Plenty done, plenty still to do
Craig Whittington, 911 special projects coordinator for Guilford Metro 911 in Greensboro, N.C., recently completed his term as president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Urgent Communications chatted with Whittington and incoming NENA President Steve O’Conor, assistant emergency communications manager for the West Palm Beach (Fla.) Police Department, at the association’s annual conference in Indianapolis.
UC: Craig, what do believe were NENA’s biggest successes of the last year?
CW: NENA is stronger than it was a year ago—financially, operationally and from a membership and educational perspective. In fact, I’ve been a member for 20 years, and NENA is stronger than ever. Also, our legislative and regulatory group did some great work this year. All in all, we grew as an organization. And even though the economy still is struggling, we set attendance records this year at our conference and for the “911 goes to Washington” program. We also added a Pacific chapter — Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa — something that we’ve wanted to do for years. If there’s an area that is providing 911 service, then NENA needs to be there.
UC: What still needs to be done?
CW: We need to make sure that public safety has a strong voice on legislative matters at both the state and federal levels. We also need to continue to press forward with next-generation solutions. There are still a lot of unknowns out there about next-gen 911 and a lot of people out there who are nervous about any change. I think back to 10 years ago, and to where we were with wireless then, and there were a lot of people — myself included — who didn’t think we’d ever get it done. But we did. And there are people today who are thinking that next-gen will never happen. But it will.
UC: Anything else?
CW: Yes. We need to address funding. We no longer can be a nation of haves and have-nots. I am blessed to work in a PSAP that has a lot of resources. But there are many PSAPs that have inadequate facilities and are working with old technology — and every time they turn around, someone cuts their budgets.
UC: How would you describe NENA’s relationship with APCO?
CW: That’s another thing that I’ve really enjoyed. It was a joy to see the two organizations continue to come together, and we’re increasing the number of times that we’re going to meet next year. Do we agree on everything? No. But I don’t agree on everything with my wife, or with Steve, or with Brian [Fontes, NENA’s CEO]. But if we work together, we can get past the disagreements.
UC: What have you learned in the last year?
CW: I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned that things don’t always happen as fast as you want them to happen.
UC: Steve, what are you hoping to accomplish in the next year as NENA’s president.
SO: I’d like to see NENA improve its member services. I see very active discussions between members who take advantage of the 911 Talk e-mail service regarding the need for more policies and procedures. To that end, we have entered into a new partnership with NLETS, which will provide staff support to us and to APCO. We have about 15 operations standards and final recommendations in place right now that we make available on our Web site as PDF documents. But they’re not easily convertible in their current form to a model SOP. What the NLETS staff resource will do is convert those documents to a fill-in-the-blank format, so that PSAPs can easily download them and use them as they wish.
CW: This did not happen overnight. Steve has been working on this for several years, even before he became a board member.
UC: What sparked the desire to get this done?
SO: When I first arrived at my agency, the West Palm Beach (Fla.) Police Department, I looked at their policies and procedures to see how they measured up to what NENA had. I was pleasantly surprised to see that NENA’s documents were referenced as the source for many of West Palm’s policies and procedures. But someone had to painstakingly retype NENA’s documents. The arrangement we have with NLETS will eliminate that need. It’s a nice value-add for our members.
UC: What else is on your to-do list?
SO: When we first started talking about next-generation 911, we talked about the need for a national network to eventually transfer data across state boundaries. … We now have a nationwide IP network that touches nearly all of our PSAPS, and we’re exploring opportunities to leverage that. So, I’m giving a presentation on next-gen 911 at NLETS’ annual conference in South Dakota. APCO currently has an initiative with the Central Station Alarm Companies and NLETS that, for example, lets an alarm company that receives an alarm from a subscriber across state lines, to transfer certain data through the NLETS network to the appropriate PSAP. That raises the possibility of us engaging in a similar venture with NLETS. We wouldn’t be fulfilling our duties if we were to ignore a potential opportunity to use the NLETS network.
UC: Are there any other pet projects you want to get started?
SO: One of the presentations at this year’s conference was from a psychiatrist who’s interested in the stress that impacts families of those who work in emergency communications centers. There are support services in other public-safety areas; for instance, critical-incident stress debriefings. But those are initiated only after critical incidents. The nature of the 911 telecommunicator’s job is to deal with emergencies day in and day out, which is — in and of itself — very stressful. That may weigh heavily on the families of those who work in communications centers and, depending on how those families react, even more stress could be created for the telecommunicator. We’re very interested in this topic and are developing a task force to see what we can do to support our members in this very important area.