Friday, January 23, 2009

In the Herald Tribune

Yesterday the Sun-Herald had a piece in the editorial section. I posted it yesterday.

Today this was in the Herald Tribune editorial page. I imagine (and can only guess it's in response to the response they received for Zac Anderson's articles last weekend.

I'm in a rather funky mood and I may blog more tonight but it's been a rather dramatic week and I'm struggling with my thoughts. Anyhow, here's a copy of what was in the Herald Tribune this morning. I'll blog more tonight about my thoughts. And believe me, I have a lot of them.

Warning on 911

Series shows a need for improvements in training, pay and accountability

Published: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 6:40 p.m.

Considering the nature of the work - fielding callers who range from babbling toddlers to dying crime victims -- 911 emergency operators will make mistakes. Miscommunication will happen.

But if perfection is out of reach, reliability and accuracy are not. The public should expect these of its 911 systems.

Some systems fall short, as a recent Herald-Tribune investigative series detailed.

Among the millions of 911 calls received in Florida over the past five years, hundreds (at the least) were seriously mishandled, reporters found.

Florida and some other states have no statewide requirements for "training, staffing or quality control" at 911 centers, the series pointed out. Standards and success rates vary by jurisdiction. In some counties, such as Broward and Sarasota, 911 operators get classroom training. In others, such as Manatee, they don't.

Some agencies don't formally track complaints, reporters noted, and many 911 centers "tolerate repeated mistakes" -- a disturbing trend caused, in part, by the difficulty of retaining workers in this stressful field. It seems that experience matters, but is not highly compensated: The median annual salary is under $32,000, data indicate.

To make the best of a difficult job, these workers need thorough training, good technological tools that they know how to use, fair compensation and accountability.

None of that comes cheap, but Florida and the nation should find a way to pay for these improvements.

Case for reform

A year ago, mistakes by the Charlotte County 911 center revealed the aching distance between perfection and failure. Operators there received a call that could have helped catch a kidnapper, but the process fell apart, operators did not follow through and law enforcement was not notified. Ultimately the abduction victim, a young North Port mom, died.

The blame for that loss lies squarely on the killer. But the case shows how important a well-run 911 system is to the cause of public safety.

An internal investigation into the handling of the 911 calls faulted two staff members, and details portrayed an office caught flat-footed and unprepared. The two workers were suspended and retrained, but the victim's family wants systemic reforms.

As the newspaper series noted, some counties, such as Alachua and Sarasota, have made strong strides in 911 quality control. But problems -- though proportionally rare -- can happen anywhere, including:

Sarasota County in 2004. According to a report in the Herald-Tribune, a misunderstanding occurred on two 911 calls concerning the crash of a small plane in Venice. Authorities did not get to the scene until 19 hours later. One 911 operator was reassigned at her request, and more training procedures were implemented.

Lapeer County, Mich. Officials there blamed "outmoded equipment for system failures to the (911) lifesaving system," according to an article in the County Press. "To keep up with technological advances, cash strapped 911 must find $15.2 million to replace it."

Nashville, Tenn. A policy requiring 911 operators to ask callers a lengthy "checklist" of questions delayed medical help. After complaints and an investigation, the policy was changed.

Detroit. Last year a woman there became the first 911 operator in the country to be convicted for mishandling a case. Reportedly, she mistook for a prank a 5-year-old boy's call about his mother, who had collapsed and later died. The operator, convicted of misdemeanor neglect and fired, was sentenced to probation and community service.

Madison, Wis. In December a 911 operator -- trying to answer another call -- reportedly mishandled a call from a college student who was under attack. The girl was later found slain.

Recognize reality

Any discussion of 911 problems must recognize the extraordinary conditions that operators and dispatchers often face on the job.

These workers are multi-taskers, asked to quickly make detailed, knowledgeable decisions -- even if the person on the other end of the phone is incoherent or panicked. They must be able to use technology, classify calls, select proper codes, find the nearest available police cars, and sometimes talk a caller through lifesaving measures.

These are valuable skills that should be developed through training and office accreditation, and be fairly compensated. Paying for them is a challenge, however, as are efforts to develop user-friendly equipment that keeps up with telecom advances and gets operators the information they need.

To help fund 911 improvements, Florida could increase the 50-cent monthly fee that phone users pay toward this purpose.

A fee hike may prove necessary, but caution is warranted: Both land-line and cell-phone users pay a variety of other taxes, on top of the 911 fee, that add substantially to government coffers. The combined communications tax rates are among the highest in the nation, according to nonprofit Florida Tax Watch.

Much of the revenue produced by the general communications taxes are used for schools, infrastructure and other long-term needs that are important but have nothing to do with phone service. In the future, shifting some of that all-purpose money toward 911 -- which, in Sarasota County, also receives some funding from sales taxes as well as county fire and ambulance fees -- should be considered.

More federal grant money for 911 technology upgrades, training and nationally recognized accreditation would help as well. If such funding is not already under consideration as part of President Obama's economic recovery plan, it should be.