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Can I Borrow a Cup of 9-1-1? Why We, Like Rodney, Get No Respect

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2018-01-24
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Hello 2018! Goodbye 2017 - when we persuaded all fifty states to invest in a communications system that exists only on paper, but we couldn’t convince a single federal agency that we’re not secretaries. Good riddance I say. In my last column of that regrettable year, I dealt with the disservice of comparing our staffing and salaries with our next-door neighbors, since very few Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) serve as poster children for positive examples in these areas. This came after having read numerous postings from agencies requesting this information.

Let me therefore begin the New Year with a continued examination of why we, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect. Again, this missive is prompted by a plethora of help wanted ads from 9-1-1 centers, not seeking employees, but literally seeking help in the form of pro-bono services. Now, we’ve all benefitted from free advice, but the scope of some of these requests far exceeds what most folks would expect to get for nothing.

Do you want a full return on all of your investment for public safety services? Then train the people who make it work, your first first responders. Give nothing less than full support to the people who are accountable for every life and parcel under your purvey, because that’s who we are and that is what we do.

 

How prevalent is this practice? One of the cover stories for the last edition of the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) magazine Public Safety Communications offered “Bright Ideas for Low-Cost Training.” Here’s a bright idea for you Mr. or Ms. Mayor: how about providing education for your telecommunicators commensurate with their responsibilities? Do you want a full return on all of your investment for public safety services? Then train the people who make it work, your first first responders. Give nothing less than full support to the people who are accountable for every life and parcel under your purvey, because that’s who we are and that is what we do.

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me say that training is one of the services I sell. However, many of the requests I see fall well outside my range of offerings. More importantly, having managed four PSAPs, I have found myself faced with similar challenges. Back in the day, my participation at conferences was largely dependent upon my own wallet, and I never attended a single national event during fourteen years of service at my first job. Thankfully, I became involved with some state committees that helped support regional interaction, or I would have been completely disenfranchised. Over the years, access to education increased, both for myself and my staff, although there was always need for more. Sadly, I never seemed to have enough people to cover the vacancies that would have been created by sending team members to every beneficial course, and education was invariably the first budget item to be cut when times got tight. The effectiveness of this practice is summed up by the late Zig Ziglar; author of 14 books and presenter of thousands of seminars on management and achievement: “The only thing worse than training an employee and having them leave is to not train them, and have them stay.”

Unfortunately, learning and staffing are not the only places where we’re being shortchanged. A quick browse of online bulletin boards also reveals a healthy interest in used equipment. While I’m not in favor of wasting public funds, I do become concerned when I see technology that came over on the Mayflower being glued and cable-tied together in order to provide “reliable” access to public safety. Thankfully, during my career, most of my electronic needs were adequately addressed. But, I was also very fortunate to have in my employ a number of individuals whose skill at acquisition of surplus items was unsurpassed, and we supplemented our formal purchasing power through begging, borrowing, and, uh, borrowing some more. While this provided a challenge of sorts, in retrospect I have to ask, “why was this necessary?” We’re a valuable government service. Why should we have to grovel for a second cup of gruel like Oliver Twist?

The answer is because we are 9-1-1: the descendants of the working the desk tribe that included the late, the lame, the leaving, the losers, and the lazy. Our ancestors migrated to our land through on the job injury, poor performance, and sometimes to live out their remaining days of duty in a safe environment, where they could be suitably overseen and protected by their superiors. When the seventies rolled around, and it was deemed that every cop must be on the street, evolution provided replacements who were oftentimes products of federal programs designed to put people to work. While well intentioned, this did little to professionalize the image of telecommunicators.

Just ask the Federal Office of Management and Budget. They’ll tell you that we don’t rank up there with other protective services, like, say, crossing guards.

 
Then there’s the fact that many of us are women. I’ve been unable to find a credible source of national statistics, but one document, produced in California during the 1990s, reported that they made up 83% of our ranks. Even if the ratio is not that high nationwide, observation suggests that there is a significant representation of female telecommunicators. Females who answer phones and type on keyboards. You know. Secretaries. Just ask the Federal Office of Management and Budget. They’ll tell you that we don’t rank up there with other protective services, like, say, crossing guards. There’s been a long history of unequal compensation between the sexes in most fields of endeavor, and I have for decades wondered if and how this affects us. The fact that APCO has for the first time installed a Board of Directors that comes completely from the distaff side speaks well for our industry. Hopefully this right thinking will someday seep inside the beltway.

Perhaps the final insult comes from our parent state governments who “repurpose” money from 9-1-1 funds to cover shortfalls in other budgetary areas. I intentionally did not use the term “borrow,” as this suggests the potential of eventual repayment. Apparently, at least eleven states have adopted this creative form of financing, with New York reportedly diverting almost $200 million for other endeavors. I suspect that money could have been spent to augment staffing or improve wireless accuracy, but who am I to say? Oh, what’s that? Some 9-1-1 funds can’t be used to hire telecommunicators who could reduce call wait times? My bad. Better then to spend it fixing potholes so people have a smoother ride when they drive themselves to the hospital.

Even the implementation of new technology that should improve our job often brings with it untold consequences because the end users have not been involved in the design. Wherever we turn, we get no respect, but in the end, we’re more than partially to blame. I therefore leave all new and aspiring 9-1-1 managers with this challenge: Do what your predecessors could not do. Fix it. Do not go gently into that good night.

 

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in four states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community. See www.barryfurey.com 

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