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National Public Safety Telecommunicators' Week Turns Twenty-One!

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-04-07
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Here we are in 2012, celebrating what is the official twenty-first birthday of National Public Safety Telecommunicators’ Week. Although it was conceived in California a decade before and has been known by a number of aliases, about the closest thing we have to a birth certificate is a 1991 Congressional Proclamation - so we’ll go with that. As can be imagined, after ten years of labor, this baby was welcomed with open arms by most.

A lot of work at the state, local, and association levels went into getting recognition for the legitimacy of our bundle of joy; especially since for years we were looked upon as the proverbial red-headed step-children ourselves. While it’s getting better, there is still thought in some arenas that, “if you’re not sworn, you’re not born,” or “it takes a blank to dispatch a blank.” These comments must typically be read with a jaundiced eye, because often lurking somewhere in the background is an unwanted consolidation or a pending loss of uniform jobs. The civilianization of dispatching began in earnest about twice as long ago as we have had “our” week, and at a time when “dispatcher” was the appropriate term. Its worth has long since been proven.

Unfortunately, our seven day celebration and the people it celebrates have seen some tough times along the road to majority. Wireless E9-1-1 and VoIP are but two of the challenges they have had to face. Even the week itself seems in danger of becoming a footnote to the grand scheme of a month dedicated to 9-1-1 public education. Perhaps the best education we can give the public is to teach them that we don’t have enough telecommunicators and that the ones we do have are overworked and underpaid. Oh, yeah, and maybe we can add an EMD card for our retirement systems while we’re at it, because most of those are cold and unresponsive. It’s no wonder that an APCO study found that only 3% of telecommunicators stick around long enough to finish their careers. Yet another recent study seemed to conclude that being a telecommunicator is a stressful position. While this particular undertaking is being rightfully hailed as having some scientific validity, did it really tell us something that we didn’t already know? Newsflash: Fire is hot! The trouble is that we’re already knee-deep in good data that we rarely, if ever, use to our advantage.

What does seem to make the news, however, are those incidents that provide us with a proverbial black-eye. Unfortunately, there have been a number of them out there recently. I suspect that as long as calls gone wild are considered news, we’re fundamentally OK. When we get to the point that only those correctly handled are considered worth reporting, that’s when we’re really in another place. Still, there’s a fine line between investigative reporting and not letting the facts get in the way of an otherwise perfectly good headline. One network recently got caught with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar for editing the audio tape involved in the Trayvon Martin case. While this alteration was seemingly to the detriment of the caller, others have started to question the actions of the call taker.  Apparently even after marathon coverage of this event, the blame bag was still not empty. So, why not dump what’s left back on 9-1-1?

Situations such as the above and the omnipresence of electronic devices and social media can make any incident go viral. That’s why some of the latest discussions from first responders focus upon “reputation management,” which, in short, consists of pro and post active CYA.  Field units frequently find themselves the unwitting stars of homemade videos that quickly make it to the web. Some are positive. Others become nothing more than comment fodder on industry bulletin boards where discourse ranges from intelligent observations to vitriolic diatribes. Finally, there are those that are rightfully or wrongfully posted to put the agency in the worst light possible. To our brothers and sisters on the street, I say, “welcome to our world,” because telecommunicators have been dealing with this level of scrutiny since the day the first audio tape was released.

Still, despite some cynicism, I am reminded of why I got into this 9-1-1 business more than forty years ago.  It’s people like Stanley Niedzwiki from Buck’s County, PA, who recently had three CPR saves in a six month period.  Or the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s Max Milam, who was working alone when an officer was shot during a traffic stop.  And Mark Rooney from Ramapo, NY who was able to talk an armed suicidal subject into peacefully surrendering to police.  There are any number of nameless, faceless voices out there that deserve the same recognition, but who might not otherwise get it if it were not for this week.  For that reason, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention my staff, who were the recipients of the Greater Raleigh Chamber “Heroes of the Year” award for their selfless work during the killer tornadoes of this time last year. When you consider that a previous winner was a police officer who wound up with a bullet in his cruiser’s headrest yet continued pursuit of a fleeing felony suspect, it gives hope that in some quarters there is true recognition of the importance of our role.

That being said, there are millions of people out there who will never read this column and never know your names, but who are safe, alive, and well because of something you collectively did. Their child has a parent – a parent has a child – and lifelong neighbors still ride to church together on Sundays because you answered the phone. The rest, as they say, is history.  And so are the first twenty-one years of a very special seven days.  Enjoy your week; you’ve earned it.

Our PSAP Management columnist Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.

NPSTW logo via 911 Dispatch Magazine.


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