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The Essential Elements of PMHC Programs

4. Call-Taker and Dispatcher Protocols

Call takers and dispatchers identify critical information to direct calls to the appropriate responders, inform the law enforcement response, and record this information for analysis and as a reference for future calls for service.

When 911 or other call takers receive a request for service they suspect involves a person with a mental illness, they should gather descriptive information on the person’s behavior; determine whether the individual appears to pose a danger to him- or herself or others; ascertain whether the person possesses or has access to weapons; and ask the caller about the person’s history of mental health or substance abuse treatment, violence, or victimization. All call takers should receive training on how to collect the most useful information quickly. To supplement this training, members of the coordinating group with mental health backgrounds should develop a concise list of questions for call takers to have on hand when answering service requests that seem to involve someone with a mental illness.

Call takers and dispatchers must have an understanding of the purpose of the specialized program and how it works—particularly what types of calls for service should be directed to particular officers or teams. Dispatchers must be provided with up-to-date information on staffing patterns during all shifts and over all geographic areas that identify law enforcement or mental health responders designated to respond to calls that appear to involve a person with a mental illness.

The coordinating group should also provide these personnel with specific guidance on how to record information in the dispatch database about calls in which mental illness may be a factor. The information should be used for assessing procedures, informing future responses, and evaluating program outcomes (see Element 10 for more on how evaluations promote sustainability). Locations of repeat calls for service involving individuals with mental illnesses can be coded to help ensure that specially trained officers will be dispatched to respond to those locations in the future. Coding can help agencies ultimately reduce call and transport time, as well as potential injuries to all involved, by dispatching experienced officers. To protect community members’ privacy, the notes made on these locations must never identify specific individuals and must be reviewed periodically to ensure accuracy (see Element 7 for more on confidentiality concerns). Responding officers should also validate and update this information when they clear a call to that location. All communications personnel and responding officers should be instructed to avoid using slang and pejorative language when describing individuals thought to have a mental illness.