Scott Brillman, acting director of Baltimore City Emergency Communications and 911, attended the Southeast District Police Community Relations Council meeting last week to give residents an insider’s view of 911 services in the city.
Brillman began with a history of the city’s 911 system, starting with just prior to its overhaul a couple years ago. Whereas in the past, operators would ask callers if they wanted police, fire or ambulance, and then transfer the call, the system has now been unified.
“We’ve changed the system according to best practices across the country,” Brillman said, adding that every county in Maryland now has a similar, unified call center.
He said that he was attending the meeting in part because he had received many, many complaints from residents about repetitive questions asked by the operators, as well as the sheer number of questions.
With regard to the lengthy questioning, Brillman assured residents that their emergencies were being responded to as quickly as possible.
“When they’re asking you all these questions, a unit has already been dispatched,” he said, “and [the operator] is just feeding information through a computer system.”
“In any call where you’re in danger or you feel unsafe, if you continue to give information to that operator, they can continue to give information to that officer en route.”
Brillman said that there is a question that all operators must ask twice: “What is the location of your emergency?”
He said that residents didn’t like answering the same question twice, especially at first.
“The first month we started asking it twice, people started yelling back at us,” he said.
However, the question is asked twice because, Brillman said, callers sometimes make mistakes while under the stress of an emergency.
Thanks to the new practice, he said, “we’ve cut wrong addresses by 50 percent.”
He added that for calls requiring a police response, operators will also ask residents for their phone numbers twice.
“If we can’t call you back, we’re no good to you,” he said.
Whatever questions the 911 operators ask, the only way to hear different questions would be to move out of state. Brillman pointed out that the questions are the same for 911 call centers across the state.
“All the directors talk monthly, and we all try to have the same protocols,” he said.
Brillman emphasized that 911 operators go through very strict and extensive training. They have a strict script which they must stick to, word-for-word. Four hundred calls per month are monitored for quality assurance, he said. While 400 calls not sound like a lot, it is one of the biggest quality assurance program in the state, he said.
An operator has national certification to walk a caller through various emergency procedures, including CPR, the use of an automated external defibrillator, response to a choking emergency and baby delivery.
“Our operators are some of the best in the country,” he said. “They deliver a lot of babies every day.”
That said, Brillman told residents that he should be notified immediately if an operator ever hangs up on a caller.
“You need to call me right away,” he said. “That is the worst thing an operator can do.”
Brillman addressed the prioritization of calls, noting that calls are prioritized through a protocol system.
“When you call and say that something is in progress, it’s a priority,” he added.
Sometimes, 911 has more calls than operators.
“There’ll be a brush fire on 83, and every driver that goes by is calling us,” Brillman explained. “Do not hang up if you hear, ‘Your call is important to us; please stay on the line.'”
“It’s first-come, first-served on 911,” he added, explaining that held calls are put in a queue and answered based on when the call was made.
If you hang up when you are placed on hold, you will lose your place in the queue, Brillman said.
At one point in Brillman’s talk, Captain Deron Garrity, commander of the Southeast District, said that residents calling for robberies or other crimes often wonder why operators ask so many questions about them, rather than the suspects.
Brillman said that callers can keep anonymity when they call and give scant information about themselves, but “our operators are trained to dig and dig and dig.”
A resident asked him if calls in which callers offer less personal information are taken less seriously.
“No, not at all,” he said.
He said that Baltimore City Emergency Communications and 911 is the “busiest call center in the state,” taking 4,000 calls per day, not including 311 calls. The most common calls which fall under the purview of the Fire Department are for chest pains or diabetes-related emergencies. For the Police Department, Brillman said that he didn’t know the most common type of call, but Garrity referenced “disorderly calls” for “people acting disorderly.”
Additionally, the center gets lots of 911 hang-ups, Brillman said, and “a lot of kids calling.”
Dealing with children can be quite difficult for a 911 operator, Brillman said, noting that operators may not hang up the phone, and spend a lot of time trying to convince children to put their parents on the line.
Overall, the job of a 911 operator is difficult, he added.
“It’s actually fascinating,” he said. “I don’t think I could handle it. These folks take a lot of abuse–a lot of yelling.”
by Erik Zygmont