How To Be A Good R.P.

by David W. Schultheis
Communications Dispatcher II -and- Emergency Medical Dispatcher
Santa Clara County Communications Department, San Josť, California

When you pick up the telephone to call someone, whether it is a friend, family member or business acquaintance, it is wise to know what you are going to say. This is particularly true when you pick up the telephone to call for emergency services: your local or state police, county sheriff, highway patrol, fire department, paramedics or rescue squad. This document is an effort to help you to know what to say.

This page is under construction.

In the language of many police departments, the term "RP" is used to mean "reporting person" or "reporting party." You might hear a dispatcher telling a patrol unit to "see the RP" or you might hear the unit ask the dispatcher to "call the RP and have someone come to the door."

Every call for service has an RP; the calls don't simply materialize from out of thin air. But not all RPs want their names given. Lots of RPs want to remain anonymous, so you might hear the dispatcher tell the unit that the call came from an "anonymous RP." You might also hear the dispatcher tell the unit that the RP "does not want contact." Someone did call, they just don't want their identity known.

Sometimes people are worried that they are going to get harassed by their neighbors if they report, for example, a barking dog or loud music. They would prefer not being "burned" or identified as "the one who called the cops." (There are ways to minimize the possibility of getting "burned." See below.)

In many cities across the nation with E911 ("Enhanced 9-1-1") service, your address and telephone number are displayed on a VDT (video display terminal) and/or printed on paper at the moment the call is answered at a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). In some cases your name is displayed, in some cases it is not. Generally speaking, "listed" telephone numbers are displayed with the name of the person on the account while "unlisted" telephone numbers do not display the name.

The good thing is that help can be sent to the address on the screen in case there's an emergency and you can't talk. The bad thing is that if your telephone number is billed to an address other than your home or office, it might not display the correct address of the emergency. The point to be remembered here is that the displayed address is "probably" where the emergency is. Most public safety agencies ask the address, regardless of whether there is an address displayed, just to be sure. You can help get assistance to the right location by knowing where the emergency is occurring before you call.

In most places, when you dial 9-1-1 from a landline telephone (home or office, pay phone or PBX, grocery store or city park), the address of the telephone will be displayed to the dispatcher, as noted above. If you would prefer that the local agency not have the address displayed, you should not dial 9-1-1. Instead, dial the seven-digit emergency or non-emergency number for that agency. Remember that most agencies will protect your privacy, if asked. Officers don't usually say to the drug dealers, "Yes, the lady in the green house called," but if you are afraid of being identifed, afraid of the neighbors, afraid of whatever, then you can make your report anonymously. Just tell the dispatcher, "I'm afraid of these people," or "I'm afraid of retribution," or something similar. It will be incumbent upon you to give the exact location - address and nearest cross street (see below) in order for the police (or whomever) to find the incident location.

Being a good reporting person begins well before you pick up the phone. There are several things you can do as a resident of your community to ensure that help responds as quickly as possible when there is an emergency.

Do not begin to tell a long story about what has happened in the past. Emergency services dispatchers need to know what is happening now. Some examples:

It is possible that it's important for the dispatcher to know what happened yesterday or last week or last month. But if you begin with a long story, it will only delay getting emergency equipment enroute. Start out with a brief, concise statement indicating what is happening now so that the dispatcher can get help on the way. If the dispatcher feels that the responding units will need additional information, it will be asked.

Be sure that your home is well identified and/or well marked. Address numbers should be on the building and/or at the curb. If you live in a rural area, putting your address numbers on the mailbox or on a post can be helpful to responding agencies. Proper placement and maintenance of street name signs is important, too. If you live in a city, you should notify the public works or road maintenance department if the signs are not in place. If you live in an apartment or condominium complex, reporting broken or missing signs to the manager, superintendent or management company can be very important. If you live on private property in a rural area, you may be responsible for posting addresses and road name signs yourself. You have to think about the balance between your desire for privacy and the public safety agencies' need to find your home in an emergency.

Many times people under stress call from rural areas and then have to give long and complicated directions. In the middle of the night, when someone is breaking in, or when there is a medical emergency, it's hard to give directions. It's even more difficult for emergency services dispatchers to write down and relay to their units to "turn left at the big tree, then keep to the right, look for a fork in the road, go all the way to the top of the hill, last house on the left." It would be nice for all emergency services personnel to know where every family lives, but that is not possible, except in very small communities. Even then, there is no guarantee that they will be familiar with "the old Johnson place." If you don't want your name or house number visible, for privacy reasons, you can put a certain color marking on small signs at the edge of the road so you can tell the fire department to "follow the small yellow reflectors to my house" or something similar. If you have a switch to make your porch light flash on and off, that would be helpful. If you can activate a flashing light on the top of your house, that would be helpful. If someone can "go down to the main road" and wait for the first responders, that would be helpful. Remember that in many places the fire department and the paramedics or rescue squad will both be coming, so someone needs to "go back down to the main road" to wait for the second responders, or maybe to light a road flare or leave a traffic cone or pylon at the driveway.

What are the addresses of your immediate neighbors? What are the names of the streets surrounding the street on which you live? What is the name of the street that runs behind your house? What is the address of the house directly behind your house? If you live in a rural area, with neighbors some distance away, what is their address? Do you know their phone number?

What is the "closest cross street?" Most people know the name of two major streets which intersect near their home. But that is NOT always the "closest cross street." The nearest major intersection will help your local appliance delivery company find your house on a map, but public safety agencies need to know the CLOSEST intersecting street. If you were to walk out your front door and down to the nearest corner, THAT is the closest cross street. It might be a major street, a minor street or even an alley or a court, but it is an intersection. Most public safety agencies have geo-files which list the closest cross street to every address they serve. Some geo-files show two streets, between which lies the address in question. You can help by knowing the closest cross street.

Dispatchers at every public safety communications center take calls from the occasional resident who says "there is no cross street." Well, there is a cross street somewhere, unless you live on a remote airstrip, inaccessible by roads. Even if you live on a rural road, "five miles from the Interstate," then "the Interstate" is your closest cross street, even though it's that far away.

Explaining to the Dispatcher what you're reporting can be difficult when you're under stress, especially if you're a victim of a crime.

If you come home from work and find that someone has broken into your house, you are reporting a burglary, not a robbery, no matter how popular the phrase "we wuz robbed!" In most places burglary is either breaking in or entering an occupied building while robbery is the forceful taking of something from you, with or without a weapon. It's helpful to use the proper word. It's also important to know if the suspect(s) are still there or gone.

The dispatcher needs to get the address so that help can be sent as soon as possible. While the responding officer will need a complete list of what was taken in the burglary, it is more important that dispatcher to get your correct address and telephone number. When the officers arrive and determine that the burglars are gone and you are safe, then they will need to know what was taken.

If it's clearly a prior burglary (the criminals are gone), you can begin a list of the missing items while the officers or deputies are responding.

Burglary - California Penal Code Section 459 - Every person who enters any house, room, apartment, tenement, shop, warehouse, store, mill, barn, stable, outhouse or other building, tent, vessel [...], floating home [...], railroad car, locked or sealed cargo container [...],trailer coach [...], any house car [...], inhabited camper [...], vehicle as defined by the Vehicle Code, when the doors are locked [...], or mine or any underground portion thereof, with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary. [edited version]

On the other hand, if someone puts a gun to your head and demands money (and you give them the money), you have been robbed. It is equally important to know where you are as it is to know where the suspect went. Most police agencies will send units to contact you and other units to look for the suspect. If you can maintain your calmness long enough to give a good description of the suspects, the police or sheriff have a better chance of catching them before they get too far. It will be very stressful to try to give suspect descriptions but it is very important to do so. Screaming at the dispatcher "just get someone over here" will not help the police or sheriff catch the criminals.

Robbery - California Penal Code Section 211 - Robbery is the felonious taking of personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence, and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear.

Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to stop at a fire station to report a non-injury accident on the freeway. Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to flag down a sewer truck or traffic signal technician to report a fire. These workers may have radios in their vehicles but they are not necessarily dispatched by the same people. The sewer dispatcher may not have the proper phone number to dial and your call may not get through quickly. It is better to find a pay phone and dial 9-1-1 or your local emergency services. If you do go to the fire station, ask them to use the phone to dial 9-1-1; this will assure that you, the RP, the person who has the information, gets to talk to the dispatcher who will be sending help.

To be continued ...

The opinions expressed are my own, based upon 28 years* of dispatching experience and 2 1/2 years of reserve police officer experience. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer.

* Since September 20, 1973.

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Created on April 3, 1996. Last updated on February 11, 2002.
David W. Schultheis, San Josť, Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County, California, USA