To improve the response to 911, invest in the people who help it
When people think of emergency response, they probably think of police, firefighters, and EMS workers. But before these brave officials arrive on the scene, there is another line of first responders: the 911 call center professionals and dispatchers.
Too often, those who work in emergency communication centers are overlooked when critical resources are allocated. Outdated technology, inconsistent standards and regulations across jurisdictions, and lack of official recognition as first responders have created an unsupported and flawed system. It is time for elected leaders at all levels of government, along with private sector partners, to transform the system.
Despite the current fragmented system, thousands of 911 professionals across the country are dedicated to being first first responders. When we answer a call, we obtain information from various sources, determine and initiate the most appropriate response, and communicate real-time information to on-site responders while simultaneously providing instructions and assistance to callers. We are an essential part of the national emergency response system.
Yet years of non-investment in the professional workforce and 911 infrastructure are taking their toll. National Emergency Communications Center staff numbers are down, waiting times have elapsed and wait times for emergency dispatch and field response increased. Stagnant wages and benefits, coupled with increased demand throughout the pandemic, are pushing skilled professionals into other sectors as private sector employers increasingly offer more competitive salaries as well as better working conditions and better benefits.
All of this comes as policymakers across the country are diversifying the range of professionals who are dispatched to 911 calls. critical aspects of emergency dispatch remain neglected. Fortunately, some are beginning to realize the need to support 911 professionals and organize around innovative solutions that would reshape emergency response for the better.
President Biden’s stalled Build Back Better legislation on Capitol Hill would lead hundreds of millions of dollars to assist municipalities in their efforts to update and modernize 911 infrastructure to match available 21st century technology. Regardless of the fate of the comprehensive BBB legislation, there’s no reason the provisions to earmark funds to upgrade the nation’s 911 emergency communications centers couldn’t be approved by Congress and allocated to the states. . It’s a cause that needs to garner bipartisan support this year.
Additional federal laws like the law 911 SAVE written by Reps. Norma Torres, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., Would significantly elevate the 911 telecom profession to the same level as other protective professions, such as law enforcement officers of the order. This simple reclassification would boost the morale and retention of 911 employees. Similar proposals to reclassify 911 professionals as first responders have implemented in many states and should be replicated and developed in others. The reclassification is a step towards achieving pay equity and benefits to make the field more attractive. State and local leaders should also consider authorizing the use of American Rescue Plan Act COVID-19 relief funds to improve emergency response capabilities at the community level.
Leaders in the field of emergency response continue to come up with innovative ideas to transform the country’s 911 system in ways that improve public health, community safety and justice. The National Association of Emergency Numbers (NENA) and Association of Public Safety Communications Officers (APCO) International regularly shares best practices to build on.
This summer, a national community of emergency response experts working with the University of Chicago Transform911 Initiative will publish a plan with further recommendations. Many of the best ideas require additional investment in available resources to improve the quality of jobs for 911 professionals.
The 911 system is a complex network that urgently needs transformation. Investing in people on the emergency call is long overdue and deserves our collective attention.
Tyrell Morris is Executive Director of Orleans Parish Communications District and Certified Director of Public Safety; he co-chairs NENA’s Diversity and Inclusion Special Committee as well as Transform911’s Emergency Communications Center Operations Task Force. Lora Ueland is executive director of the Valley Communications Center 911 in Kent, Washington, a certified public safety officer and the most recent past president of the Washington State APCO/NENA Chapter; she co-chairs Transform911’s Professional Career and Supports Working Group.
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