For most people in crisis, the first point of contact for help is not the officer or the firefighter, but a voice on the phone line. A missing loved one, a car crash, a harrowing encounter with a violent stranger: dialing 911 happens as the situation unfolds, or in its immediate aftermath.
But who answers those calls? And who sends help? In Berkeley, at any given time, four to six people are charged with those responsibilities. Earlier this year — as the police department grappled to reorganize its dispatch center prompted by tensions with officers, complaints from the public and a lawsuit that aimed to highlight, and drive, needed changes in practice — Berkeleyside signed up to “sit along” on a Friday night dispatch shift for an inside look at how the office runs.
What challenges does the job bring, and what skills does it require? What do dispatchers wish the public knew? Is there a way to complain if a dispatcher falls short? Read on for an in-depth report on this crucial public service department, which handles critical situations throughout Berkeley on a daily basis.
“You can’t be in a dispatch center if you can’t listen to 100 things at once”
In a dimly-lit room in the Berkeley Police Department, where screens outnumber bodies more than four to one, the ringing of the telephone can signal anything from a barking dog or loud party to a suicide attempt, a brutal killing or a hostage situation.
On their screens, dispatchers can see where officers are located, and which officer is assigned to a particular beat. There are windows in the room, but the blinds are drawn and the light is kept low to keep the focus on the work and on the calls. Dispatchers are, for the most part, sequestered in that space and visually cut off from the outside world.
Dispatchers work together to collect and share information. While one person gets details from a caller, typing them into a computer, another can view updates and pass them on.
Over about six hours, throughout the shift Berkeleyside monitored, calls included a missing at-risk woman and the movie theater employee who found her, a missing 8-year-old girl who turned up safe, a car stop where officers recovered a hidden 12-inch knife, an armed robbery near Telegraph Avenue, and several stolen vehicles. Nothing too out of the ordinary, just another Friday night in Berkeley.
Generally, at least one person is assigned to answer the phone while others send out first responders. One person deals with fire and medical calls, and another the police response. Another person in the room handles records searches, such as looking up warrants, criminal history and the serial numbers of recovered weapons.
Erin Netz, a former kindergarten teacher who now works in the Public Safety Communication Center — or “comm center,” for short — said one of the key skills on the job is to be able to react fast to dynamic situations.
“It can go sideways at any time,” she said. “You have to be able to roll with it, to control the call so you know how to advise the officers.”
That process can be jarring to callers, who may want to take the conversation in a different direction.
Being inquisitive is important, as is not making assumptions, said Netz. Oftentimes, callers don’t know the right words to describe what they’ve seen. A stolen laptop or “burglary” could turn out to be an armed robbery that just happened, or a cold case from a week back.
The night of the sit-along, for example, a caller reported a burglary in a restaurant south of the UC Berkeley campus. Upon further prodding from a dispatcher, the call turned out to have been a robbery with a gun, which had just taken place. Calls get assigned different levels of priority, which determines response times. Knowing which questions to ask is key.
“I call it ‘dental dispatching,’” said Netz. “You have to dig it out of people. If you don’t ask the question, you won’t get the answer.”
Priority 1 calls, those involving imminent harm or youth under 12, or injury accidents, get an immediate response. Priority 2 calls, such as suspicious vehicles or people, or threats of violence but with no weapon seen, are dispatched within 20 minutes (though it may be faster depending on available resources). Priority 3 calls are those in which a significant amount of time has passed, such as a burglary the prior night; the department aims to respond to those within an hour. Then there are the 4s and 5s, such as parking matters or abandoned vehicles, which can take even longer.
Dispatchers learn to use what’s called a “split ear.” They wear headsets over one ear, which they use to hear callers or monitor radio traffic. With the uncovered ear, they can listen to each other and share important information, even during calls.
“You can’t be in a dispatch center if you can’t listen to 100 things at once,” said Netz. “All we have are verbal cues.”
Officials: Under new leadership, problems are addressed
In recent years, complaints about the comm center have come in from disgruntled community members and police officers alike. Some residents have said dispatchers too often are rude, and can be dismissive of important tips. As a result, they say they’ve given up calling in suspicious activity altogether.
Officers have questioned whether Berkeley dispatchers receive adequate training. At times, officers have said they feel their lives are put at risk as a result. For their part, dispatchers have said they sometimes feel undermined by officers and unfairly criticized by people inside and outside the department.
Several longstanding issues related to the comm center came to a head last year. First, there was an internal Berkeley Police working group that met for months to come up with a list of proposed corrections to deal with perceived deficits. The group outlined its suggestions in a detailed memo, which the city declined to provide to Berkeleyside despite a public records request.
But those familiar with the document said it included everything from the need for a more focused work environment, without distractions such as cellphones and TV; to better training to improve consistency as far as what questions dispatchers ask, such as whether a weapon was seen, to ensure that officers know key information when they respond to what may be a volatile situation; and more staffing, to make sure, among other things, officers can reach dispatch immediately when the need arises.
Midway through last year, the manager of the comm center resigned abruptly, leaving a leadership gap. Capt. Erik Upson, who oversees the patrol division, was placed in charge. The idea was that Upson would be able to better address tensions between dispatch and officers if both were under his authority. (Previously, the dispatch center was in a separate division with its own chain of command. That meant that complaints related to officers and dispatchers had to be filtered through different captains, which slowed down problem-solving and added complexity to dealing with disputes.)
Upson has since standardized several procedures that previously were less organized, related to the center’s mission, policies and training. He appointed Lt. Ed Spiller in September 2013 to oversee the comm center in the short term. The department landed on a more permanent solution in June, when Monique Frost became the new comm center manager. Frost wasn’t new to the department, by a long shot. She worked as a Berkeley dispatcher for 18 years prior to her recent promotion.
Issues outside the department have also had an impact. Last October, the city resolved a lawsuit with the family of Peter Cukor, who was killed by an intruder at his Berkeley Hills home in 2012. Cukor’s family has said his death might have been averted had his call for help been handled differently by dispatch. The family agreed to drop its lawsuit in exchange for promises by the city to change the questions dispatchers ask, as well as the information they provide to, people calling to report crimes.
By several accounts, all of those changes have helped put the center on the right path to correct longstanding problems that needed to be addressed.
“We are the ones you never see”
Earlier this month, Upson and Frost spoke at the monthly Berkeley Safe Neighborhood Committee meeting to describe what happens at dispatch, as well as some of Frost’s plans, which include beefing up staffing, building a stronger relationship with the community and creating more opportunities for training.
Upson described dispatching as an “increasingly challenging job that’s incredibly stressful.” He said it can be tough for dispatchers to respond to what, at times, can amount to dozens of calls at once, while collecting critical information quickly to pass on to officers. Frost acknowledged this can, at times, be at odds with making callers feel respected.
“Our goal is to be professional, polite and courteous,” she said. “That does not always happen.”
Frost said that, though their actions are closely monitored, dispatchers have a low profile in the community. Working 10-14 hours a day, including weekends and holidays, 365 days a year — plugged into the phone lines or the police radio, and monitoring several screens of data simultaneously — doesn’t lend itself to being widely known beyond one’s voice.
“We are the ones you never see, although we do wear uniforms,” she said. “Oftentimes, if people do see us, we get confused with parking enforcement. Many times I’ve been asked to sign off on a ticket. Which is not what I have the authority to do,” she quipped.
In Berkeley, training for the job includes a three-week dispatch academy, followed by an in-house instructional program that involves learning the basics of call taking and the computer system, among other tasks. It can be a month before dispatchers “go solo” to answer calls without a trainer.
Then they learn how to search for records, and spend a couple weeks in the classroom studying how to dispatch fire and medical calls, with several more weeks with a trainer before going solo on that desk. The final, most complex, assignment is the police channel. Dispatchers learn how to set up block covers, figure out who to send to a call and how to send out officers safely.
The probation period lasts two years, and the “fall-out rate” is very high, said Spiller, who oversaw the dispatch center until July. “The drop-out rate is at least 50%, probably county wide, state wide. It’s not a job that everybody can do.”
“We have to be professional in some of the worst moments in people’s lives”
Everything dispatchers do is recorded. It can be played back and scrutinized, Monday-morning-quarterbacked and criticized. They have to be ready to handle a power outage that takes out their system, the failure of police radios, or computers on the fritz in police cruisers. It can make for a stressful work environment.
Comm center supervisor Kim Reeve said the job sees a lot of turnover. By her estimate, just 1% of Berkeley dispatchers make it to retirement. Since she began working in the department in 1984, she said she’s seen just three dispatchers get there.
Not everyone is cut out to work in a dark room for long shifts, seeing the same few faces over and over. It’s a sedentary job, and dispatchers spend more time with co-workers on their days on duty than they do with family. There’s often overtime needed, and calls in on days off, particularly because the center is understaffed, and has been for quite some time.
“You lose a lot of people,” Reeve said. “It takes its toll.”
She said many older dispatchers develop health problems, such as repetitive stress injuries, due to the challenges of the job. Then there’s the emotional stress.
“Any mistake you make can be fatal for somebody,” she said. “And if you make a bad enough decision, you’re done. We get a lot of abuse. We have to be professional in some of the worst moments in people’s lives. And they don’t know what we do, so we often have to educate them. And that can take a lot of patience.”
On top of all that, there’s the lack of resolution. Those answering the phones don’t usually learn what became of an emergency once officers take over. Sometimes, officers drop by to provide an update. But, for the most part, dispatchers aren’t informed about outcomes.
Reeve said successful dispatchers need to be fairly intelligent, good at asking questions, curious and persistent. Often, people won’t answer questions the first time, and dispatchers can’t be timid about pushing for the details they need.
“You have to force your way through the caller’s panic and keep problem solving,” she said. “You have to be pretty quick on your feet, and that’s a very difficult skill to teach somebody.”
Reeve said she was drawn to the career as a college student majoring in English at UC Berkeley. Initially, she considered security work — having, as a hobby, walked girls in her hall on errands to help keep them safe. Then a friend was hired as a dispatcher in Berkeley. Reeve thought it might be a good way to put her writing and computer skills to work, but be more challenging and meaningful than a typical desk job.
“I like to see justice done,” she said. “I like to help old people and children. When it goes crazy, it beats the desk job. That’s when most of us really like it.”
But major incidents aren’t the only calls that matter. Reeve also remembered an elderly woman, from years back, who left her purse — with her house keys and medication inside — at the library. At the time of the call, the library had closed, but dispatch tracked down someone who lived in town who was able to unlock the building. Dispatch called an officer to stand by, who helped the woman retrieve her purse and, afterward, gave her a ride home.
“When there’s a good bust, or a call where I can really help somebody, that’s what keeps you coming back,” she said.
“We’re alone for the first 10-15 minutes of a major incident”
Over the years, Reeve has seen extreme changes in technology. When she started in the 80s, there was a radio and phone bank, and dispatchers used computer cards and a conveyer belt system to track calls. There was a big binder listing police beats, fire station locations and census tracts. A board on the wall had red and green lights to show which units were available.
She recalled, during the big earthquake in 1989, crouching under a desk while she dispatched fire department calls, “hoping nothing would fall” on her. And there was the Henry’s Bar hostage situation in 1990.
“Things like that stay with you forever,” Reeve said. “I still remember the name of the man we didn’t save.”
During the Oakland-Berkeley Hills firestorm in 1991, Reeve recalled that the dispatch center — where it was then located — had no windows to see what was happening outside. She remembers making assurances to people calling from West and central Berkeley, when initial reports had the fire confined to Oakland.
“We didn’t know it was here. I picked up the phone and someone said, ‘It’s in my backyard,’” she said. “It’s a terrible realization. You’re behind before you even get started.”
With just a handful of dispatchers in the room, it’s easy for the phone lines to get overwhelmed during a major disaster or high-visibility incident. Not to mention the people who call in with questions but aren’t faced with an immediate threat: They want to know about the helicopter overhead, the sirens nearby, or the lack of electricity.
“People are calling just to get information when we’re trying to deal with another 50 people who are also calling and want to know if they’re in danger,” said Reeve. “Whatever your problem is: That’s the emergency, for you. People want to know when the power will come back on. We can’t tell you that.”
Reeve said it’s the initial minutes that are the toughest, when calls are pouring in, officers have yet to reach the scene and little is known for certain: “We’re alone for the first 10-15 minutes of a major incident. There’s nobody who can help us. It’s just us.”
Then there are the more mundane calls, where people are seeking help from police for non-criminal matters. They gave money to a vendor and didn’t like what they received. They got thrown out of a business. Dispatch is the only department, other than police patrol, that is staffed 24 hours a day, and it effectively serves as a call center for the entire city, whether people want to know about animal problems, parking matters or illegal dumping.
Police have little recourse in many of those situations. It can become a particular problem when people dial 911 to make those reports — rather than the non-emergency number — as there are limited 911 lines available. It’s the dispatcher’s job to keep them clear.
“People don’t really understand what police do,” said Reeve. “We have to tell people all the time things they don’t like. We’re brusque and direct, and people think it’s rude. But the next call waiting may be an emergency.”
On the horizon for Berkeley dispatch
At the community meeting earlier this month, Upson admitted it’s not always easy for dispatchers to “deal professionally with every caller,” particularly during a crisis. But he noted, too, that the job requires an “incredible skill set,” and described Berkeley’s dispatchers as “a marvelous group of people.”
The police department has 24 dispatchers and four supervisors. Frost said she’s working to hire at least four people in the near term, particularly because even more vacancies may be on the horizon.
She said she is also looking forward to new technology, such as text-to-911 functionality, for when callers are not able to talk, as well as — in the coming years — an improved phone system with caller ID (which is not currently available on most dispatch lines). Also on her agenda is more training. Due to staffing shortages, she said there has been “a great void” in the department in “providing training updates” for staff.
Frost told the group that — despite what some may think — the comm center’s goal is to “provide excellent customer service.” To that end, there’s a new mission statement in place that features the safety of first responders, as well as productivity, professionalism and teamwork. Frost said she hopes having the mission statement will make it clear to employees exactly what their goals are.
For callers who aren’t satisfied, however, there’s also a new complaint system. They can raise an issue directly with the involved dispatcher, ask to speak with a supervisor, or ask to speak with Frost herself. (If she is not available, callers can ask for the watch commander.)
Frost said building strong community relationships is one of her goals in the coming year, to help people better understand the job dispatchers do, and to learn more about what residents want and need.
Frost assured those in attendance that there is a reason for all the questions dispatchers ask, even though it may be hard to make sense of that during a crisis.
“We have to know what we’re sending our first responders into,” she explained. “They are your family. It’s basically like sending your brother, your sister, your child into a dangerous situation. You equip them the best you can, so they come out safe and there’s a safe resolution for everyone.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Berkeleyside asked dispatchers about some of the most common questions they receive, and what they wish the public had more awareness about. Read on to learn more.
Something doesn’t seem right. Should I call the police?
Said Frost: “We really need you to report any suspicious activity that you see. If something doesn’t look right or feel right, call. Trust your instincts.” Added Reeve: “If you really saw something, we really want you to call. If you just heard it, or if there are a lot of other people around, it may be less necessary.”
Why are you asking for my address? Don’t you know it?
Frost: “We don’t know specifically where you are, and there’s no database. The first thing we need to know is what’s going on and where it’s happening.” Even when an address does show up, during a 911 call, for example, it could be a billing address or cell tower coordinates. Dispatchers need to confirm your location.
Don’t you already know my phone number — why do I need to provide it?
Only the 911 lines at the dispatch center have caller ID. The non-emergency lines do not. The department is hoping for an upgrade, eventually.
Why is the person on the phone asking so many questions? Just send an officer already!
The person on the phone is different from the person sending help. Based on the information you provide, another dispatcher will determine what police or fire resources are needed, and in what time frame.
What information is helpful to provide when I call police?
- Said Frost, direction of travel can be critical, and knowing whether something is north or south, east or west, can make a major difference: “When we are getting information on who did the crime, we need to know: Where is the criminal? Most of the time, they don’t stick around. We need to know which way they went.”
- Was there a weapon seen or discussed?
- A “head to toe” physical description of the suspect, including age, race and complexion. Said Frost: “We’ll be stopping everybody on the street if we don’t know what we’re looking for. And that really is not an effective way to catch someone.”
- The make and model of an involved vehicle is ideal, but other details can help too: the color, number of doors, and whether it’s an SUV or a sedan, older or newer. License plates are “huge,” said Frost, but partial plates “don’t do us much good.” (There’s no way to run those through a database.)
I’m unhappy with the interaction I had with a dispatcher. What should I do?
There are three options: Speak directly with the dispatcher, ask to speak with a supervisor, or ask for Monique Frost herself. If Frost is not available, ask to speak with the watch commander. Frost is available by phone at 510-981-5943 and by email.
How do I reach the Berkeley Police Department dispatch center?
The non-emergency number for the dispatch center is 510-981-5900. In an emergency, dial 911 or 510-981-5911. Police encourage residents to program all cellphones with the 7-digit number to avoid getting routed through the CHP. (Those calling from around the city borders or near the freeway may be particularly at risk.) More contact information for the department is on the city website. Find out more about the dispatch center, including supervisor contact information and career training info.
What else should I know?
Said Reeve: “Don’t let your toddler play with the phone. And, if the phone’s in your pocket, lock it. We have to call all those [911 pocket dials] back.”
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