The state of Florida House of Representatives yesterday unanimously approved a Senate bill that would require newly hired 911 call-takers and dispatchers to compile 232 hours of training before they are allowed to handle an emergency call. The requirement takes effect in October 2012. Personnel hired before then would be required to take a competency exam. Those who fail that exam would be required to undergo the training regimen. The bill also authorizes the use of funds generated by the state’s 911 tax for the training.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ken Roberson, said an investigation revealed that although the majority of 911 calls are handled properly by Florida’s telecommunicators, “hundreds of critical errors that endanger lives” occur every year. He was critical of Florida’s lack of uniform training standards and alleged that some telecommunicators in the state start processing 911 calls within a couple of days of being hired. “This situation is unacceptable and must be rectified,” he said.

The Denise Amber Lee Foundation was a driving force behind the passage of this legislation. The 21-year-old Lee, the mother of two young children, was abducted from her Florida home in January 2008 and murdered. Allegedly, 911 personnel made mistakes on the night of her abduction that hindered search efforts. She was found in a shallow grave two days after her abduction. Her assailant was convicted and received the death penalty.

Mark and Peggy Lee, the in-laws of Denise Amber Lee who are the driving force behind the foundation, said that they were pleased with the bill’s passage and that Gov. Charlie Crist has indicated that he will sign it into law. However, the Lee’s have some concerns. They wonder where the money will be found to conduct the training throughout the state. They say that the state’s 911 fees only cover about two-thirds of the costs associated with operating its public-safety answering points.

They also say that the state is going to have to find a way.

“The call-taker is the first link in the chain, and it’s a pretty important link. If they don’t get it right, you’re not going to get firefighters to fires, EMTs to medical emergencies, or police to an abducted woman who’s in the back of a moving car,” Peggy Lee said. “So, they might have to put off that new CAD system for a year. The best technology in the world is no good if the call-taker isn’t following protocol.”

Compliance is another area of concern. “How do we know that each PSAP is going to comply with the law? We don’t want to see 253 cowboys out there doing this on their own,” Mark Lee said. “We need a stronger state 911 office for oversight.”

The Lees hope that the Florida legislation is but a stepping stone to the foundation’s much bigger goal, which is federal legislation that would standardize training and require certification for 911 telecommunicators nationwide. They said that they have had productive discussions about such a bill with the leaders of the major public-safety communications associations. “There’s a lot more that needs to be done,” Mark Lee said.

Patrick Halley, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), said that a joint effort with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials should produce standards that address 911 telecommunicator training and quality assurance, which in turn could provide a framework for the federal legislation that the Lees seek. But he said that such a bill would be a tricky proposition.

“It’s a state-sovereignty issue,” Halley said. “It would be tough for the federal government to tell the states that they have to train, and in a specific way. If anything occurs on the national level, it’s going to have to be creatively done.”

But Halley agrees with the Lees that it needs to be done.
“In Illinois, for example, you have to be certified to work in a tanning center or barber shop, but not in a 911 center,” he said. “That has to be resolved. A lot of states do a great job [regarding training], but only a handful of them are required by law to do so.”

The lobbying effort to achieve such legislation has taken a toll on the Lees. Not only have they devoted much time, they also have gone into their own pockets at times. They also have had to endure numerous arrows that have been tossed in their direction.
“We’ve been called ‘media whores.’ We’ve been accused of using this as an excuse to take vacations,” Peggy Lee said.

“Believe me, telling this story over and over again hasn’t been fun. We’re spent.”

Despite this, both Mark and Peggy Lee were emphatic that the effort has been worthwhile and that they have plenty of fight still left in them to reach the ultimate goal. The motivation is as simple as it is pure.

“This keeps Denise from dying in vain,” Peggy Lee said. “We’ve often asked the question, ‘Why Denise.’ This is the only thing that we can think of. In doing this, we know that she’s saving lives.”