Friday, April 10, 2009

A Call to Improve 9-1-1/Editorial in yesterday's Herald Tribune

My opinion to start with article to follow.

FWIW, as our foundation (The Denise Amber Lee Foundation) continues our fight for 9-1-1 improvements in Florida and now across the country, we would never want people to lose faith in 9-1-1. Call 9-1-1 in an emergency. 9-1-1 is wonderful. But it's my opinion it needs standards so that all 9-1-1 centers are on the same page and that they be equipped with the best technology available. 9-1-1 should be evolving along side of consumer communication technology. And we should all learn what our cell phones can and cannot do.

Do you realize many students during the Virginia Tech massacre were all texting 9-1-1? Sadly, you can't text 9-1-1. They didn't know. We need to be educated, young people, old people, middle aged people all need to know what their phones can and cannot do.

Dispatchers are getting a lot of heat. Sadly the dispatcher in Plant City lost her job during this horrific economy. But even more sad and tragic is Jennifer Johnson's family lost a loved on. Jennifer lost her life. Denise lost her life. Olidia Kerr Day lost her life.

Something has to be done. I'm so glad the Herald Tribune stepped up and took on this story. They should be commended.

God bless all call takers and dispatchers out there with compassion, diligence, guidance and patience. We're on your side and we only want to make your jobs easier. You are our front lines, LITERALLY.

Published: Thursday, April 9, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 at 6:18 p.m.
The skill, or lack of it, in handling a 911 call can mean the difference between life and death. It can also mean the difference between employment and job loss, as Plant City emergency personnel recently learned.

Their treatment of a 911 call on Nov. 15, from a kidnapped woman who was later found dead, brought the firing this week of a dispatcher and the resignation of her supervisor. Two other people connected to the case resigned or retired.

As the Tampa Tribune reported, an internal investigation concluded that the dispatcher and her supervisors failed to follow up appropriately on the victim's desperate call from the trunk of car.

"This was a human breakdown, not an equipment failure," Plant City Police Chief Bill McDaniel was quoted as saying. "Our emergency communication center is state of the art," he said, noting that dispatchers undergo a 16-week training course.

In this case, errors were punished by job loss. But statewide, 911 mistakes tend to draw light reprimand, the Herald-Tribune's Zac Anderson reported in a series earlier this year.

The Denise Lee aftermath

That series marked the anniversary of the kidnapping and slaying of Denise Lee, a young North Port mother. In her case, a witness's call to Charlotte County's 911 center was mishandled.

Ever since, Lee's grieving survivors have pushed the state to institute reforms, such as standardized training and certification for 911 operators, to help prevent other tragedies in the future.

Currently, Florida has no statewide requirements for training. Standards vary widely by jurisdiction, Anderson reported. Sarasota County's 911 call center is accredited, but it is in the minority.

A bill pending in the Legislature would change that by requiring all emergency 911 dispatchers to earn certification by October 2012. The measure (CS/SB 2040 in the Senate, and CS/HB 769 in the House) gained committee approval, but it still has a long legislative gantlet to run as the clock ticks down on the annual two-month session.

The bill deserves full consideration. Training certification is no cure-all, but it would bring needed consistency to the 911 system. Consistency, in turn, could simplify and improve emergency communication.

High stress, low pay

As we have said before, any discussion of 911 problems should recognize the good work that dispatchers do and the extraordinarily stressful conditions they face, often for relatively low pay.

These workers are tasked with making urgent, knowledgeable decisions, even if the caller 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 person through lifesaving measures.

These are important skills. Statewide certification requirements would be a step toward ensuring that they get the professional respect -- and wage compensation -- they deserve.