Homeland Security and Public Safety

Are the Problems Associated With 911 Call-Taking a National Plight?

Since 911 call-takers and technology are the first line of response when citizens have an emergency, it’s surprising how standards vary throughout the nation.

Recordings of 911 calls gone awry have been played repeatedly by broadcast media and published verbatim by print media. Sometimes blamed on outdated technology, other times on the call-taker, these phone calls highlight two of the common problems associated with 911.

Technology and call-taker standards and training vary by state and locality, where counties and cities, even those next to one another, sometimes have varying requirements. To make matters worse, the current fiscal environment, where governments at all levels are feeling pain, is forcing some states to raid surcharges collected to pay for new 911 technologies in order to fund other initiatives. Other states are stifled by companies that provide emergency call center equipment that doesn’t connect with other vendors, therefore impeding the move toward next-generation 911.

From this two questions arise: Should 911 call-takers and technology be subject to national standards? And how can the nation get states to stop redirecting their 911 funds?

Nationwide Recognition

There are more than 6,180 public safety answering points (PSAPs) in the United States — the local centers that handle calls to 911. The call-takers and technology working in them are the first level of response when someone dials those crucial three numbers to report an emergency. Because of the varying standards for call-takers across state and local governments, it’s nearly impossible to identify a specific, all-encompassing issue or problem, but there is a movement to identify best practices for the field.

911 call center/Jason Pack DHS/FEMA

Photo: The standards for 911 call-takers and dispatchers vary throughout the nation, but some believe a federal standard should regulate their certification. Courtesy of Jason Pack DHS/FEMA.

In April 2009, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) created the Professional Communications Human Resource Taskforce (PRO-CHRT) to identify human resource issues related to public safety communications professionals. PRO-CHRT wants to establish consistency nationwide for call-takers and is working to identify how training standards vary at the state level. “The overall goal for the task force is for public safety communicators and dispatchers to be recognized as a profession, to be taken seriously,” said Kimberly Burdick, a PRO-CHRT subchair. “The type of work that dispatchers do is every bit as important as a nurse or doctor except that there just isn’t the professional recognition out there for dispatchers like there is for other professions.”

Task force members sent a questionnaire to each state requesting information about its training, such as if the state has legislation that requires call-taker certification. “But there are many states that don’t have any requirements, and then there are states that have volunteer certification,” said Burdick, who is also the 911 communications manager for the Chouteau County (Mont.) Sheriff’s Office.

Standards can vary even more. North Carolina has a required certification model for call-takers who work under a sheriff, but those working in the realms of emergency management, fire or police aren’t included. “That’s one of the things that we want to change,” said Richard Taylor, executive director of the North Carolina 911 Board, who also said he’d like to see these issues addressed nationally.

“One thing I would like to see is a certification process for all 911 call-takers that trains them, so whether they’re in Los Angeles, New York or Jones County, N.C., everybody has the same kind of training to be answering 911 calls,” he said. “It’s scary when you hear 911 calls being played on the news where a call went bad, and you hear fundamental things that if they had received proper training, possibly that call could have gone differently.”

This could be implemented all the way down to how 911 calls are answered, Taylor added. If there were a systematic set of questions asked by call-takers nationwide, it would be easier to educate the public about what questions will be asked and why.

The variance in call-taker standards also has led some organizations, like APCO and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), to support the creation of national requirements. “If you think about it, would you allow a police officer, firefighter or paramedic to function in the field without at least a minimum set of standardized training? You wouldn’t,” said Craig Whittington, NENA president and the 911 and special projects coordinator for Guilford Metro 911 in Greensboro, N.C. “Then why in the world would you let the first link in the most critical part of the system — the contact directly between the citizen and the field responder — not have the same training?”

But it’s unclear who would enforce such standard. Ken Lowden, executive director of the Indiana Wireless Enhanced 911 Advisory Board, thinks that the federal government could identify broad, minimum standards or specify areas that require training, but that it should remain a local issue. “I’ve been in government an awfully long time and the one thing I don’t think government does — and I don’t care where you are in government — we don’t do a very good job in very large projects most of the time,” he said. Implementing a federal requirement in the nation’s 6,000-plus PSAPs would constitute a very large project. Lowden added that sometimes projects must be jump-started at the federal level, but it shouldn’t set the final mandates.

Supporting Localities

In 2005, Tennessee’s General Assembly put call-taker and dispatcher training under the state Emergency Communications Board’s purview, and it set requirements modeled after APCO’s public safety telecommunicator standards. Because training is a high priority for the board, it recently started a $2 million program to help districts pay for the training, said Lynn Questell, executive director of the board. The training includes at least 40 hours of supervised on-the-job training and 40 hours of public safety communications course work within the first six months of employment.

“We feel it’s an extremely high priority and the board does not like to do unfunded mandates,” she said, “so the board dug deep and found some funding for dispatcher training. We’re really proud of that.”

Elaine Pittman  |  Managing Editor

Managing Editor Elaine Pittman has nearly a decade of experience in writing and editing, having started her career with The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. Elaine joined Emergency Management in 2008, and she can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.