The level of training in the 911 sector varies wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some public-safety answering points (PSAPs) train extensively, while others provide little to no training. Only a few states require 911 telecommunicators to be certified before they can start handling calls.

It’s a situation that the leading training providers—the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the International Association of Emergency Dispatchers (IAED) and PowerPhone—are resolved to solve. Representatives of each came together with PSAP personnel from around the country this week to explore the issue at a forum presented by NENA.

“We’re good at putting up training programs, but we’re constrained, because every state is different,” said Jay English, APCO’s director of communications center and 911 services. “There’s an old saying: If you’ve seen one PSAP, you’ve seen one PSAP.”

The 911 sector needs to get in line with other public-safety factions, English said.

“When you look at police, fire and EMS, the one thing that seems to be common among all of them is that they all are considered professions and, to work at any of them, you have to go to training, and you have to have a license,” he said. “We need to turn this into the profession that we know it is.”

English pointed to legislation that was passed in the state of Florida after a young mother of two—Denise Amber Lee—was abducted and murdered following mistakes made by 911 telecommunicators that hindered law enforcement’s search for her.

“The law says, ‘If you don’t have a license, you can’t work,’” English said, adding that 232 hours of training are needed to get a license.

Earning such a designation should be the beginning—not the end—of a 911 telecommunicator’s responsibility, according to Ty Wooten, NENA’s director of education and PSAP operations.

“A police officer has to have a certain amount of ongoing training, or he’s not able to continue as a police officer until he gets that,” Wooten said. “A firefighter and EMT has to have a certain amount of ongoing education, or they are going to lose their ability to work. That definitely has to be a requirement that is part of [911 certification].”  

Eric Parry, director of state of Utah 911, echoed this sentiment.

“This will be like getting a driver’s license,” he said. “Just because you have one doesn’t mean you stop learning how to drive. And, if you want to drive bigger vehicles, you have to get more training.”

On that note, several who participated in the forum suggested that the 911 sector ultimately should adopt the model created by the emergency medical services, which established three competency levels: EMT-Basic, EMT-Intermediate (there are two classifications at this level) and EMT-Paramedic. Some envision that 911 personnel could progress through telecommunicator, dispatcher and supervisor levels.

Wooten said that the EMS sector was motivated in large part by the desire to ensure a consistent level of care, regardless of where a person lives.

“They felt that someone in a big city gave a different level of care, because they saw things on a daily basis that someone in a rural community might only see once in a lifetime,” he said. “It works the same way in the 911 sector.”