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Who answers when you call 911?

Last week. I had the opportunity to tour the Allegheny County/ City of Pittsburgh 911 Center, although I’m sure the official name is different than that. The Zone 5 Public Safety group set up the tour and it was really awesome. I was looking forward to the tour for two reasons. First, everything I can understand about the whole public safety, network, the better, and the 911 Center is clearly an essential part of the whole system. I also  really cared to learn about 911 process because of the role it plays,as the point of contact when any LGBTQ person calls for police or other assistance.

There is a perception among some within the LGBTQ community, that the Police (and possibly this refers to all public safety officers) don’t treat us very well.  We can’t count on them, they treat us differently because we are gay; they are a part of our oppressors as opposed to protecting us. I know of folks who can offer proof to this as well as folks who can disprove it. I’m not personally interested in that debate. In most every controversy, where a group of people are deemed as all good or all bad, the reality is usually somewhere in the middle. But what about that contact point, the 911 center where a call connects and is dispatched? That point of the whole process is a point worth understanding.

I think many people have no clue as to the complexity of the 911 center and how a call is handled from start to finish. It isn’t anything like I was expecting.  There are banks of computers where all the phone calls come in and get answered. The number of these stations varies based on the time of day, and the staffing is such to make it as possible as can be to answer every call as quickly as possible. If you call and are placed in a queue, don’t hang up and call back, or it will place you farther down in the queue. The dispatcher has specific questions that s/he will ask, and to expedite the call, answer the questions rather than try and tell them what has happened. The single most important piece of data, is the address of the emergency. The dispatcher will request this before taking any other information, and if you feel frustrated, that the dispatcher is asking you questions, try and relax and let them do their job. It will speed  the assistance to you. Once the basic info has been collected by the dispatcher, he determines what type of help needs to be dispatched, and he switches the call over to a different bank of dispatchers, who have specific roles, such as dispatching based on the police zone, or fire or the EMS. The answering dispatcher remains on the call, and various persons also help depending upon the type and urgency of the emergency. In the time we were there for the tour,there were 2 police chases one culminating in a crash and a fire, a fire, a baby to be delivered, and a few other issues.

There are 1.5 million calls a year. Each and every call is treated as important and urgent, and it takes a very special type of person to be a dispatcher. The training is long and rigorous, with every person going trough training, then supervised work, then only after they have proved their calm and capability, are they on their own. Even after they are on their own, no call happens in a vacuum and there are always multiple dispatchers paying attention.

I asked 2 questions related to LGBTQ concerns. The first had to deal with what a gay bashing victim is told by a 911 dispatcher.  A few years ago a victim told me that he had been told to stay put at the place of the attack and wait for the police. This made him feel vulnerable and unprotected. I asked how they determine what they tell a person and what procedures are used to adapt what they say. I have much to write about this, so I’ll leave it for a follow-up post.

The other question occurred as I listened to a dispatcher taking information from a caller.  He was asking a question about gender- was some person a male or a female? I wondered what training the dispatchers had, and how they handled transgender persons? The manager of the Center who was providing the tour, turned the question over to one of their trainers, who happens to be gay. You can probably imagine the answer. The ease with which gender and orientation was discussed showed how open and comfortable these individuals are with diversity Dispatchers are well trained about diversity and well versed in treating every caller with the same level of respect and support.

In our group (remember this was the Zone 5 Public Safety Group) there was an older couple who don’t hear the words gay and lesbian very much I would guess.  Not that they had a problem with it, because they didn’t. But the more words like, lesbian, gay, and trans get used in conversation around a mix of people, the more our identities will seem like a natural part of the whole of our society.

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