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 Sometimes blamed on outdated technology, other times on the call-taker, these phone calls highlight two of the common problems associated with 911.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?
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.
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.
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.”
Not all states offer monetary support for call-taker training. Montana requires new employees to attend a 40-hour course at the law enforcement academy within the first 12 months of work. However, Burdick said, local agencies must foot the bill. She would like to see that developed into an 80-hour course, but added that training doesn’t usually end with the state-required course. Chouteau County’s training period is 640 hours and includes emergency medical dispatcher (EMD) certification — another aspect of 911 call-taking that varies by agency.
EMD training certifies the call-taker or dispatcher to provide medical information and prearrival instructions over the phone before first responders arrive on the scene. “It’s not enough that a communicator knows CPR. Just knowing CPR doesn’t qualify you to give instructions,” Whittington said. “Being an EMD and knowing CPR is like champagne and water — totally different ends of the spectrum.”
Taylor also said it should be a national standard for call-takers to receive training to give medical instructions over the phone, for example, to a woman in labor or even someone with a gunshot wound. “We need to have that capability globally across the United States and not just in those 911 centers that have the privilege of having a few extra dollars for that type of service,” he said.
As with most government projects, funding is the main barrier to implementing new technologies for 911 call centers and PSAPs. Every state collects a monthly 911 surcharge from wireless and landline phone customers, which ranges from about 20 cents to $2.50, according to a NENA report. The money is collected to enhance 911 technologies at the PSAPs. However, the recession has led some states to raid their 911 coffers to fund other projects.
“The unfortunate thing is there is really no firm stick that would ‘disincent’ a state from raiding its 911 funds,” said Brian Josef, director of regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association. “While they may lose some federal funding [by raiding the coffers], often what we’ve seen is a state raiding the 911 fund is taking much more out of that fund than they end up losing in federal grants. So in these economic times, we understand the situation that states may be facing, but they’re robbing their constituents of effective 911 service.”
When jurisdictions use money from their 911 fund for other initiatives, the federal government can withhold 911 funding. Some are making changes to their funds to try to avoid the penalty.
According to Dispatch Magazine, a Wisconsin Legislature joint committee amended a bill to change the name of the surcharge from “911 fee” to the “police and fire protection fee” in June 2009 to avoid conflict with the federal legislation. New York changed the description of its surcharge from “911” to “public safety communications,” The Buffalo News reported, and it was raised from 70 cents to $1.20 in 2002. The surcharge generated about $600 million in 15 years, but only $84 million was distributed to municipalities that operate 911 centers, according to the newspaper.
“We have states out there that are diverting tens of millions of dollars from 911 funds to go into other pots, such as buying vehicles, guns, uniforms and equipment for first responders,” said NENA’s Whittington. “The funds were created to fund 911 centers; we have 911 centers out there with woefully outdated equipment and even the ones with the best equipment need to be preparing for next-generation 911.”
As of press time, NENA was preparing a letter for Congress asking for congressional intervention to stop states from diverting 911 funds, he said. The CTIA, NENA and APCO come together when they hear that a governor might raid a state’s 911 fees. “In some cases we’ve been successful at getting them to back off, and I know that in Maryland the governor, after announcing intentions to raid, has not taken those funds,” Josef said. “But in other states, they need the money and really there’s nothing to sway them from that.”
The history of 911 is a long one, but to put it in perspective, President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended in 1967 that there should be a single number for people to call to reach police departments and that this number should eventually be used nationwide. In 1968, AT&T designated 911 as its universal emergency number, and the FCC recommended in 1972 that the number be used across the U.S. In 1974, the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funded a program to test the cost and benefits of an enhanced 911 (E911) program in Alameda County, Calif., which used selective routing — the capability to route a call to a specific PSAP.
The proliferation of cell phones has created the need for new technologies in 911 centers because people assume that call-takers automatically know their phone number and location, which isn’t always true. As of December 2009, 285.6 million U.S. residents used cell phones and 22.7 percent of U.S. households were wireless only, meaning they lack a landline telephone, which for decades was the main way people called 911, according to the CTIA.
PSAPs and wireless network carriers have been implementing E911 technology that will provide call-takers with the wireless caller’s phone number and estimated location. The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 required the implementation of E911, to be executed in two phases.
Phase I required wireless carriers to provide the PSAP with the telephone number of the 911 caller and the location of the cell site or base station receiving the call. Phase II required the carriers to provide Automatic Location Identification, which identifies the address or geographic location of the calling device within 300 meters; this was to be completed by the end of 2005. Local call centers have upgraded or are in the process of upgrading their technology to use the data provided by E911. However, in February 2010 NENA found that about 10 percent of the nation’s PSAPs hadn’t installed the equipment to use that information. The issue once again comes back to funding: According to a U.S. General Accountability Office report, "Not all states have implemented a funding mechanism for wireless E911, and of those that have, some have redirected E911 funds to unrelated uses.”
Consumer technology is pushing the evolution of 911 technology even further. Popular technologies like text messaging, photos and videos and the need to transfer calls and data between PSAPs has led to the need for next-generation 911, which will run off statewide public safety IP networks. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration, “The next-generation 911 initiative will establish the foundation for public emergency services in this wireless environment and enable an enhanced 911 system compatible with any communications device.”
Many consider Indiana a leader in the next-generation 911 initiative. It has a statewide IP network that’s based on a redundant high-speed fiber network. “We have an IP network that is dedicated solely to 911,” Lowden said. “We have all the counties that we can connected to it and the ability to transfer both voice and data.”
Indiana’s PSAPs have been connected to the IP network for about three years, except those that are served by AT&T. He said the AT&T counties aren’t connected because the company does a straight lease of PSAP equipment to the localities, which means it retains full control of the equipment and it refused the Indiana Wireless Enhanced 911 Advisory Board connectivity to its equipment. Counties that work with other vendors buy the equipment or do a lease purchase on it, so they control any changes made to it.
Lowden said calls can be transferred to the AT&T counties, but they must pass through the company’s router, which causes them to lose the digital advantage. “If there’s a Verizon county next door, they can’t transfer the call out of the AT&T network into a Verizon territory,” he said. “Once the call is inside the AT&T network it has to stay there.” This can impede public safety because additional information, like the caller’s location and phone number, won’t be transferred to a PSAP operating on another vendor’s equipment — just the person’s voice — therefore eliminating the benefits of E911.
Indiana isn’t the only state to run into provider-related hurdles. “In North Carolina, we have three major telephone companies that are 911 service providers: CenturyLink, AT&T and Verizon,” Taylor said. “And just in the county that I’m sitting in right now, Wake County, all three of those companies operate. We cannot transfer voice and data from the centers in Wake County to another center because one operates under AT&T, one under CenturyLink and one under Verizon.”
He said the companies lack interconnection agreements to exchange information, which is fundamental in next-generation 911. However, similar to the situation in Indiana, North Carolina has found AT&T to be the most challenging to work with, Taylor said. “Companies like AT&T will absolutely refuse to allow us to have those interconnections agreements,” he said. “In fact, they have gone through all kinds of lawsuits and not just in our state, but in other states, trying to keep other companies from being able to connect into their system.”
“AT&T is committed to doing our part to make next-generation 911 available across the country,” said an AT&T spokesperson. “We work closely with public safety answering points to ensure that customers are provided with the most advanced and reliable emergency communications services. In addition, we continue to engage in the timely resolution of interconnection negotiations for the provision of competitive 911 service.”
Regulations from the FCC would help alleviate this vendor-driven problem for sharing calls and data across PSAPs that operate on different systems. Lowden said national requirements about technology are nice to think about but he doesn’t think it would work from a practical standpoint. “I think 911 should be a local, interstate issue,” he said.
It will be interesting to see how 911 standards and possibly federally mandated regulations change in the future. Taylor summed up the future of public safety communications this way: “911 is no longer local; even though response is local, the ability to access is no longer local and is very much global. And for everyone working on the 911 issue, whether you’ve been doing it for one year or 25 years, we have to come up with a totally new look at what we’re doing each and every day. … We’ve got to focus on the future and not on the past.”
The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) created Project 33 (P33) in the ’90s, when the industry lacked training standards for telecommunicators and public safety communications officers. Although many people refer to P33 as the standard for 911 call-takers, it encompasses the minimum training standards for all the positions that can be found in public safety communications, said Amanda Byrd, special projects manager for APCO. And the association is expanding its selection of communications training standards even further with its 2010 revision.
“Because there are so many agencies out there that are consolidated or only do law enforcement dispatch or do 911 call taking and dispatch the fire but not law enforcement, the new version that’s coming out actually addresses a section for each of these functions,” Byrd said. “So depending on how the agency is set up, what kind of positions they have and if their officers are cross-trained, then they would need to meet the training requirements for the call-taker and then whatever services they provide. … They configure it to their needs.”
The deadline to have received P33 training certification for the 2007 standards was April 1, and going forward states and localities must comply with the 2010 standards.
The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials created the Professional Communications Human Resource Taskforce (PRO-CHRT) to identify human resource issues that affect public safety communicators and dispatchers. Kimberly Burdick, a PRO-CHRT subchair, said states recognize 911 call-takers differently. In Montana they fall under the statute for public safety communications officers, but some states consider them to be first responders. “There’s a lot of deviation across the board and what we’re trying to do is get some consistency for all dispatchers in all states,” Burdick said.
In Montana, she is the 911 communications manager for the Chouteau County Sheriff’s Office, and got involved in human resource issues when she and Susan Bomstad tried to get 20-year retirement legislation for dispatchers during the 2009 Legislature. The legislation didn’t pass, but the IP work will help the task force, which hopes to develop a wealth of information where states can go to find information on different initiatives.
“We would like to compile information from all the states to have a clearinghouse where people from other states and agencies can say this is how they did it, this gives me a great idea and these are the steps that we’re going to take to pursue that type of legislation,” Burdick said.