The 911 sector needs more friends—especially those with deep pockets
Last week in an interview with Urgent Communications, Barbara Jaeger—the immediate past president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA)—spoke about Friends of 911, the foundation created this year specifically to raise money for 911 telecommunicator training. The fundraisers better roll up their sleeves and get cracking, because training is a hot-button issue for Buster Brown, who took the reins from Jaeger in June.
Brown is of the opinion, as are many in the sector, that a minimum standard of training should be established for telecommunicators that is consistent nationwide.
“Someone who is on vacation should get the same 911 service that they get at home,” said Brown, who is a regional director for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency.
Unfortunately, that all too often is not the case. How training is administered varies greatly from state to state. Some states, like Florida, have certification programs in place. Other states, like Illinois, are trying to create such programs. Some states, like Michigan, have statewide training programs, but their telecommunicators aren’t certified, because they’re not tested on what they’ve learned.
Some states offer just the bare minimum. Brown has a big problem with that.
“If we don’t train them, we’re setting them up for failure,” he said.
His own state, Virginia, is one that is lacking in regard to training, according to Brown. In Virginia, new hires are given 40 hours of training over five days and then turned loose.
“With all a telecommunicator has to do, do you really think they can learn all of that in five days?” Brown asked.
The irony is that telecommunicators are the first link in the first-response chain for nearly every incident, Brown said. When they make mistakes, the response effort unravels quickly. And they do make mistakes.
“They’re human,” Brown said. “That’s why we need to give them all of the tools possible that they need to succeed.”
Jaeger believes that extensive training is something that 911 center managers want to provide to their telecommunicators, but they either don’t have the money at all, or they don’t want to allocate it, because it’s needed elsewhere.
“They know that training is a necessity, but if they don’t have the money, what are they going to do?” said Jaeger, who is the state of Arizona’s 911 adminstrator.
While NENA CEO Brian Fontes said the establishment of national standards “would be great”—particularly if they establish a baseline that individual states could build upon based on their individual circumstances—Jaeger, Brown and Fontes all agreed that it won’t work unless the federal government establishes a funding mechanism for training.
“We can’t support an unfunded mandate,” Brown said. “That would force the states to borrow from Peter to pay Paul.”
Jaeger reminded that the siphoning of 911 funds by the states has been happening for years and continues even today. Almost a decade ago, Congress tried to curtail the practice by passing legislation that made any state that diverted 911 funds to another purpose ineligible to receive grants from the Enhance 911 Act of 2004.
“They said, ‘Thou shall not sweep funds,’ but it never was taken seriously,” Jaeger said.
That might be because Congress appropriated only about 3% of the $1.25 billion that the law appropriated. Consequently, the notion of the feds coming up with the money to support a nationwide training and certification program for telecommunicators likely is a pipedream.
Fontes believes there’s another way to go about this.
“You could have the feds create the minimum standards, and then turn it over to the states [to administer],” he said.
The problem with that idea is that the states collectively have a pretty dismal track record when it comes to funding 911 operations, so the notion that they would set aside additional money for training when basic operations are in jeopardy in many places seems ludicrous.
But Fontes proposed that. instead of telling the states that funding will be held in abeyance unless they train to the federal standards—the proverbial stick—the feds offer a really big carrot, perhaps a 1% reduction on federal interest rates or greater flexibility in how they can spend federal grant dollars.
“Make it a reward, not a penalty,” Fontes said. “You need to incentivize the states to do the right thing.”