Nathan Lee returned to his Florida home in the middle of the afternoon on Jan. 17, 2008. When he arrived, he found his two sons — a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old — together in the younger boy’s crib. His wife and the boys’ mother, Denise Amber Lee, was nowhere to be found.
She was found two days later in a shallow grave after being brutally raped. In the first frenetic hours after her abduction, mistakes allegedly were made by a 911 call-taker and dispatchers that hampered the search effort. Today, her family and friends are wondering why no national training and certification program exists for 911 telecommunicators, which they believe would help professionals in the sector better keep their wits in an intrinsically high-stress environment that becomes a crucible when things hit the fan.
The first 911 call on the day of Denise Lee’s abduction was placed by Nathan Lee. The 911 center that took that call and two others promptly issued BOLO (“Be On the LookOut for”) signals that allegedly were missed 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 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 Peggy Lee, the victim’s mother in law. According to Lee’s family, that call was received by the same 911 center that allegedly missed the BOLOs issued after Nathan Lee’s 911 calls. Somehow, the family alleges, no BOLO ever was issued for the call from the eyewitness nor were police cruisers dispatched, even though the eyewitness provided cross streets at several junctures until the car carrying Denise Lee peeled off onto another road.
Peggy Lee today serves as the community relations director for the Denise Amber Lee Foundation, which is lobbying for training and procedural reforms in the 911 sector. She has heard the recording from the eyewitness call and said the call-taker became flustered during the nine minutes she was on the line with the eyewitness. “That call-taker didn’t know what to do — you could hear the chaos,” she said.
Denise Lee’s father works in that county as a police detective. He said in an interview on a network-television newsmagazine that a fellow officer told him that the officer was certain the vehicle drove “right by him” but did not pursue, because “he never received the information.”
Local media reported that the county’s sheriff defended the performance of the 911 center’s call-takers and dispatchers that night but acknowledged that mistakes were made. Reportedly, 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 and placed her own 911 call. She cleverly gave the call-taker vital information, such as the type of car, by speaking in a way that made her assailant think she was talking to him. After seven minutes the assailant caught on and the call ended. “That call was handled superbly,” Peggy Lee said.
However, Denise Lee’s location couldn’t be identified by the 911 system because she used a pre-paid wireless phone to place the call.
The television newsmagazine posed this question: Could Denise Lee have been saved if the call-taker and dispatchers had kept their cool? It’s a question that haunts her family.
Consequently, 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,” said Nathan Lee during last month’s National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
Craig Whittington, NENA’s newly elected president, who spent six years on the organization’s educational committee before joining its executive board in 2007, is in favor of such a program. “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.
While a good idea, a national program likely would be difficult to create and maintain, said Rick Jones, NENA’s director of operations. Funding would be at the heart of that difficulty. “When you address the need for training and certification, you indeed are going to escalate their costs,” he said.
Jones said that 911 call centers ideally would allocate 5% of their operating budgets for training but acknowledged that such a goal would be unrealistic for many, if not most, centers in the current economic environment. “Their training has been cut, and their practice time has been reduced for various reasons, [but] basically economic,” Jones said. “That starts to have a negative effect.”
The negative effect is three-fold. Rigorous ongoing training, core-competency standards and proficiency tests would increase the likelihood that call-takers and dispatchers act properly and — perhaps more important — instinctively. This, in turn, would make them more competent and confident, leading to reduced stress. And the less stressed that call-takers and dispatchers are, the less likely they are to lose their composure and make mistakes at crucial moments.
But such training, standards and testing largely are absent in the 911 world, a fact that Gordon Graham, the keynote speaker at NENA’s conference, noted. Graham, a former California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer turned litigator and educator specializing in risk management, said, “Once you are hired, you will never have to take another test if you don’t want to be promoted. The public deserves better.”
To illustrate the point, Graham spoke of US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed his airplane in New York City’s Hudson River in January after several birds flew into the craft’s engines, rendering them inoperable. According to Graham, Sullenberger said in an interview shortly after his heroic actions saved the lives of everyone aboard Flight 1549 that he tried, throughout his flying career, to make small deposits each day into his memory bank, knowing that one day he would “have to make a massive withdrawal.”
It was a sound strategy, Graham said, because doing so enabled Sullenberger to make instantaneous, life-and-death decisions on that fateful day. It’s a lesson especially adaptable to the public-safety sector, whose personnel make such decisions on a daily basis.
“You will run into the unthinkable event someday, and you will have to make instantaneous decisions,” Graham said. “Whether you are prepared to do so is up to you.”
To prepare, Jones recommended that 911 emergency call centers at least implement protocols that every telecommunicator follows for every call the center receives. He suggested that centers adopt the protocols already established by the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Institute or PowerPhone (a provider of crisis communications training), and resist the temptation to create their own.
“That’s dangerous, because a local agency doesn’t have the expertise,” said Jones, who further cautioned that centers also should resist altering the national protocols, because “sometimes they over-modify them.”
Emergency call center managers also can play an important role in reducing the stress encountered by 911 call-takers and dispatchers, according to Steve Wisely, director of APCO’s Communications Center and 911 services department. He said managers should be trained to have a calming effect on telecommunicators. “It’s important that the supervisory leadership has training that will allow them to act in a calm manner, even when high-profile incidents are underway,” Wisely said. “The supervisors set the tone for the workers that are reporting to them.”
It’s also important that supervisors recognize when a call-taker or dispatcher needs to decompress or a shoulder to lean on for a few minutes, Wisely said. “A support system needs to be in place where a person can get out of their seat and go to a quiet place to contemplate [an incident] or talk to somebody, if they’re troubled by it,” he said.