National certification program for 911 telecommunicators is long overdue
FORT WORTH, Texas — In his keynote address earlier this week at the National Emergency Number Association conference, Gordon Graham, the erstwhile motorcycle cop turned litigator/educator, spent much of the hour talking about the value of ongoing rigorous training, performance metrics and accountability as risk-management tactics. He bemoaned the lack of core-competency tests in the 911 emergency communications sector.
“Once you are hired, you will never have to take another test, if you don’t want to be promoted. The public deserves better,” Graham said.
Regarding those promotions, Graham also spoke of the need for supervisors to do the jobs for which they were hired.
“On every public-safety tragedy, I guarantee that you will find the fingerprints of supervisors who didn’t act like a supervisor,” he said. “Too many supervisors can’t make the transition from buddy to boss. This is a problem lying in wait. You have to promote people who have the guts to supervise.”
Graham’s message was music to the ears of Craig Whittington, NENA’s newly elected president, who spent six years on the organization’s educational committee before joining its executive board in 2007. He told me shortly after Graham’s speech that he would like to see a national certification program for 911 call-takers and dispatchers.
“You have to be certified to operate a tanning booth, but for 911 — the most critical link in emergency response — there is no certification,” Whittington said.
The family and friends of Denise Amber Lee couldn’t agree more with that sentiment. The 21-year-old Lee was abducted from her Florida home in January 2008, then brutally raped, killed and buried in a shallow grave by her assailant. She was found two days after her abduction. Lee’s family and friends believe she might be alive today had the system — and those who work in it — performed better on the day of her abduction and have created a foundation in her name that champions 911-sector reform.
The first 911 call on that day was reportedly placed by Lee’s husband Nathan, who had returned to the family’s home in mid-afternoon to discover his wife missing and his two young sons — ages 2 and 6 months at the time — together in the baby’s crib. The 911 center that took the call promptly reportedly issued a “be on the lookout” alert, or BOLO, which the family alleges was missed inexplicably by the 911 center in an adjacent county. At some point during the ordeal, the assailant drove through that county with Denise Lee in tow.
Later in the afternoon, a witness reportedly called 911 to report that a child in the back seat of a green Camaro was pounding on the window and screaming hysterically. The “child” was Denise Lee. According to Lee’s family, that call was received by the 911 center that allegedly missed the first BOLO. Somehow, her family alleges, no BOLO ever was issued for the call from the eye witness.
Denise Lee’s father works in that county as a police detective. He said in an interview on a network television newsmagazine that he was told by one fellow officer that the officer was certain the vehicle drove “right by him” but he had no idea that he should pursue because “he never received the information.”
Reportedly, the county’s sheriff defended the performance of the 911 center’s call-takers and dispatchers that night, but he acknowledged that mistakes were made. Two dispatchers were suspended as a result of this incident.
During the ordeal, Denise Lee somehow managed to get her hands on the assailant’s wireless phone without him knowing. She placed a call to 911 and cleverly gave the call-taker vital information, such as the type of car and its location — down to the cross streets — by speaking in a way that made her assailant think she was talking to him. After 7 to 9 minutes — reports vary — the assailant caught on and the call ended. Somehow, the crucial information provided by Denise Lee never made it to officers in the field, according to her family. And, her location couldn’t be identified by the 911 system because she used a pre-paid wireless phone to place the call.
Steve Largent, the former congressman from Oklahoma and member of the Professional Football Hall of Fame, spoke during the NENA conference in his current role of CTIA president and CEO. He told of one particular tactic used by his Seattle Seahawks coach Chuck Knox, who was the first to regularly practice the plays the team would use at the end of games when they desperately needed to score. Today, every team does this, but in Largent’s playing days, the practice was considered cutting-edge. According to Largent, the tactic was quite effective, because the players knew just what to do at the most stressful, frenetic juncture of the game.
Before telling the Knox story, Largent said something that well could be applied to the Lee tragedy. “You [911 call-takers and dispatchers] are a phone call people hope they never have to make. They count on you. You have to have a game plan in place and know what play to call.”
There are few jobs as stressful as that of 911 call-taker/dispatcher. No one outside of that world can empathize with what these dedicated professionals encounter on a daily basis. When journalists make mistakes, publications run corrections. When 911 telecommunicators make mistakes, people die. Undeniably, it’s a tough job — which is all the more reason for them to be at the top of their game.
The Denise Amber Lee Foundation is lobbying for the creation of a national certification program for 911 call-takers and dispatchers. “We want to ensure that no other family has to endure the pure hell our family has experienced,” Nathan Lee said this week at the NENA conference.
It seems like a reasonable request.
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