There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that being a law enforcement officer is a tough–and often, thankless–job. But with constant headlines of police action gone wrong, too many people don’t know the ramifications of responding to an emergency call. For example, there’s outcry over the September 2015 incident in which Atlanta-area police officers entered the wrong home while mistakenly thinking a burglary was in progress. Officers killed the homeowner’s dog, shot the homeowners who came to see what the commotion was, and then, believe it or not, shot one of their own responding officers who was in the room at the time of the incident.
In that specific incident, the 911 emergency dispatch system sent officers to respond to reports of a “suspicious person” in the area; it was only later that officials decided they should state a suspected burglary was in progress. It doesn’t change the fact that officers were at the wrong address, or that they entered the house because it matched the description for the address that a caller had given to the 911 operator.
This kind of human error-fueled incident is something that emergency management officials are hoping to address with better technology, such as the long-promised upgrades to north Florida’s Consolidated Dispatch Agency EMS software. The intentional, premeditated shooting of a sheriff’s deputy during an ambush in November 2014 prompted the agency to pursue software upgrades. However, those upgrades have been slow despite the severity of the event that resulted in punitive action taken against the 911 dispatch officers.
Operators dispatched deputies and fire fighters to a house blaze, but the emergency was actually an act of arson meant to lure first responders to the location. The current EMS software contains the option for “threat warnings,” but the dispatchers (three of whom lost their jobs for failing to warn personnel of the danger) didn’t relay the warnings listed in the address. In the days leading up to the incident, the killer had made several pronouncements to friends and family about his plan to burn his house down and open fire on the emergency teams, and his ex-girlfriend even called in those warnings to law enforcement. A note was made in the file for the address where the fire occurred, but those warnings were ignored by the dispatchers.
Deputy Chris Smith, a forty-seven-year-old husband and father of two, was killed. Other responders were wounded in the ambush.
Whenever the year-long delays are alleviated, the promised software upgrades will include greater on-screen prominence of any listed warnings so that they cannot be accidentally overlooked. Even better, dispatchers will have to click the warnings to acknowledge them in order to move forward with assigning emergency support to respond.
These types of warnings are not only malicious in nature, but are all vitally important. They can indicate to law enforcement or emergency medical responders that the person living at that address is hearing impaired, for example, and officers would know to use caution when entering since their presence cannot be announced. Families of children with autism are often told to alert their local emergency dispatch of the diagnosis so that officials know to use care and to look carefully for a child who cannot respond to the situation. Unfortunately, if dispatchers overlook the fact that the address has been flagged with a warning, then crucial information will not make it to responders on the scene.