Friday, January 8, 2010

Today's Herald Tribune Editorial

When 911 goes right

Tampa episode offers a model for other departments to emulate

Published: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 1:00 a.m. Last Modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 6:48 p.m.

Sometimes, 911 call-takers fail to live up to the public's high expectations. But sometimes they exceed them, in extraordinary fashion.

A Tampa 911 case this week fell into the latter category, exemplifying all that can go right when technology and operators work well together.

As described in the St. Petersburg Times and other Tampa Bay area news sources, the case involved an attempted rape in progress.

Ve'Etta Bess took the 911 call, secretly dialed by the victim, and heard only silence and screams. Yet, with a combination of skill, intuition and grace-under-pressure teamwork, she and her colleagues tracked and confirmed the location of the crime, dispatching police in time to stop the assault.

That is the kind of performance that people expect from the emergency communications system, yet 911 calls don't always have such a happy ending.

Dispatching errors, operator mistakes and address confusion, for example, were seen in North Port, Charlotte County and Sarasota in the past two years. Other communities and states have had problems as well.

Such cases -- most infamously the failure to relay emergency calls that might have caught a kidnapper before he killed Denise Lee of North Port -- have sparked a strong push for 911 reforms in Florida. Local legislators have proposed bills that would improve oversight of the emergency-call system and work to make it more seamless.

Lawmakers weighing these reforms may learn something from the Tampa case.

A few points stand out:

Bess, the Tampa 911 call-taker, has more than three years' experience.

The Tampa department trains call-takers extensively, using close observation, and hands-on and role-playing strategies. Diana Hall, training coordinator for the Tampa department, said 600 hours of training and classes are required.

The crew had recently taken a refresher course on how to find callers through cell-tower location -- a skill that proved crucial in this case.

The Tampa episode embodies the often stressful conditions involved in 911 work.

At one point, when the attacker discovered the cell phone on the floor, Bess had the presence of mind to stay silent so the man would think the 911 call -- the numbers visible on the phone screen -- had not gone through.

All the while, she was multitasking to identify the location, signal her co-workers and alert police.

With a little less skill, luck and technology, the call could have gone disastrously wrong -- but it went right. All communities should learn from this example.