When it comes to 911, you get what you pay for
I’ve always thought that being an offensive lineman on a college or professional football team must be an awful existence. You’re beat on constantly and no one notices you — unless of course you miss your block and a running back (or worse, a quarterback) gets flattened. When that happens you are subject to unrelenting abuse from coaches, fans and the media — despite the fact that on most plays, you perform your job competently and, at times, admirably.
The role of such players is analogous to that of 911 telecommunicators. Nearly always, when those in need dial 911, the system works flawlessly. But there are times when it doesn’t, and that’s when the media jumps all over the situation like white on rice.
Last week, NBC’s Today broadcast a segment that centered on the tragic death of a Texas toddler who escaped his mother’s watch long enough to wander into the family’s backyard, get tangled in the netting of a soccer goal and strangle himself. Much was made of the fact that the telecommunicator who handled the call was not trained in CPR, though I doubt it would have mattered much if he had been, given the mother’s hysteria. In the portion of the call aired during the segment, he literally couldn’t get a word in edge-wise.
The segment reported on other failures. One occurred when a telecommunicator chastised a 6-year-old who had dialed 911 when his mother collapsed, telling the child to stop playing around. In another instance, a telecommunicator fell asleep, snoring audibly, during an emergency call.
Some would say that there is no excuse for such failures. That may be true — but there is an explanation. Like an offensive lineman, the ability of a 911 telecommunicator is predicated on adequate coaching, and there simply isn’t enough of it. It also is predicated on hiring quality people. And the ability to hire good people and train them well comes is predicated on funding — and there’s not enough of that either.
During the segment, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D, Calif.), who co-chairs the Congressional E-911 Caucus, said that the time has come to consider federal oversight of the 911 sector. I couldn’t agree more, having suggested the very same thing last summer.
Eshoo also pledged that congressional hearings would be held to address the shortcomings and inadequacies of the current 911 system.
That’s a great idea, and I have a couple of suggestions as to where Eshoo can start the process. First, she should explain why Congress only appropriated $43 million of the $1.25 billion that it authorized nearly six years ago for public-safety answering point upgrades. Then she should work to finally get the money flowing. Once she gets that done, she should turn her attention to the practice of states diverting to other purposes the funds collected from wireless users for the 911 system.
Those two actions by themselves would be quantum leaps forward in terms of fixing what ails the 911 system as it exists today. During the Today segment, Dick Mirgon, president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, noted that some 911 telecommunicators make less than those who work at fast-food restaurants. Given the life-and-death nature of the job, that’s crazy.
And 911 funds totaling in the “tens of millions of dollars” were siphoned by the states of Maryland, Arizona, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Delaware last year, according to Patrick Halley, government affairs director of the National Emergency Number Association. That’s also nuts.
No one likes negative publicity. But in this case, the Today segment might be one of the best things that ever happened to the 911 sector. Generally, lawmakers and policymakers at all levels of government in the U.S. are reactive, not proactive. They only spring into action when something is so broken that they no longer can ignore it. The things that plague the 911 sector were brought into the harsh light last week, to the point where the nation’s leaders no longer can ignore them in good conscience.
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