911 incident reinforces the need for certification programs
Last week in Little Rock, Ark., a woman died after she and her young son were trapped in a car that became submerged in a pond. According to the Associated Press, she dialed 911, but rescuers were delayed in reaching the vehicle by more than 30 minutes, because the call-taker allegedly failed to enter the call into the center’s computer aided-dispatch system.
Today, I spoke with Sgt. Cassandra Davis, public-affairs director for the Little Rock police department. The incident is under investigation, so there wasn’t a lot she could share. The good news is that the little boy is off of life-support systems, but he’s still in the intensive-care unit of a local hospital.
Davis told me that the public-safety answering point (PSAP) at the center of this tragedy is a multi-position center, though she wasn’t sure how many. She also told me that the incident occurred during the morning rush, but she wasn’t sure how busy that particular morning was in the 911 center. The emergency call placed by the victim first went to a county PSAP and then was handed off to the city’s center. That’s when things began to unravel, Davis said, adding that they’re still not sure what happened. The city’s IT department is recreating the keystrokes from that morning, and officials are reviewing video surveillance footage captured by cameras inside the center.
Davis was able to say that the call-taker had trouble inputting the location of the incident into the system, although the center has procedures for that, she said. In such situations, call-takers are trained to get a supervisor involved to override the system. Davis added that the system is designed to provide a “Do you really want to do that?” warning when someone attempts to delete data from the system; similarly, telecommunicators receive a visual confirmation on their screens when data has been introduced successfully. Investigators are trying to figure out why these safeguards weren’t enough to prevent this event. Meanwhile, the call-taker — hired about 10 months ago, completing her probationary period last September — has been placed on administrative leave.
I ran all of this by Steve Rauter, executive director of the Western Will County Communications Center (WESCOM) and a member of the Urgent Communications editorial advisory board. He described this incident as a “doozy” and told me that it is more proof that every state needs a certification program for 911 dispatchers and call-takers.
“You need a license to cut hair or put fingernail polish on somebody in Illinois, but you don’t need any qualifications to handle a 911 call,” Rauter said. “We need to be comfortable with the level of training that a person gets, and performance standards need to be set.” In other words, just because someone has been trained, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually can handle the rigors of a very demanding job in which lives are on the line every day.
Rauter added that a strong effort is underway in the state — led by Sherrill Ornberg and Brian Tegtmeyer, who respectively are the executive directors of the North Suburban Emergency Communications Center in Des Plaines and DU-COMM, a large consolidated 911 center that serves DuPage County — to establish a licensing/certification/testing program in Illinois.
The flip side of that coin is that such a program would greatly aid the hiring process, according to Rauter.
“You have to wind the clock back a little bit and ask whether we’re hiring the right folks, and that goes right back to having standards in place,” he said. “It’s very tough to tailor an interview process when you really don’t know what you’re aiming at.”
Rauter’s refrain is one that I’ve heard numerous times in the past, and it continues to ring true. I asked Little Rock’s Davis whether the state of Arkansas has a certification program in place. She wasn’t sure, but didn’t think so.
Maybe this tragedy would have occurred even if one had been in place. Sometimes mistakes get made and systems fail, even when you’ve done everything in your power to avoid such occurrences. But, if Arkansas doesn’t have a certification program, it needs to get one — every state does. When lives are on the line, it is imperative that steps be taken to ensure that first responders — and 911 telecommunicators are part of that group — are trained to the highest possible standards.
One life is gone and two others have been shattered by this incident — a child has lost his mother and a 911 call-taker will have to work through a lot of guilt. Again, maybe it would have happened anyway. But it’s hard to argue against the notion that having a certification program in place would decrease the odds, perhaps dramatically.
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