The communications center response to officer down calls

By Bob Smith
Director of Strategic Development
APCO International

Today's public safety personnel are being thrust into real-time life and death situations more and more often. Despite advancements in technology, innovations in training and tremendous enhancements in situational awareness and responder safety, the number of police officer and fire figther deaths is still, in a word, staggering.

One step toward addressing and potentially lowering these numbers is the training and education of the public safety telecommunicators that dispatch and maintain on-going communications with field responders. This training would definitely be something Chiefs would be involved in, especially in centers that are part of a police or fire department.

As public safety communications professionals, it is the telecommunicator's job to be prepared for these types of events and know how to respond in advance. When a law enforcement officer calls for assistance or a firefighter or EMT activates a Mayday alarm, this is not the time to pull the operations manual off the shelf and flip to the relevant section to learn how to proceed. Telecommunicators should be trained for these types of events and drilled on their response regularly. Policies and procedures should be drafted, incorporated into training programs and updated regularly.

How these requests for assistance are received can vary from agency to agency and from situation to situation. Units may transmit calls over the radio or be in a situation where they can call the Communications Center by telephone or they may come in as automated alarms through the unit's radio.

Most APCO Project 25 (P25) radios incorporate some type of Mayday alarm system. These radios are equipped with a button that can be easily and inconspicuously tripped by a responder depending on the situation. A single button that, once activated, initiates a Mayday alarm back to the Communications Center alerting them that this particular unit is in need of assistance. This is especially effective if radios are assigned a specific identifier and these identifiers are updated as units and personnel change.

Options vary
These options vary from radio to radio and from manufacturer to manufacturer. But the most common are those that key the radio and transmit an alarm back to the Communications Center with no alarm activated on the field user end and those that transmit the alarm and sound an audible alarm on both the field user end and in the Communications Center.

The first type is used most often by law enforcement personnel. Once the Mayday button is activated on the radio, the unit will key up; effectively seizing control of the assigned radio frequency and transmitting a message back to the Communications Center. The radio will remain "keyed" for a designated period of time.

This allows the transmission of any on scene sounds that may clue in the Communications Center and other responders to exactly what is happening on scene. For officer safety issues, this set up usually does not sound any type of alert on the field user end. This prevents notifying suspects that the officer has requested assistance and possibly provoking further confrontation.

The second most common type of Mayday alarm is most often used by fire service personnel. With this type of alarm, the unit will transmit an alarm to the Communications Center and will sound an external alarm on the field user end. The audible alarm on the field user end serves to assist units on scene in locating the unit in trouble. This is especially vital for fire service personnel that may experience trouble inside structures or other enclosed areas and may be unable to call for help.

Prepared to respond
Regardless of how a Mayday call is received, telecommunicators need to be prepared to respond. This preparation comes from training. Telecommunicators should be trained on the proper method to respond to these calls for assistance whether they are law enforcement calls, EMS calls, or fire service calls. That training should be followed up with routine drill and practice sessions.

Public safety telecommunicators can also prepare themselves for these types of situations with simple practice drills during a routine shift. One good method is to constantly ask "What If?" during the shift. What if the officer that just made that traffic stop suddenly calls for help? Where is the next closest officer? Do I have a good enough location to get someone else there in time? Do I have a good enough vehicle description in case the suspect flees?

All of these questions can be answered in seconds during routine operations with no disruption of service. It's a quick and easy way to expect the unexpected. Supervisors and trainers can drill others by asking these same questions during routine operations to ensure they are familiar with the procedures and prepared to respond.

These are just a few ways that public safety communications professionals can fulfill a vital role in emergency calls for assistance. As each and every public safety discipline works together toward reducing the number of line of duty deaths, the entire industry will benefit and so will the communities we serve.

Bob Smith is the Director of Strategic Development at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International. His almost two decades in public safety includes rising through the ranks from firefighter/EMT to captain of the department’s hazardous materials response and through the ranks of public safety communications from telecommunicator to county 9-1-1 Director. Along the way, he's been actively involved in emergency management on the state and local levels, served as a nationally registered EMT, a College Campus Safety Officer, an EPA-certified hazardous materials technician and a liaison to the US Secret Service and US Capitol Police. A world-renowned lecturer and subject matter expert in the public safety arena and author of "Active Shooter Incidents for Public Safety Communications," "The Telecommunicator’s Role in Homeland Security" and other public safety-oriented texts, Bob has been featured in interviews with NBC, ABC News, USA News and the Associated Press among others.

APCO International is the world's largest organization dedicated to public safety communications. More than 15,000 members rely on APCO for their professional needs – from examining standards and issues to providing education, products and services. It is a member-driven association of communications professionals that provides leadership, influences public safety communications decisions of government and industry, promotes professional development, and, fosters the development and use of technology for the benefit of the public. Its subsidiaries include the APCO Institute, Automated Frequency Coordination and the Public Safety Foundation of America. This year's APCO International Annual Conference takes place in Las Vegas from August 16-20 and will kick off the association's 75th anniversary. For more details on the association, visit

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