Powell 911 call takers criticized for behavior

Staff writerFebruary 8, 2012 

Listening to the 911 tapes now, after we know what was about to happen at Josh Powell’s house, the 911 call takers seem agonizingly dense and rude.

They ask questions that seem bizarrely off point, constantly interrupting and speaking over callers as they try to explain themselves.

As Powell is about to strike his children with a hatchet and set his house on fire, a 911 call taker asks Powell’s case worker, who is calling from her cellphone in the driveway in front of his Graham-area house, “Are you in a vehicle now or on foot?”

Then he wants to know the color of her car and its license number, which she needs to get out and check. He wants to know Powell’s date of birth, his height, his hair color and what he’s wearing.

As precious seconds tick by, he gets into a “who’s-on-first” exchange about who the case worker’s supervisor is and who’s being supervised.

“Wait a minute,” he says. “If it’s a supervised visit, you can’t supervise yourself if you’re the visitor.”

After nearly seven minutes of back and forth, the call taker gives the caseworker what sounds like a brush-off, telling her he doesn’t know how long it might take for the a deputy to get there.

“They have to respond to emergency, life-threatening situations first,” he says. “The first available deputy will respond.”

“This could be life-threatening,” the caseworker insists.

The difference, of course, is that we know the backstory. Call takers don’t.

“It’s much easier to assess, knowing what happened,” said Tom Orr, director of  Pierce County’s Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA), which runs the 911 center.

“The call taker didn’t know the outcome,” Orr said. “He didn’t know the situation.”

Also, it’s important to note that the long-winded exchange apparently did not cause a fatal delay.

Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer told reporters that even had dispatchers immediately sent Powell’s address to deputies in the field, it probably still would have been too late.

That said, Troyer made it clear Tuesday he was not happy with the way the calls were handled. On Wednesday, he was more circumspect.

“We’re going to let LESA look into it and figure it out,” he said.

Orr said LESA has launched “a full investigation” into how the Powell situation was handled.

“We heard the concerns that have been raised,” Orr said. “We take those concerns very seriously. Seconds count, and we’re obligated to process these calls as fast as possible.

“We will take a very close look at this call and make sure it was handled correctly.”

Orr declined to get into specifics about Sunday’s calls.

“I can’t comment on that because this is still under investigation and I’m the final decision maker,” he said.

Orr explained that in situations that are understood to be life-threatening emergencies, call takers have the ability to send information to dispatchers as they are typing, with a sort of instant-messaging function on their computers.

That way, he said, dispatchers don’t have to wait until call takers get off the phone to get the pertinent information to officers.

“If we have an incident that’s high priority we have the ability to forward that information immediately, through a computer-aided dispatch system,” he said.

In the Powell case, Orr said, the call taker did not regard the situation as an emergency and did not forward the information until the call ended.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Orr said,” Things that we now know about this evil tragedy are not always so clear to those involved in the initial moments. What happened with this call first comes to us blindly on the other side of a phone; it is only in hindsight that we see things that are not apparent to the call takers.”

Some who have listened to the tapes were struck with what seemed to be an impatient, abrupt tone by call takers.

Jodi Maier, the training supervisor at LESA, says that’s the way they’re supposed to sound.

“What we look for is people who have a slight Type-A personality,” she said, “They need to take control of the conversation. We don’t want them to be wishy-washy.

“When you call 911, you don’t want somebody answering the phone who doesn’t sound sure of themselves.”

Maier said questions can sometimes seem unimportant or off the point, but call takers are trying to quickly get answers that are critical to arriving officers.

All call takers, or “communications officers,” as LESA calls them, must complete an extensive training period before they’re allowed to handle calls themselves, Maier said. They take four weeks of classes, then spend five weeks “double plugged” with trainers, she said.

At the end of those five weeks, they must pass a skills assessment exam, then spend two weeks sitting next to a more experienced mentor as they take calls. They spend a year on probation before they’re tenured, Maier said.

Being second-guessed by the public over how calls were handled can be painful, she said, but it’s usually a valuable process.

“Any time you can reflect and review, it’s good,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to think how something could have been done better.”

However, Maier said, “I really do wish people would wait for the review before they make judgments.

 “There’s so much said that can’t be taken back when people go off and say things when they don’t have all the facts.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693

rob.carson@thenewstribune.com

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