Public safety interoperability is good...
Effective communication with the public is priceless
By Capt. Eddie Reyes
For the last several years, much attention has been focused on the need for public safety to communicate better within the organization and externally when working with others. This attention by the media mainstream; an honest commitment from department heads to do better; and some pretty good support from our political bodies have allowed us to reach the highest level of communications and interoperability readiness the public safety profession has ever seen. Not only do our public safety leaders believe this is the right thing to do, we owe it to the millions of people we serve daily and especially during national emergencies and events, to perform at the highest level of proficiency. And let’s face it, any organization will perform better and be extremely effective if there is good communication.
But what about the people we serve daily in our communities? Not that public safety has solved all of their communications and interoperability gaps, because there are still a few loose ends to tie up – like establishing National standards across the board so first responders from California will be able to interact seamlessly with first responders from Virginia. And dedicating more time to training with the awesome equipment and governance that has been procured and established throughout the land.
The next frontier I believe we will have to conquer is establishing and maintaining effective two-way communications with the public we serve. Many agencies across the United States have found tremendous value and dividends paid when a crisis occurs in the community and the well established network of communication and collaboration go to work. Two-way communications, like Amber Alerts, when law enforcement immediately launches a saturation of announcements whenever a child is lost or taken. The expectation is that the public will immediately become more alert and assist us in locating this child. All the way to the text messages that 911 centers around the country are starting to receive from cellular phone users who cannot talk because of some emergency (medical or intruder nearby).
I dedicate this column to some cutting edge technologies and practices that are being used to bridge that gap of human communication and trust that sometimes exists between the community and some of our public safety agencies.
I remember as a young child my Mother always telling me anytime we saw a policeman in public, “You better behave or else he’s going to take you to jail”. And so from a very young age I came to learn the police would take me to jail if I misbehaved, so I avoided contact with them. Mother’s telling their children this has not changed even today. In my seventeen years of being a law enforcement officer, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a parent tell their child this and so we grow up fearing those that are supposed to help us and be our friend. Even today, when I am on duty in a police car, I check my seatbelt and look at my speedometer whenever I see another police car in my rearview mirror – it is human nature.
Many agencies have witnessed some tremendous value from forging excellent communication with their community and this leads to the best reward any public safety agency can receive – trust. If you trust someone, you are likely to share confidential information with them, or at the very least, feel comfortable talking with them. In today’s world, public safety very much needs to receive confidential information in order to stay ahead of the criminal element. Responding after the crime is committed is not good enough anymore. So how have some of these agencies been able to leverage this awesome level of communication and trust with their community?
Community Meetings and Walks
One of the most effective ways to establish this comfort level between an agency and the community is getting to know them on a personal level. Whether you are out meeting with them at their homeowner’s association meeting or inviting them to attend a citizen’s academy at your department, getting to know these people will get you that level of trust we talked about earlier. Community policing has been around since the 70’s after many police agencies became increasingly isolated from the community. This isolation fueled the “us v. them” mentality and made crime control very difficult. The community policing concept assigns responsibility for a certain geographic area to a law enforcement officer who gets to know the neighborhood, its people, and its problems very well. This level of interaction often leads to excellent communication between the community and the agency, and can sometimes be responsible for a significant decrease in crime and a significant increase in the quality of life.
In addition to these meetings, holding formal walks through a community which are attended by community members and different government agencies (law enforcement; fire / code enforcement and public works, just to name a few) and focusing on quality of life issues, has been very effective for some. There is a higher level of accountability for some of the problems and issues in the community and again, effective communication begins to spawn from these walks.
In addition to the traditional methods of improving communication and collaboration with a community, modern technology is a very useful and dynamic tool that public safety carries in its toolbox. Did you know crime analysts and technology managers are now an important part of the senior management group? Not so long ago, these two functions were regarded as supportive in nature and were never really invited to the “strategy table” except when statistics or a more detailed explanation about a particular device was needed. Our agency has been a pioneer in blending state-of-the-art technology with traditional policing and law enforcement efforts. The combination of modern technology with community policing basics is largely responsible for the steady decrease of serious crime in Alexandria over the past few years.
In today’s world where the landline is being replaced by cellular telephones at an alarming rate and the phrase “call me” is being replaced by “send me email”, it is important for public safety to keep up with these patterns and trends and respond in a manner that will allow us to communicate with almost everyone every time.
Electronic Mail / List Servers
A very effective tool our City and Police Department uses to reach thousands of people quickly with non-emergency messages is our electronic mail and list servers. This allows us to send important messages like weather advisories, wanted posters and meeting notifications to persons who have voluntarily placed themselves on our electronic mailing list or individuals who we deem capable of notifying many others through their own network process. It is a controlled broadcast to everyone on the list and the beauty of this process is those on the list usually forward your message to others and you know the effectiveness of gossip – before you know it, everyone knows. Except in this case, that is a good thing.
Many agencies have taken this technology and used it to communicate more effectively with their community with the use of “online reporting”. This technology allows anyone in the community with internet access to provide an agency with a compliment or complaint about employees; reporting traffic issues; crime concerns in a particular community and even suggestions for improvement. There are pros and cons to online reporting. It can be viewed as an additional position(s) that must be staffed in order to review and reply to almost all of the correspondence, depending on how popular this tool becomes. One positive effect our agency witnessed is that it relieved our patrol function from many of the routine calls for service that would often tie our officers up for hours, like taking reports for graffiti; harassing, annoying, or obscene phone calls and lost, stolen, or damaged property. These reports are handled by civilian personnel and/or officers on light duty due to some injury.
A favorite tool of ours the community really enjoys is the ability to obtain lots of critical data from our agency about issues that really matter to them, all from the privacy of their own home. Information such as details about our daily incident reports; access to our monthly reports where we list the City’s crime on detailed maps; list of locations with the most calls for service and intersections with the most crashes. (http://www.ci.alexandria.va.us/police)
Recently we worked an incident where a nine year old girl went missing after school. The parents became frantic when she did not get off the bus at her scheduled stop. Like any law enforcement agency, we treat these incidents with our highest priority and this one was no exception – deploying over 30 personnel in a ground and aerial search for this little girl. In the end, she was safely returned home after using our reverse 911 technology which, instead of investing more shoe leather — and wasting precious time — we used a dedicated computer terminal in the emergency communications center. It works by locating the girl’s house on the mapping software, and then an imaginary circle is drawn around the house. The software is designed to call every landline telephone within a quarter of a mile from the house (this perimeter can be any size) with a recorded message describing the girl and explaining the situation. Within minutes, the system was calling hundreds of addresses.
The system can make anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 calls an hour and it is intelligent enough to know when it gets an answering machine as opposed to a real person. It can even be programmed to keep calling until it gets a live person.
A few blocks from the girl’s house, the parents of one of her friends received the recorded message shortly after it was sent. They thought the girl’s parents knew where she was all along until they got the automated call from the Police Department. Once they realized what had happened, they quickly took the girl home within 30 minutes of activating the system.
Tremendous progress is also being made with the cellular telephone and satellite industry. 911 centers are now able to locate persons who dial 911 and then get disconnected through the use of global positioning system (GPS). Almost all of today’s cellular telephones have some form of GPS capability, which allows the cellular phone to calculate its position by measuring the distance between itself and the GPS satellites in orbit.
In addition, technology such as OnStar by GM has added tremendous communication with our communities in medical emergencies as well as criminal apprehensions. With the push of a button or activation of an air bag, vehicles equipped with this technology will trigger a live OnStar operator who can in turn generate a public safety response anywhere on earth since this technology relies on satellite communication. These operators then contact the nearest public safety agency, depending on the incident, and assistance is quickly rendered. Many car thefts have been abated using this technology. Once the car is stolen, this technology allows the vendor to track it and notify law enforcement personnel of its exact location, such as “it is a red Chevrolet Tahoe and it should be stopped in traffic at Duke Street and West Taylor Run Parkway” In police work, we call this “a lead”.
As you can see, the modern world that we live in today requires that we maintain communication with the public at all levels and that we keep up with technology, making it one of the most important tools in our tool box. While it is important for public safety personnel to continue focusing on the most efficient level of communication at the responder level, it is also just as important for department heads to realize the importance of communicating with the community we serve. Community policing helped us to destroy the isolation between the community and law enforcement, in essence getting rid of the “us v. them” mentality. While this concept of assigning responsibility for a certain geographic area to a law enforcement officer who gets to know the neighborhood, its people, and its problems works very well, the public today expects more from public safety. Since we cannot be all things to all persons every time, we need to think outside of the box and use some of this wonderful technology every chance we get. In today’s world where operating budgets are stretched razor thin and we are constantly being challenged to do more with less, we cannot afford to fall behind despite this significant challenge. And if you think the cost of some of this technology is expensive, try playing catch up in a politically charged world.
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