By Nathan McClure III, MPA, ENP
In general, people calling 9-1-1 and requesting a response from a public safety agency are in stressful situations. And people under stress frequently do not communicate as effectively as when they are not under that stress. In addition, callers may make demands that are not possible to meet. The 9-1-1 operations personnel who deal with callers under stress may be affected by the emotional state of the callers. An inability of public safety communications staff to deal compassionately with stressed callers may affect the community’s perception about the level of service being provided. The media frequently reports situations in which the system has performed in a less than satisfactory way.
Operational procedures and standards are an important aspect of any public safety comm center. Public safety in each community has evolved based in large measure on the standard of service expected and demanded by the community being served. This is especially true of the operations of public safety communications centers.
The quality of service provided by a community’s public safety communications system depends on numerous factors; accuracy and reliability are two of the key factors. Other factors include personnel selection, training, shift personnel, supervisory and operational procedures, and telecommunicator workload. Operational standards provide guidance for operations, as well as a way to compare your system’s performance with a wider community’s expectations.
Over the past 30 years, comm centers have become much more dependent on technology. The infusion of technology has improved the quality and capabilities of the service being provided and increased the complexity of the job and the scope of the training required to perform the required duties. What cannot be overlooked is the fact that the required basic job knowledge, skills and abilities are as important now as they ever were. The job essentially remains one of receiving and communicating information to and from people. All of the technology that is in use is there to assist the communications process. Careful planning and attention to detail are required to ensure that the technology assists rather than hinders that process. Not only do communications personnel need to be skilled in communicating, they must also be proficient in the use of all of the diverse systems and equipment used in the center.
As our society becomes increasingly litigious, it is even more important to have comprehensive policies and procedures and to vigorously make certain that the policies and procedures are followed. In general, the courts have held that government employees are immune from liability when performing discretionary functions, but not immune when performing ministerial duties. Discretionary functions are interpreted as judgmental or policy decisions rather than operational decisions. These operational decisions, generally implementing or executing policy decisions, are known as ministerial duties and are not immune from liability. The courts have further found that if a government employee is acting within the scope of their duties and following established policies and procedures, the employee is also immune from liability. There are six exceptions to the general rule. These exceptions include:
- Claims brought against a governmental entity for the negligent operation of an automobile,
- Claims arising out of the operation of any public hospital, correctional facility or jail,
- Claims arising out of a dangerous condition of any public building,
- Injuries caused by a dangerous condition of a public highway, road or street that physically interferes with the movement of traffic on the paved portion of the roadway,
- Injuries caused by a dangerous condition of any public hospital, jail, public facility located in a park or recreation area, or any public water, gas, sanitation, electrical, power or swimming facility, and
- Claims arising out of the operation and maintenance of any public water facility, gas facility, sanitation facility, electrical facility, power facility or swimming facility.
The facts in a specific case may result in a different decision, but the general interpretation of immunity may be summarized as follows: If a governmental agency has a policy on a specific issue and the governmental employee is following that policy, then both are immune from liability. Further, the policy must be in writing to be considered to exist.
The APCO Standards Development Committee’s Operations Subcommittee exists to identify and develop standards that address the operational needs of organizations and individuals providing and/or supporting public safety communication services and to act as the voting consensus body for public safety communications operational standards. The subcommittee is working diligently to fulfill its mission.
NATHAN McCLURE III, MPA, ENP, is a public safety consultant at AECOM (Lynchburg, Va.), with more than 40 years of public safety communications experience. He serves as chair of the SDC Operations Subcommittee. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Public Safety Communications.