Urgent Matters

911 telecommunicators are ‘ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’

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Activity in the 911 center depicted in the movie "The Call"--starring Halle Berry--is reasonably accurate, according to officials from the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Those who see the movie learn that communications in a public-safety answering point (PSAP) are critical and that the time of telecommunicators should not be wasted.

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Last night, I saw the movie, “The Call.” The National Emergency Number Association (NENA)— hosting its annual conference here—arranged for the showing, in cooperation with Sony Pictures and a local dinner theater, as a fund raiser for the recently created “Friends of 911” foundation. NENA created the foundation to develop nationwide training and certification for 911 telecommunicators, as well as to create continuing education and career-advancement opportunities for them, amongst other activities.

I’d wanted to see the movie—starring actress Halle Berry—since Brian Fontes, NENA’s CEO, first told me about it. I’ve taken tours of public-safety answering points (PSAPs) before, but I’ve never been in one when the fur is flying. Fontes and others told me that the scenes depicting the activity in the Los Angeles Police Department’s PSAP were reasonably accurate.

If that’s the case, then all I can say is, “Good grief.” I often joke that the reason I’m bald is not because the follicles jumped ship but because they were singed off. Mine is a hair-on-fire profession marked by deadline pressure that never really ebbs. Finish one column or story and there’s another deadline coming right behind it. But compared with telecommunicators, what I do for a living looks more like a Corona beer commercial.

Trey Forgety, NENA’s government affairs director, told me after the screening that the writers even got some subtle details right. For example, the movie peppers the audience with all sorts of examples of call-takers handling emergency calls, particularly at the outset. Some calls are answered with the question, “What’s your emergency?” Others are answered with “Where’s your emergency?” I thought that this was a continuity glitch, but Fogerty assured me that it wasn’t. Apparently, when telecommunicators have solid location information for the caller, they lead with the former question; if not, they lead with the latter.

Location is a critical plot element of “The Call,” as the story centers on a teenage girl who has been kidnapped by a psychopath at a shopping mall and stuffed into a car trunk. While being driven over hill and dale, she manages to dial 911, but she’s using a pre-paid phone which, of course, lacks a GPS chip. Halle Berry’s character relies on her training and quick wits to not only keep the kidnap victim focused, but she pieces together a very complex puzzle.

In a clip that was played during yesterday’s opening general session, Berry and the movie’s producer and director all stressed their respect for those who labor anonymously in 911 centers and their desire—borne of that respect—to make an accurate movie. Telecommunicators were referred to as “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.” No one who sees this movie could think otherwise.

If you haven’t seen “The Call” yet, you should, especially if you’re a telecommunicator. You will come away feeling very good about what you do for a living. In fact, I hope everyone in America sees it. One cannot watch this movie and not leave with the impression that what goes on in a 911 center is serious business and that the time of telecommunicators is precious. Perhaps this realization would cause people to think twice about calling 911 for non-emergencies, helping reduce the number of 911 abuse calls that plague the sector.

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Donny Jackson

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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