DALLAS — Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking at a conference sponsored by the Texas chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). I talked a bit about the image problem that afflicts the 911 sector, which doesn’t get enough respect, both inside and outside of public safety.

Inside, it’s largely treated as the red-headed stepchild. Some public-safety officials even go so far as to question whether the 911 sector is part of public safety. That’s crazy talk. The public-safety answering point (PSAP) is the hub of the first-response wheel. The decisions that PSAP employees make under extreme pressure regarding the personnel and equipment that should be deployed to an emergency scene have a profound effect on the effectiveness of the response. Also, their ability to keep victims calm and focused until help arrives is vital.

The problem is even worse outside of public safety. Congress still hasn’t appropriated the hundreds of millions of dollars it authorized in 2004 for PSAP upgrades. The 911 funding that is available is poached too many times by states desperate to cover budget shortages. It’s obvious that the 911 sector isn’t as big a priority for lawmakers and policy-makers as police, fire and emergency medical services. As a result, PSAPs are forced to lay off personnel — putting additional stress on those still on the job — and already-antiquated legacy systems become more antiquated. In this environment, forget about the promise of next-generation 911; some PSAPs are struggling today to find the money needed just to maintain basic operations.

I suggested yesterday that the 911 sector needs to help itself, by starting a grassroots public-relations campaign. Just about the only time the mainstream media covers the 911 sector is when something goes wrong. Undeniably, such events occur. But they represent the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath the surface are hundreds, likely thousands, of stories concerning 911 telecommunicators who went to extraordinary lengths while handling an emergency call. These are the stories that need to be told. They will resonate with the public. They will help to put the 911 sector on the public’s radar screen. And, when that happens, policy-makers and lawmakers will have to pay the sector greater heed.

It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to happen overnight. But the good news is that the 911 sector has everything it needs to get the job done. It has stories that the mainstream media will find compelling, and it has roughly 7,000 PSAPs nationwide that can be enlisted in the battle. I suggested that the 911 sector start by picking the low-hanging fruit, i.e., the weekly newspapers that serve their areas. Once a few stories have been placed successfully, then they can attempt to move up the media food chain.

Nicole Lowe, a 911 supervisor with the police department in Carrollton, Texas, which is a suburb of Dallas, went in a slightly different direction by starting an internal newsletter. At first, she said that she felt like the “Lone Ranger,” but in time, colleagues started contributing. Today, the newsletter is crammed with all sorts of information: techniques for handling certain types of calls, tips related to training, computer-aided dispatch and emergency medical dispatch, and — of course — food recipes.

The newsletters also report on what adjoining agencies are doing. Before interviewing officials from those agencies, Carrollton personnel are queried to find out what they want to know about their neighbors.

Lowe joked that the idea to add content about other agencies was spawned because, “we were nosy—we wanted to know what they have.” But she added that it’s quite helpful to know how other agencies operate. “We can learn from that,” she said.

The rest of the 911 sector can learn from Lowe. She told a story about how the city’s mayor approached her at a function — and already knew who she was. “He had read the newsletter,” Lowe said. Now the newsletter is regularly attached to city council’s meeting notes.

The mighty oak starts as a humble acorn. The same can be said for PR campaigns. Just ask Nicole Lowe.

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