Benefits and challenges of community responder dispatch models
Jurisdictions with community responder programs typically rely on one of three dispatch structures: 911 call center-led dispatch, embedded professional-led dispatch, and external hotline-led dispatch, each with its own benefits and challenges.
911 call center-led dispatch
Many jurisdictions with community response programs use a 911 call center-led dispatch model. Call takers use their established protocol to determine the nature and priority of the emergency, just as they would if sending a call to the police. Call takers categorize the call, assign it a priority level, and input relevant information into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. The call taker asks screening questions to determine if the call is eligible for community responders, and if so, the dispatcher sends out the unit if available.
This model requires fewer changes to current protocols and systems, but it has some drawbacks. Call takers are already used to asking screening questions and, in many cases, identifying calls for specialized units. The police dispatch system can efficiently handle high numbers of calls and allows for streamlined integration of other emergency responses when needed, such as tandem dispatch—sending community responders along with other emergency responders—or rapid police backup. However, call takers must overcome hesitancy to send out unarmed responders, which requires thoughtful training, clear protocols, and support for an already overtaxed workforce. Additionally, community members who hesitate to call 911 may find this approach less accessible.
Embedded professional-led dispatch
Embedded professional-led dispatch involves situating skilled professionals in 911 call centers to engage with callers directly or assist call takers with the decision of deploying community responders. Typically, 911 call takers transfer certain calls to the embedded professionals, who gather additional information from the caller and determine the appropriate course of action. Sometimes, the embedded professional can avert an in-person response entirely by counseling the caller over the phone.
This model has a number of benefits: fostering knowledge sharing between call center staff and the embedded professionals; bringing specialized expertise into the call center; relieving some of the call center workload; preventing unnecessary in-person responses; and enhancing in-person responses—even police responses—with over-the-phone support. But it does have drawbacks. Cities must hire and staff the embedded professionals, and call centers need to provide them with space and equipment. Transferring calls to an embedded professional also adds an extra step, which can slow down the process. Finally—and most critically—embedded professionals generally specialize in speaking with a person in a mental health crisis or their family member. They are extremely helpful in these cases, but they constitute a small minority of low-risk calls eligible for community responders, most of which involve conflict resolution with strangers. Ultimately, embedded professionals can be an asset in the 911 call center, but alone this model is unlikely to provide sufficient screening and dispatching of community responders.
External hotline-led dispatch
In external hotline-led dispatch, 911 call centers identify eligible calls and forward them to an external hotline, which handles call-taking and responder dispatch. The public can also call the external hotline directly and avoid calling 911 entirely.
This model reduces the burden on 911 dispatchers, since the external hotline handles dispatch. It enables the public to avoid calling 911 and instead reach a center better tailored to their specific situation. The external hotline operators also often possess the expertise to provide phone-only responses for certain issues. This model also comes with challenges. Hotline-based service providers tend to be more specialized and are therefore hesitant to handle a wide set of call types. They also are unlikely to operate 24/7 and may need additional staff to ensure sufficient capacity. While there are benefits to the fact that these hotlines operate outside of the 911 call center, this separation also creates new challenges: 911 call takers are more reluctant to transfer calls to an external entity; the call transfer process itself can be frustrating to callers; 911 and hotline call takers have limited ability to share information because they use separate data systems; and the city has less control over hotline operations, especially if it is run by a private organization. Finally, in order to enjoy the benefits of the public calling the external hotline directly, the city must conduct a concerted effort to raise public awareness.
Frequently asked questions
Why do some community responder programs handle significantly more calls than others?
Call volume for community responder programs is closely tied to which call types a program covers and how those calls are coded and screened.
The majority of 911 calls are sorted into police call types, which can be broad categories that include both low-risk calls eligible for community responders and higher-risk calls that are not appropriate. Analyzing 911 call narrative data can help determine which police call types contain a sizable share of calls eligible for community responders. Call takers need training and clear protocols to learn to screen these calls in real time. Medical call types are more specific and easier to screen for community responders, and they may include lower-acuity calls that community responder programs can expand to include.
Jurisdictions looking to increase their call volume should consider taking on low-risk conflict calls, which outnumber the behavioral health calls that many programs already handle. In order to effectively handle conflict calls, cities can add new responders or train existing responders in conflict resolution and mediation.
How does dispatch determine if a call is appropriate for community responders?
Call takers must appropriately screen incoming calls to ensure the safety of community responders. They generally look for four disqualifiers: weapons; a credible threat of violence; emergency medical needs; or urgent police-only needs, such as entering a residence or vehicle without consent or retrieving crime scene evidence.
Most existing programs create a list of default call types designated as appropriate for community responders. Call takers can then focus on screening calls in these categories for the four disqualifiers. Cities should not disqualify calls simply because a crime was committed, since community responders can handle many calls involving minor violations such as trespassing.
Call taker screening processes should be developed through collaboration across stakeholder groups. In creating the necessary protocols and policies, community responder program staff should work together with 911 call center staff—call takers, dispatchers, and supervisors.
In addition to sound protocols, call takers need hands-on training in order to overcome years of experience sending the police to calls that are appropriate for community responders. Training programs, which are critical for both dispatch center staff and supervisors, may include modules on de-escalation, mental health, information sharing, motivational interviewing, engagement with community responder teams and/or embedded professionals, conflict resolution, and call transfers. Cities can bring together call takers, dispatchers, and community responder teams in field training and informal settings so that they establish a shared understanding of their respective roles and expertise. The training should also incorporate community stakeholders to share their perspectives.
How do community responders make an impact beyond 911 calls?
Community responders are not exclusively dispatched through 911. They can respond to calls that come in through nonemergency police lines, external hotlines, or lines that directly dial the community responder program. Community responder teams can also take referrals directly from police who have responded to a situation and have determined that it was more appropriate for a community responder. They can also be sent out in tandem with police if there is a heightened safety concern. Community responders can also initiate proactive encounters when they identify and engage with a person in need.
How does community responder dispatch relate to the new 988 number?
988, the national suicide and crisis lifeline, launched in 2022, but its implementation and funding has varied across states. Some jurisdictions utilize community responder programs to enhance 988’s capabilities or increase capacity. In other jurisdictions, community responder programs transfer calls directly to 988. And in others, a single external crisis hotline provider dispatches community responders to calls received from both 988 and transferred from 911. Jurisdictions can ensure streamlined responses to crises by coordinating across community responder programs and 988 systems and developing consistent public education campaigns regarding 988 and 911.
How should cities engage community stakeholders in designing and implementing community responder dispatch?
Engaging community stakeholders in the development and implementation of community responder programs is critical. Jurisdictions should use a variety of strategies to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how various community members interact with the 911 system and ensure policy changes are responsive to community needs. Jurisdictions often employ a combination of engagement activities, including focus groups, advisory committees, surveys, town hall meetings, and interviews. Several principles should guide this work: commitment to transparency, openness to feedback, a desire for genuine partnership, respect for and responsiveness to local history, accessibility of activities, and ensuring compensation for community participants.
Cities nationwide are developing, implementing, and expanding community responder programs in an effort to improve the quality of services provided to people calling 911 for help. The integration of community responders will require making thoughtful changes to existing dispatch policies and practices, which were not created with these new programs in mind. Selecting and implementing the right dispatch model is an important step in positioning community responders to be as effective as possible within the changing public safety ecosystem.