Decision Points for Jurisdictions
Focus on Dispatch

Described as the “black box” of first response, call taking and dispatch processes are complicated but essential to get right. To set programs up for success, jurisdictions must consider how responders will be dispatched to community issues, including the local 911 call center’s staffing and capacity, dispatch software limitations, data sharing concerns, and more. Without a thoughtfully planned and well-coordinated call taking and dispatch function, many models will encounter serious challenges and be unable to reach their full potential.

Click here to listen to an in-depth conversation on the significant role the 911 system plays in coordinating first response services, featuring RPS researcher Dr. Jessica Gillooly.

Evaluate the quality, breadth, and flexibility of existing 911 services. Many jurisdictions assume that alternative response options simply can be added to the existing 911 system. Sometimes this assumption proves correct, but not always. Before automatically embracing 911 as the means to deploy new alternatives, evaluate how your 911 system currently is used. Is it efficient? Does it have a culture rigidly aligned with traditional public safety systems and, therefore, potentially resistant to new models? Is the 911 center properly resourced in both funding and staff? Adding new layers on top of an inflexible or overtaxed dispatch system can leave alternative response models destined to fail, regardless of the quality of the program itself.

It also is important to consider where 911 is physically sited and by whom it is operationally overseen. In some jurisdictions, 911 is managed and housed within the police department, while in others it may be a standalone entity or even regionalized among multiple jurisdictions. Each arrangement potentially can affect the willingness of callers to utilize the service and the capacity of the jurisdiction to adopt new approaches. Where the 911 system is institutionally located can also have operational implications for alternative response programs. For example, if alternative responders are dispatched out of your city’s fire dispatch center, which does not communicate via radio with the police dispatch center, how will alternative responders be able to call quickly for police back-up if needed?

Examine alternatives to 911. Some jurisdictions already maintain additional call systems that address informational inquiries, not-for-profit engagement, or calls for non-emergency service, such as 311 and 211. If your jurisdiction has such services, and if your 911 organizational culture or capacity appears to be an obstacle, then these can be attractive options. Atlanta’s alternative response program, for example, dispatches via 311. However, it is important to consider how responders and dispatchers in this model will interact with other public agencies. It also is necessary to ensure that community members, who may be accustomed to dialing 911 for all public safety matters, are educated fully about the types of calls that should now be directed elsewhere.‍

Defining an emergency. The 911 system is overrun by calls from the public, and police response times are increasing in many jurisdictions. Alternative response provides a valuable option to shift some calls from the police, but in many places new alternatives respond to a small share of the total 911 call volume. For this reason, agencies also must have substantive conversations about what makes a call appropriate for 911 in the first place, and when other options (e.g., online resources, use of 211 or 311, responses by city agencies during business hours, etc.) should be developed or used. These conversations are difficult, political, and value-laden. You might think: Who am I to tell someone what is or is not an emergency? Isn’t emergency response one of the primary traditional roles of government? But ignoring these tough questions results in a system that cannot meet demand, puts call-takers and dispatchers in a nearly impossible position (as we’ve heard through our research), and sets the public up for disappointment as officers show up to calls hours later or without the skill set or training to address the caller’s problem.

Build and ensure fidelity around clear, detailed, and user-friendly protocols. Before a new program can be launched, all participants must have a shared understanding of who will be dispatched for what types of calls, how responders will communicate with one another, how the risk of sending one form of responder over another will be assessed and by whom, and how escalations will be handled. Confusion on any of these points can quickly generate mistrust between alternative responders and traditional system actors, not to mention raise the possibility of problems in the field. As part of our RPS project, the University of Chicago Health Lab analyzed alternative response call center protocols and developed a call taking protocol assessment tool, which outlines the essential categories of information and guidance that should be included in an alternative response call taking protocol. A clear protocol also will provide much-needed security and guidance for call takers, who may be concerned about their own risk and liability when assessing whether a call qualifies for an alternative response.

Build relationships between workforces. A healthy relationship between 911 call center staff — call takers and dispatchers — and alternative responders is essential to the success of any program. If 911 call center staff are unfamiliar with the capacity, responsibilities, and skills of alternative responders, call takers and dispatchers may be overly conservative in their decisions about when to assign calls to these responders. This relationship must be built through intentional steps, which can include: providing crisis responders with access to the call taker floor, embedding clinicians on the floor, and generally creating opportunities for responders, call takers, and dispatchers to meet, get to know one another, and work together. Mutual understanding and exposure promote mutual trust.

Set up internal oversight. Don’t fly blind. Regular review of response systems – including data tracking, after-action reviews, and formal ongoing opportunities for everyone with a role in response to convene and assess performance – is critical to building improved system response. For example, an alternative response system can be undermined if call takers simply forget to flag a call as eligible for alternative response, suggesting the need for periodic reminders or mandatory fields in the call classification system. Or, call-takers may be concerned about municipal liability or the risk to responders and fail to utilize the alternative system without also dispatching a police response. It is important to gather and review program data on an ongoing basis in order to adjust training, processes, protocols, and other areas as needed.

Related Reading

911 Call Centers podcast

Call-Taking Protocol Assessment for Alternative Response Programs