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What school leaders need to know about 9-1-1 operations

9-1-1 is a critical component of an effective active shooter response plan


Beyond understanding the need to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency, many people are not familiar with how emergency dispatch works. Unfortunately, this is also true for many school administrators who are tasked with evaluating and implementing technologies and procedures for use in active shooter scenarios.

It is strongly encouraged that school administrators work closely with their local law enforcement agency and 9-1-1 center to develop a solution that works best for their specific situation. With this in mind, the following are a few key points to consider.

In the United States, 9-1-1 calls are routed based on the caller’s location to one of approximately 6,400 public safety answering points (PSAPs). Depending on a school’s locality, 9-1-1 calls from different facilities in a district may go to one or more different PSAPs. Those calls are answered by professionals trained to quickly analyze the situation and dispatch the correct resources to the correct location.

The 9-1-1 call-taker /dispatcher answering the call has access to all of the different responders in the area (law enforcement, fire and EMS) via radio and other communication tools. Many centers also have tracking systems which allow the dispatcher to see locations and statuses of all those responders in real time.

Most don’t realize that within seconds of receiving a call for help, and while still asking questions of the caller to better ascertain the situation, the dispatcher is already directing the necessary resources to the scene of the incident and engaging others are needed. It is important to understand that 9-1-1 is effectively “incident command” for the length of most active shooter scenarios (the average lasting less than 12 minutes). 9-1-1 is skillfully coordinating the response as units arrive on scene, assess the situation, report back and request additional resources.

(Next page: Three important considerations for school safety)

There are three key points regarding the dispatching of first responders which should be carefully evaluated with local 9-1-1 and public safety agencies when considering a safety solution for a school:

1.  Call 9-1-1 Directly

Interfering with someone’s ability to communicate directly with 9-1-1 delays response and adds confusion. Direct verbal communication with 9-1-1 is ideal. In order to effectively manage the response, it is critical that the PSAP have direct communication with those involved in the incident that can provide real-time information.

Alarm interfaces are helpful in providing a warning but do not provide the level of “eye witness” information needed to most effectively coordinate response. Solutions that impede direct communication with 9-1-1 via a third party monitoring center, or first go through a school administrative contact, are also discouraged. Direct communication is the fastest and most effective way to get the right resources dispatched in the most expedient manner.

In some locales, landline and mobile phones may actually route to different PSAPs, affecting the response process. When determining a response plan for a school (or business, for that matter), coordinating with 9-1-1 and public safety to understand how calls are routed locally, as well as understanding response procedures, will significantly enhance the response should an incident occur.

2.  Self Dispatching is Strongly Discouraged

Self dispatching is the process of officers responding to an incident without having been directed to do so by a central dispatch/incident command point. A growing number of apps claim to improve law enforcement response times by alerting users of the app to an incident. This is dangerous and leading public safety agencies strongly discourage the practice:

  • “The use of self-dispatched resources is highly discouraged.” – FEMA, NIMS resource manual
  • “The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) discourage the practice of self-dispatch among emergency response personnel to emergency incidents without notification or request.” – IAFC Policy Statement, August 2002
  • “Self-dispatch can be common practice in many areas but it is unacceptable. When mutual aid agreements are effective, needed units will respond properly and unsolicited aid will only get in the way. Dispatchers should prohibit units listening in from self-dispatching to the incident scene. Only units properly responding to a mutual aid or automatic aid agreement should be allowed to participate in incident response.” – Department of Homeland Security, Lessons Learned Information Sharing

Some would argue that notifying a “trained” passer-by who may be the closest responder is saving valuable time. While this may be beneficial for getting trained bystanders to the side of an individual in cardiac arrest, the facts show quite the opposite for a rapidly-evolving and violent incident.

From a 2012 shooting of an officer by another off-duty officer in New York who had self-dispatched based on an overheard radio transmission, to an overwhelming number of armed “strangers” flooding the Sandy Hook area long after the shooting was over, an uncoordinated response by armed individuals, even when trained, is dangerous.

“If you have people self-dispatching who are not in uniform, you increase the risk of blue-on-blue shootings, and you end up with more people calling the police to report that they saw someone with a gun, which can add to the confusion,” said Howard County (Maryland) Police Chief William J. McMahon when providing lessons learned on the January 2014 Columbia Mall Shooting.

Furthermore, unaffiliated responders are normally not familiar with the location or specific procedures of the facility and can be easily mistaken by those in the school or outside of it as an assailant. According to the Director of the Office of Unified Communications in Washington, D.C., Jennifer Greene:  “While luckily no one was killed as a direct result of self-dispatch during the Navy Yard Shootings, it definitely added an extra dimension of risk and overhead to the entire response as we attempted to identify and manage unknown armed individuals that were on scene.”

3.  Custom Processes Introduce Risk

In an emergency, people tend toward what they know and are familiar with doing. This is the same for both people in an emergency and those answering their calls for help.

The implications for an active shooter situation are twofold. First, remember that many people will call 9-1-1 for help. It is ingrained. Second, keep in mind that a single PSAP may support many schools. If each creates a custom process, the chance for error is high because it is rarely used. Any solution put into operation should be as much a part of daily operations as possible.

Expecting a 9-1-1 dispatcher to remember to do something different for each school in a large area is adding risk. Where-ever possible, ensure existing dispatch and call-taking procedures are leveraged. Where custom workflows are needed, make sure they are consistent for 9-1-1 and responders across a region as much as possible.

9-1-1 is a critical component of an effective active shooter response plan. When working together as a team, 9-1-1, responders and school administrators can create solutions that improve reaction time to incidents and reduce complexity by creating consistent processes used by responding agencies. It is strongly encouraged that school administrators coordinate with local PSAPs and public safety agencies while developing a holistic school safety plan.

Ty Wooten, ENP, Director of Education and PSAP Operations at NENA and Maureen Will, RPL, Director of Emergency Communications at Town of Newtown, CT.

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