Urgent Matters

Grandfathering would defeat the purpose of 911 certification

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If a national training-and-certification program for 911 telecommunicators is established, some advocate that experienced 911 personnel should be "grandfathered," so they don't have to meet the new standards. But grandfathering would undermine the purpose of establishing such 911 standards.

This week, I was in Denver for a couple of days for the 911 Critical Issues Forum run by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). One of the tracks was devoted to the need for national training and certification for 911 telecommunicators.

Such a national program is long overdue, for myriad reasons. Those who work in a public-safety answering points (PSAPs) should be held to the same standards as police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians—none of whom are allowed to perform these jobs without first going through a rigorous training-and-certification process.  It’s very good to know that 911-sector leadership has recognized this and, more importantly, has resolved to do something about it.

On a related note, the four 911 training organizations—NENA, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the International Association of Emergency Dispatchers (IAED) and PowerPhone—have joined forces on this initiative. They all have something to bring to the table, and it’s good to see that they’ve set aside their competitiveness and any differences to work together for the greater good.

There are corollary benefits to the establishment of national training-and-certification guidelines for 911 telecommunicators. Unlike law enforcement, firefighting and EMS, what telecommunicators do isn’t considered a profession by many. In fact, I’ve been told that the U.S. Department of Labor lumps telecommunicators into the “clerical worker” bucket. 

Given that they are where first response begins, that boggles my mind. The first step to being seen as a profession is to create criteria that must be met before one is allowed to do the job. After all, an attorney wouldn’t be allowed to represent a client at trial before first passing the bar.

Another benefit is that, if telecommunicators all were trained to the same national guidelines for core competencies, they could move freely from PSAP to PSAP, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and from state to state. That’s something they can’t do now, because there is little consistency between jurisdictions, in terms of how they are trained.

The forum lived up to its name—there was an enthusiastic exchange of ideas and opinions throughout the two days. Eventually, the talk circled around to the notion of “grandfathering”—allowing someone with a certain number of years on the job to bypass the training and/or certification process.

That would be a huge mistake. The whole idea of this initiative is to get everyone on the same page regarding core competencies and to ensure that those who call 911 in an emergency receive a consistent standard of service from call-takers and dispatchers. Grandfathering would undermine that effort and, indeed, make it impossible to achieve this important goal.

There are many PSAPs that provide no training before allowing someone to take a 911 call. These people learned on the job—and, in some cases, they learned the wrong way. So, after five, 10 or 20 years of doing things the wrong way, they’re allowed to bypass the process designed to ensure that they do things the right way? That seems like folly to me.

I hope that those who are leading the effort to bring this initiative to fruition heed the advice of Sherrill Ornberg, who for more than two decades was executive director of the North Suburban Emergency Communications Center in Des Plaines, Ill. Now retired, Ornberg is part of the effort to establish a statewide telecommunicator training-and-certification requirement in Illinois.

Every telecommunicator should be subject to a written qualifying test, Ornberg said. If they pass the test, then they can skip the course. It would be analogous to what some high-school students do as they enter college to place out of certain courses.

“We feel strongly about grandfathering in Illinois,” Ornberg said. “If they can’t pass the test and we grandfather them in, then we will be missing the boat in totality.”

John Kelly, NENA’s executive board counsel, offered a very practical reason for not grandfathering a 911 telecommunicator, if national training-and-certification guidelines become reality.

“If the requirements are the standard operating procedure and you don’t comply with them, you could be opening yourself up to a lawsuit,” Kelly said.

How does that saying go about “words to the wise”?

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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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