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From the Chair: 9-1-1 Standards - Leveling the Playing Field

Author: Paul D. Bagley

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-11-16
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We often hear the term, “leveling the playing field,” especially in an election year.  Many advocacy groups bemoan issues associated with campaign financing claiming that unfair advantage for one candidate over another is the result of federal and state election regulations.  We also hear the same argument forwarded when it comes to how the press and the media cover elections.  Election law even demands that equal time be afforded each candidate for radio and television advertising.  The whole purpose behind public education and equal opportunity initiatives is to level the playing field for somebody.  It seems that almost every playing field has either been leveled, or is on somebody’s radar screen to be leveled, with the notable exception of emergency telecommunications.

Although the U.S. Congress made a genuine attempt at leveling the field by setting aside one three digit telephone number for access to emergency services by the public, what has evolved lately with 9-1-1 could hardly be considered a level field.  The City of Philadelphia, PA, for instance, misuses their own 9-1-1 system by making it the only method for the public to contact its police department, regardless of whether or not there is an emergency involved.  Here is a sterling example of a local authority making up its own set of rules, despite the clear intent of the original legislation that mandated the use of 9-1-1 for emergencies exclusively.  Actions by cities like Philadelphia dilute the value of the entire concept of a dedicated nationwide emergency number while simultaneously setting the entire 9-1-1 field askew from the standpoint of uniformity of performance.  People have had 9-1-1 drilled into their subconscious as being for emergencies only.  It’s what the public expects (more on expectations later).

Metropolitan areas tend to be the beneficiaries of the latest technologies long before their rural cousins, primarily because of the funding mechanisms available.  The same holds true when it comes to the public embracing the notion of qualified personnel with a specific skill set who are trained regularly in the fine art of emergency telecommunications.  True, there are exceptions to every rule, and there are plenty of remote smaller jurisdictions throughout the civilized world that understand the inherent value of proper preparation in advance of disaster and that are willing to fund what it takes to be ready.

While cities, towns, counties and states spend considerable money on training emergency service responders, the funding set aside for training emergency telecommunicators (the real first-responders at every scene) is comparatively small.  When New York City transferred fire call taking from the fire department to the police department's 9-1-1 operators, additional training consisted of only six hours.  This has resulted in major issues between the two agencies.  The arcane mindset at play here is that the cost of creating an emergency communications center is in the technology and equipment, not the personnel.  This follows the outmoded notion that “anyone” can answer phones and/or talk on the radio.  The State of Florida found out otherwise … the hard way. 

As the result of dispatchers receiving inconsistent and inadequate training in their profession, the Florida legislature passed a law that mandates each emergency telecommunicator to undergo 232 hours of specific training and pass a state-administered standardized examination before working in The Chair.  Currently the State of Illinois is about to embrace similar legislation.  This patchwork pattern reflects the state of training throughout the country – some places prepare their emergency telecommunicators and some places don’t; many abut one-another.

Let’s say you were to fly from New York to Los Angeles aboard either a private or commercial aircraft.  During your flight the safety and wellbeing of that aircraft would be the responsibility of a number of air traffic controllers working for a single agency: the Federal Aviation Administration.  As your airplane passed from one sector of the country to another the responsibility of shepherding your flight to its destination would be passed from one control center to the next and from one controller to another.  Each of those various control centers operates under a single strict set of procedures and protocols, and each of those controllers is trained to the same exacting standard.

Now, let’s say you drive from New York to Los Angeles.  Your ride will take you through hundreds – if not thousands – of different 9-1-1 jurisdictions, all of which operate under different locally-developed protocols and procedures and which are staffed by personnel who are trained (or untrained as the case may be) in completely different ways.  True, there are national guidelines available for the development of local training, and plenty of universally accepted courses offered by a variety of agencies, associations and companies, but there is no nationally-recognized standard of practice for overall operations as there is within the aviation industry, much less a single oversight agency. 

The lack of a standard method of practice throughout the nation creates voids in the level of service available.  Where one lives and works establishes that person’s base-line for expectations of all kinds.  These base-line expectations include what people reasonably expect will be the standard of care everywhere with regard to emergency services.  If they reside in a jurisdiction that is aggressive in the pursuit of training emergency telecommunicators and maintaining procedural protocols, chances are they’ll find great disappointment in another jurisdiction offering substantially less.  They might reasonably ask why it should be safer to fly from coast to coast than it is to make the same journey on the ground.  Even if you travel by rail, there is no government agency that oversees train dispatchers – control of rails is funded and operated by the railroads themselves.  But even rail dispatchers adhere to a time-honored set of procedures and protocols that are essentially the same across the country.

There is no simple remedy for this problem.  While it might be easy to advocate that an agency such as the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Transportation [see] take the lead in mandating standards across the nation, abandoning the concept of home rule is difficult, if not impossible, for local fiefdoms to swallow.  States’ rights supersede federal authority, and the Tenth Amendment clearly addresses this issue.  Hence, the Florida model is now being considered in a number of states as the method of choice for the development of standards while simultaneously preserving states’ rights.

Florida’s incentive for the rapid development of standardization came as the result of a horrendous episode involving the daylight kidnapping and eventual murder of a young wife and mother, Denise Amber Lee.  The impact of her loss was compounded by the knowledge that it might have been avoided had telecommunicators been properly trained and disciplined to perform their jobs in a certain way.  9-1-1 calls, including a cell call from the victim herself, went without being dispatched in a timely fashion for a variety of reasons, thereby depriving law enforcement officers from the chance of apprehending the kidnapper before he killed his victim.  One such police officer was monitoring traffic on the very road traveled by the assailant at the time he drove his victim along that thoroughfare.  The problem was that officer had not been given the information that would have given him the probable cause to stop the kidnapper before he molested and killed his victim. 

In order to understand the full story of the nightmare that was at the root of Florida’s legislation, you can visit the Denise Amber Lee Foundation’s website at  Learn firsthand of the terrible circumstances that led to the Florida law, and discover why other states are quick to follow Florida’s lead.  If you get the opportunity to hear Nathan Lee in person you’ll find it a startling awakening into the need for proper preparation and professional execution of established procedures for emergency telecommunicators everywhere.

Sitting in The Chair and dealing with the broad spectrum of emergency calls that come via telephone, radio, fax, text, or even show up at our doorstep is no easy chore.  We need to be properly prepared to handle anything, and proper preparation requires a combination of ingredients.  We need training, certainly.  But we also need a well-established and reasonably uniform set of rules that are created through the deliberative process and not in some knee-jerk response to a single parochial episode.  There must be a core of protocols that apply equally from New York City, New York to Yuba City, California; some set of rules that will level the playing field for each and every emergency telecommunicator across our nation.

The United States Navy offers a fine example to the emergency telecommunications industry through the development of the subsurface naval force.  Submarines are expensive vessels, just as modern communications centers are costly to set up.  But the real cost of the Silent Service lies in the training of the sailors who will drive those big boats.  Far more money is spent on initial and in-service training of crews than is spent on hardware.  That same formula should be applied when it comes to preparing emergency telecommunicators to sit in The Chair.  In-depth training begets a better quality of telecommunicator.  And, as the old saying goes, quality is never expensive.    

Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.”  Paul’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.

"From the Chair" was conceived and developed for 9-1-1 Magazine by 911Lifeline, a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs.  For more information visit


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Posted by: johnlinko
Date: 2012-11-19 13:03:47

I've used the illustration in my writing that there are 3 components to a best practice - Technology, Processes, and People. These are like the three legs of a stool. If one leg is weak, shorter, or missing, the stool isn't going to remain upright for long.

You make some excellent points, but I must respectfully disagree with your assertions regarding the how the public is oriented toward 9-1-1 use. Having worked in PSAPs in both the eastern and western US, I can say that the perception of what constitutes an emergency is not consistent across the board, nor is the public education as to what number to call in what circumstances.

Working in the Pittsburgh area, where consolidation of PSAPs into one county-wide center has been ongoing, most of the old non-emergency numbers for our county's 130 communities now forward to a published 7-digit number. However, all phone lines are answered the same here, and there is really no difference in how calls are processed based on the circuit the calls arrive on.

With this in mind, the question arises why in these circumstances we should be requiring, in some cases criticizing, citizens who call 9-1-1 for perceived non-emergencies when there is little or no difference in how their requests for service are processed.

With regard to the need for training and certification standards, there are good reasons for the 10th Amendment, and the various disciplines controlling dispatch functions would also need to be considered.

The analogy of a cross-country trip also brought up a good point. If you were to take this trip by car instead of by air, most of the trip would be along Interstate highways, where response is largely coordinated (and in some states 9-1-1 calls handled) by dispatch centers operated by the various state police or highway patrols.

I'm sure you've been in the chair long enough to know that there are significant cultural and operational differences between county or other locally based PSAPs and these facilities. Perhaps in the time we have left in this industry we should be focusing on battles we can win.

Keep up the good work.

John Linko
Leetsdale, PA

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