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John Oliver Examines 9-1-1 Technology Deficiencies on Last Week Tonight

Author: Randall D. Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-05-16
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The HBO parody news TV series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver brought its usual match-up of humorous asides with often comprehensive reporting to the state-of-the-art of 9-1-1 technology in Sunday’s night’s show (May 15). Oliver addressed current issues concerning 9-1-1 Center staffing, funding, and 9-1-1 location technology with its award-winning mixture of investigative reporting and low-brow humor, presenting numerous clips from news media to illustrate and validate its concerns on the topic.

It’s a well-rounded examination and not critical of 9-1-1 dispatchers; Oliver recognized the difficult jobs dispatchers have and the stress the job puts them under, while focusing primarily on technological and funding issues that are out of their control, such as ongoing delays with accurate wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy, problems of 9-1-1 funding being diverted away from the 9-1-1 Centers, and the ubiquitous influx of butt-dialed cellilar 9-1-1 calls. One clip, for example, showed how Uber transportation services seem able to find customers with pinpoint accuracy whereas 9-1-1 technology seems far less reliable.

“I can check-in on Facebook and it’ll tell me exactly what building I’m in,” a dispatcher from Buffalo, NY, says in a WBKW news clip quoted in the episode. “But when you call 9-1-1 we don’t get that accurate location information.  The technology’s out there, it’s just not getting to us at this point.”   

In the manner of his predecessor, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Oliver’s delivery is witty and exaggerated, but the details unearthed and examined by his research team seems to be straightforward and timely (I will admit a partial bias: I’m a regular viewer of the show). Oliver’s style and the show’s manner of parody may not be for everyone, but the episode probably does the 9-1-1 community a service by bringing concerns well familiar to many 9-1-1 professionals into the general public’s eye in an entertaining yet informative manner. People unfamiliar with how 9-1-1 works and educated only through critical media coverage may learn a thing or two about why things don’t always go as perfectly as they should. Oliver doesn’t pull his punches, but his statements avoid the kind of inflammatory and accusatory commentaries we’ve faced elsewhere in the media.


Oliver acknowledges that not all PSAPs suffer from the same issues. Having NG9-1-1 in place “would make it so much easier for the dispatchers, whose jobs are frankly hard enough already,” he notes. Citing a December 2015 NENA fact sheet that identifies 5899 primary and secondary PSAPs in the US, Oliver adds that “There is no guarantee that any two dispatch centers will have the same technology or have a system to work together.” True words.

The episode concludes with a faux PSA – a response to a real public education clip shown at the show's start in which school kids are taught about how 9-1-1 should be used, only this one is pure parody in which the problems Oliver addressed earlier in the show are laid out for all to see. It’s an over the top skit (by intention), but it’s also a cautionary tale that hopefully might prompt administrators, local politicians, and federal agencies to work toward putting some urgency into forging solutions to these issues – after they’re done laughing at Oliver’s jokes.

Watch the episode in the YouTube link below. Note the show uses adult language and occasionally ribald humor. 




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