Aside from dialing 9-1-1 during an emergency, most people are not familiar with how emergency dispatch works. This often also holds true for facility security personnel. Whether a gas leak or armed employee, it is important that enterprise security personnel understand some of the technology and process behind our national emergency number and response system for their own professional purposes. With this in mind, the following should be considered.

9-1-1 calls are routed based on a caller’s location to one of approximately 6,400 public safety answering points (PSAPs). 9-1-1 calls from different facilities may go to one or more different PSAPs, even if those facilities are within the same city. 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 that allow the dispatcher to see locations and statuses of responders in real-time.

A dispatcher, within seconds of receiving a call and while still asking questions of the caller to effectively ascertain the situation, is already directing necessary resources to the scene of the incident and engaging others as needed. It is important to understand that 9-1-1 is effectively “incident command” for the length of many incidents, including most active shooter scenarios that average 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.

In order for enterprise security professionals to develop or modify emergency response plans, there are a number of specific points to remember about the answering of 9-1-1 calls and the dispatching of first responders.

Directly Contact 9-1-1

When a person does not have the ability to communicate directly with 9-1-1, response gets delayed and confusion can be introduced. It is critical that direct verbal communication with 9-1-1 happens. To effectively manage the response, it is vital that the PSAP has direct communication with those involved in the incident to glean real-time information. Direct communication is the fastest and most effective way to get the right resources dispatched in the most expedient manner.

Routing emergency calls from corporate phone lines to internal security is discouraged, and PBXs should always be configured to allow direct 9-1-1 dialing without a prefix (e.g. 9-911). A number of recent tragedies have highlighted the risk of impeding the trained response of people to dial 9-1-1. Remember that employees and visitors may use cellphones or corporate lines, and in either case, will very likely be under stress and revert to common, learned behaviors and not special processes.

Especially for larger campuses with dedicated security resources, there is an understandable need to be aware of incidents and calls for emergency service made to 9-1-1. An option to consider are solutions that don’t impede direct dialing to 9-1-1, but instead, simultaneously notify on-site resources when a call is made. Solutions exist that work with Voice over IP (VOIP), landline and mobile phones and are very cost effective.

Understand Where Emergency Calls are Answered

In some locales, landline and mobile phones may actually route to different PSAPs, affecting the response process. When determining a response plan for a facility, 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.

Coordination with your local agencies can be an important check in making sure phones calls are being correctly routed and providing the right data to 9-1-1. Because of the virtual nature of today’s sophisticated PBXs and the relatively old technology used by most 9-1-1 centers, the information displayed to 9-1-1 can be misleading (e.g. displaying an IT office location – not the actual caller’s location) or even cause false routing. Larger enterprises often have sophisticated solutions for keeping the data delivered to 9-1-1 current (called PS-ALI), but direct coordination with local responders is always a good idea.

This coordination can also be invaluable in providing public safety agencies with specific instructions relative to your facility, such as access points, gate codes and security personnel contact information. Visitors to your facility may have difficulty accurately assessing and describing where they are, so consider signage that helps them communicate their location in a way that can be understood by 9-1-1 and responders. Some locales even have systems in place such as Smart911 that allow facility owners to provide and maintain real-time information that is displayed to 9-1-1 in the event of an emergency.

Uncoordinated Responses Can Be Dangerous

An uncoordinated response to an incident is dangerous, whether between on site security personnel and responding agencies or even among public safety agencies themselves. 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 that coordinates the response. Public safety agencies strongly discourage the practice:

  • “The use of self-dispatched resources is highly discouraged.” – FEMA, NIMS resource manual
  • “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

“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. 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.”

These same warnings can also apply when there is a lack of coordination between on-site security personnel and responding agencies. While not self-dispatching per se, security personnel need to closely collaborate with law enforcement dispatch and on-site responders. It is rare that public safety agencies and facility security personnel have sufficient experience working together to effectively collaborate during a stressful incident, and the risks of unfamiliar and uncoordinated forces engaging in an incident together are real. Local policies should give your security team clear guidance on ceding incident oversight to public safety responders.

Custom Processes are Risky

People tend toward what they know and are familiar with doing. This is particularly true for both people in an emergency and those answering their calls for help.

The implications for security organizations are twofold: First, remember that many people will (and should!) call 9-1-1 directly for help. It is ingrained. Make sure your processes embrace that, not discourage it.

Second, keep in mind that a single PSAP supports many people and different facilities. While you may feel your campus or facility is unique, trying to create custom processes that don’t fit well into an existing dispatch process increases the chance for error. Even if your local PSAP is willing to work with you around special procedures, keep customization to a minimum.

Expecting a 9-1-1 dispatcher to remember to do something different for your facility, even if legally permissible (which it often is not), is adding risk. It is far better to modify your processes to match their response than vise-versa.

In summary, 9-1-1 is a critical component of an effective emergency response plan. When working together as a team, 9-1-1, responders, facility managers and enterprise security personnel can improve reaction time to incidents, reduce complexity, and ensure better outcomes. Understanding the capabilities and limitations of the agencies you rely on to respond to emergencies can help you create more effective emergency response plans.