DENVER—The effort to establish nationwide training requirements will be “a long journey,” but it ultimately will be worthwhile, a National Emergency Number Association (NENA) official said yesterday during  the 911 Critical Issues Forum that NENA is hosting this week.

Ty Wooten, NENA’s director of education and operational issues, said a nationwide training program is needed, because 911 call-takers in some states are tossed into action without any training—a scenario he experienced personally.

A law-enforcement officer at the time, Wooten said that he was drafted for 911 duty because he had the title of “jail communications officer.” He had no training for this assignment before taking it on. Wooten likened the experience to that of a rookie major-league pitcher who has just been called in from the bullpen in the late innings of a tight ballgame—without the benefit of any minor-league experience.

His first emergency call was intense, to say the least. A woman called in a panic—screaming at the top of her lungs, Wooten said—to report that her husband had committed suicide in front of her, on their couch. Wooten said that he had no idea how to handle that call.

“That’s what has driven me, in my career, to get us to the point, where I’m sitting up here to make sure that these things don’t ever happen again,” he said. “No one should have had to go through that.”

The 911 sector is at the same crossroads that the emergency medical service found itself several years ago, Wooten said.

“When the EMS industry went through this process, they were ‘ambulance drivers,’” he said. “And they said that they didn’t want to be known as ambulance drivers; they said they were going to become ‘emergency medical technicians.’”

Similarly, “telecommunicator” doesn’t adequately describe the role that 911 call-takers, dispatchers and supervisors play in emergency response, according to April Heinze, director of Eaton County (Mich.) Emergency Communications

“You can do a lot of things and be called a telecommunicator,” she said. “If you work from home, you’re a telecommunicator. So [the term] isn’t an accurate depiction of what these people do each and every day.”

In this regard, 911-sector professionals have been their own worst enemy, because they traditionally have preferred to stay out of the limelight, according to Wooten.

“That’s why we’re not policemen, firemen or EMTs,” he said. “We didn’t desire to respond in a [vehicle] with flashing lights on top. We wanted to be of service, and we wanted to be a help, but we [also] wanted to be in the shadows. And because of that, we don’t have a defined persona in public safety in general—yet, we are where everything starts.”