Urgent Matters

911 incident reinforces the need for certification programs

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An Arkansas woman dies allegedly because a call-taker failed to enter her emergency call into the PSAP's computer-aided dispatch system.

Last week in Little Rock, Ark., a woman died after she and her young son were trapped in a car that became submerged in a pond. According to the Associated Press, she dialed 911, but rescuers were delayed in reaching the vehicle by more than 30 minutes, because the call-taker allegedly failed to enter the call into the center's computer aided-dispatch system.

Today, I spoke with Sgt. Cassandra Davis, public-affairs director for the Little Rock police department. The incident is under investigation, so there wasn't a lot she could share. The good news is that the little boy is off of life-support systems, but he's still in the intensive-care unit of a local hospital.

Davis told me that the public-safety answering point (PSAP) at the center of this tragedy is a multi-position center, though she wasn't sure how many. She also told me that the incident occurred during the morning rush, but she wasn't sure how busy that particular morning was in the 911 center. The emergency call placed by the victim first went to a county PSAP and then was handed off to the city's center. That's when things began to unravel, Davis said, adding that they're still not sure what happened. The city's IT department is recreating the keystrokes from that morning, and officials are reviewing video surveillance footage captured by cameras inside the center.

Davis was able to say that the call-taker had trouble inputting the location of the incident into the system, although the center has procedures for that, she said. In such situations, call-takers are trained to get a supervisor involved to override the system. Davis added that the system is designed to provide a "Do you really want to do that?" warning when someone attempts to delete data from the system; similarly, telecommunicators receive a visual confirmation on their screens when data has been introduced successfully. Investigators are trying to figure out why these safeguards weren't enough to prevent this event. Meanwhile, the call-taker — hired about 10 months ago, completing her probationary period last September — has been placed on administrative leave.

I ran all of this by Steve Rauter, executive director of the Western Will County Communications Center (WESCOM) and a member of the Urgent Communications editorial advisory board. He described this incident as a "doozy" and told me that it is more proof that every state needs a certification program for 911 dispatchers and call-takers.

"You need a license to cut hair or put fingernail polish on somebody in Illinois, but you don't need any qualifications to handle a 911 call," Rauter said. "We need to be comfortable with the level of training that a person gets, and performance standards need to be set." In other words, just because someone has been trained, that doesn't necessarily mean that they actually can handle the rigors of a very demanding job in which lives are on the line every day.

Rauter added that a strong effort is underway in the state — led by Sherrill Ornberg and Brian Tegtmeyer, who respectively are the executive directors of the North Suburban Emergency Communications Center in Des Plaines and DU-COMM, a large consolidated 911 center that serves DuPage County — to establish a licensing/certification/testing program in Illinois.

The flip side of that coin is that such a program would greatly aid the hiring process, according to Rauter.

"You have to wind the clock back a little bit and ask whether we're hiring the right folks, and that goes right back to having standards in place," he said. "It's very tough to tailor an interview process when you really don't know what you're aiming at."

Rauter's refrain is one that I've heard numerous times in the past, and it continues to ring true. I asked Little Rock's Davis whether the state of Arkansas has a certification program in place. She wasn't sure, but didn't think so.

Maybe this tragedy would have occurred even if one had been in place. Sometimes mistakes get made and systems fail, even when you've done everything in your power to avoid such occurrences. But, if Arkansas doesn't have a certification program, it needs to get one — every state does. When lives are on the line, it is imperative that steps be taken to ensure that first responders — and 911 telecommunicators are part of that group — are trained to the highest possible standards.

One life is gone and two others have been shattered by this incident — a child has lost his mother and a 911 call-taker will have to work through a lot of guilt. Again, maybe it would have happened anyway. But it's hard to argue against the notion that having a certification program in place would decrease the odds, perhaps dramatically.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 25, 2013

State certification should reflect the rigors of the job, not some stupid questions that have nothing to do with the day to day operation of a call center. PLEASE implore those making decisions on a testing process to ask questions that are relevant, determine if a person can do the job and has an understanding of the processes needed for call taking and dispatch.
One state has a test in place but most of the questions are stupid and do NOTHING to determine if a person can do the job. When the person has passed the test it really does not allow an agency to know if they are selecting a qualified person or not, it just says they have passed the state test.

What would be a better idea is to get NENA or some other national agency to develop a test that is relevent, is transportable and really tests basic knowledge of call taking, CAD, dispatch and radio operation.

resham (not verified)
on Jan 28, 2013

Wait to the cities and state public safety agencies start to farm out their 911 call centers oversea just to save a buck. With the economy so bad and states and cities hurting for money this is not so far fetched in my opinion.

on Feb 3, 2013

There are too many stories like this to rep ignoring the lack of minimum training requirements in states without them. While a national standard is ideal, it may prove difficult to get states to adopt them.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 7, 2013

There is training available in Arkansas at the law enforcement academy. It is not mandatory but is available and is free to the dispatch centers..

Not (not verified)
on Jul 29, 2013

This is NOT a national standardized training issue. Training covers call handling procedures, For all we know the caller as in most cases had no clue where she was. and the call taker was unfamiliar with the area. I see call takers hired to work in a city they have never lived in with no idea of landmarks. This is the Local PSAP issue no national training cert can fix this issue.

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Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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