Dispatchers spell out best ways to handle calling for help

Ever wonder what happens when you call 911?

Attendees of 1st Tuesday learned the answers during the May 6 event at the Metropolitan Police Department’s Northwest Area Command, 9850 W. Cheyenne Ave.

Lisa O’Brien, communications supervisor for the 911 center, and fellow operators Kenna Scherado, Dean Vanderpool, Jamie DeCarlo and Alicyn Duran spoke to dozens of residents about the topic. One thing they stressed was the importance of obtaining the caller’s location.

“If you’re using a cellphone to call 911, we can’t tell where you are,” Vanderpool said. “You have to tell us.”

When asked their location, some callers will answer, “I’m right here.” Responses such as that result in delays of getting an officer on scene. Some cellphone callers are distraught, excited or frightened, but operators request they do not shout. Shouting into a cellphone makes words unintelligible and wastes valuable time while operators calm callers and get them to speak in a more normal fashion. A language assistance service is available for those who don’t speak English.

Calls from residences, meanwhile, show up with the street address, which operators must verify.

When should someone call 911 versus 311?

“If you see a suspicious person walking down your street who doesn’t fit in, that’s a 311 call, ” said Scherado. “If they’re peeking in windows or turning door handles, that’s a 911.”

The dispatch job includes using catch phrases such as “en route code,” meaning police are responding with lights and sirens; “in progress” to indicate a perpetrator is on scene; and the urgent “shots fired.” Priority zero calls are the highest and indicate something is happening that moment: a burglary, a robbery, a fire, a person being beaten.

“We ask a lot of questions,” O’Brien said. “While we’re talking to you, we’re typing in the information and getting it out there. … We will help you, but you need to work with us.”

Each 911 operator runs through a list dubbed the Six Ws: Where are you or where is this happening?; When did it happen — now or sometime previous?; Who is the suspect and what does he/she look like?; Why is this happening?; and Any weapons seen or heard?

The 911 operators are multitaskers. As fingers are flying over the keyboard — many operators are known to type 120 words a minute — the correct departments are being notified, and calls are going out to officers in the field.

The Las Vegas 911 call center takes reports for all of Clark County and receives about 10,000 a day. About 4,500 calls result in some type of action in the field.

Depending on the situation, calls can involve various agencies or services, including school police, the Nevada Highway Patrol, a fire department, an ambulance company, family services, the Bureau of Land Management or others.

The academy for dispatchers lasts 12 weeks, then participants get on-the-job training. It can take two years to train a new hire.

Scherado stressed that callers should not hang up, even if they’re in immediate danger and can’t talk.

“If there are shots fired (or other things happening),” she said, “we need to be able to hear that to alert officers.”

Operators seldom learn the outcome of their calls, unless it’s reported in a newspaper or on television.

“In terms of the service they provide to the community, as well as to us out on the street and what isn’t necessarily reflected in Hollywood is what they do, although they are super-professional, they experience an extreme amount of stress that they internalize and take home and deal with in their own way,” said Capt. Chris Tomaino of the Northwest Area Command. “ … They’re like trauma doctors — ‘Broken leg? OK, set that up. Next’ — and off they go to the next thing. They don’t get to see the end result.”

Contact Summerlin Area View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 702-387-2949.