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Emergencies only: Cal Poly police call for a 911 reminder

Patty Cash-Henning, communications and records manager at Cal Poly University Police Department, works at the dispatch console. She said sometimes nonemergency calls come into 911, tying up limited resources.
Patty Cash-Henning, communications and records manager at Cal Poly University Police Department, works at the dispatch console. She said sometimes nonemergency calls come into 911, tying up limited resources. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Cal Poly’s University Police Department dispatch gets a wide range of 911 calls: reports of misguided goats, horses or pigs; late-night pocket dials from partying students; even one from a female student getting attacked by wild turkeys.

Last year, the department received more than 2,700 calls to its 911 dispatch, which handles calls from within the campus and its close surroundings.

But the department says it has often experienced people using the emergency line for nonemergency purposes, and it hopes to spread the word that 911 is for emergencies only.

Research has shown that nearly 25 percent of all calls statewide to the California 911 system concern nonemergency situations, according to Taylor Blackburn, a consultant working with Cal Poly and four other agencies, including Elk Grove Police Department, Anaheim Police Department, Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office and ShasCom (a consolidated 911 emergency response agency serving Shasta County), on a campaign promoting proper use of the line.

Nonemergency uses include requests for directions or reports of traffic blockages, power outages, animal nuisances and nonviolent public disturbances.

Cal Poly’s University Police Department communications manager Patty Cash-Henning, who trains dispatchers and takes calls herself, said most of the time the department has one working dispatcher on duty and that unnecessary calls can tie up lines.

“If multiple calls are coming in and someone is calling about a traffic issue or animal nuisance that’s not an emergency call, it takes time for the dispatcher to get off the phone with the person, and we potentially risk losing important time with a genuine emergency,” she said.

Throughout the month, Cash-Henning and Blackburn will pass out tip cards at public events, such as the San Luis Obispo Farmers Market on Thursdays, and coordinating announcements and presentations.

They will serve to help the public better handle calls for help, with blank spaces in which recipients can write in numbers for the police, Sheriff’s Office, fire department and animal control.

The cards also have an address line for those calling 911 to readily know their exact location.

On the large campus with spacious buildings, it can be too vague to say, “I’m in the engineering building,” or, “I’m in the Poly Canyon Village” dorms, Cash-Henning said. “One of the things the tip cards do is remind people to know their exact location, so when they call, they can be specific and officers can get to the scene more efficiently,” Cash-Henning said.

The awareness campaign also includes public announcements and presentations.

Over the years, Cal Poly police have responded to reports of a plane crash, a major earthquake, sexual assaults, heart attacks and suicides.

The department has a team of one part-time and five full-time dispatchers and 15 to 20 full-time sworn officers.

The department beefs up its patrol around Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and Week of Welcome — traditional party weekends that tend to see a higher need for law enforcement response, university police Officer Frank Herrera said.

“Dispatchers are more or less our lifeline,” Herrera said. “They help us with location and safety. They’ll find out if somebody has a weapon and relay that information to us so we’re prepared when we get to the scene. It’s a very close relationship between the officers and dispatch.”

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