, cannot be overstated. Perhaps the biggest advantage of a structured protocol system in a police environment is the "safety-net" factor. In most police communication centers, there are certain call types that present themselves at a higher frequency than other call types. In the absence of protocol, telecommunicators become very practiced in the processing of high frequency call types. In short, in the absence of protocol, practice makes perfect. Although this approach to training and call processing has been accepted over the years, the problem of "that one call" coming in (the one the telecommunicator has never experienced) creates a significant risk to both the caller and the agency. Fumbling through a procedural binder trying to find out what to do in the heat of the call is completely unacceptable in today's communications environment. The notion of a protocol delivering when the need is there must be appreciated by police management and communications staff alike. And agencies that have achieved success in the use of Emergency Medical Dispatch, Emergency Fire Dispatch, and Emergency Police Dispatch call processing systems must be held up as examples to all public safety agencies as well as the citizens they serve.

Today, the science of police calltaking and dispatch is begging to be researched. Current Records Management Systems (RMS) used in police statistics management do not lend themselves to measuring police event outcomes. As mentioned earlier, there is little information available concerning the impact structured protocols have on police call processing and event outcomes; however, there are currently enough agencies using EPD that the time has come for the next step in establishing the value of structured protocol in a police environment. The requisite step that needs to be taken is the analysis of areas of interest such as suspect apprehension rates, missing child recovery rates, officer-involved injuries, call-related civilian safety improvements (i.e., the use of Pre-Arrival Instructions), call processing times, efficiencies in relation to telecommunicator training, employee attrition rates, employee satisfaction and morale, and the effectiveness of quality assurance and improvement programs.

Emergency Medical Dispatch research has evolved over the years and many aspects of the protocol, as well as patient outcomes, have been investigated. Today, with the steady proliferation of Emergency Police Dispatch, it is very timely that the IAED are organizing to look inside police agencies to further research and evaluate the use of structured protocol, and begin assembling the pieces of the puzzle that will remove all doubt as to the value of trained EPDs using a structured protocol in police environments.