March is designated as Women’s History Month. Coincidentally, on April 3, the Brazos Valley Council of Governments (BVCOG) celebrates its 30th anniversary. So, we thought it would be more than appropriate to chat with MCP client Anita Pitt, BVCOG’s 911 program director, who has been at the helm every step of the way and is considered one of the public-safety sector’s leading innovators. From humble beginnings, BVCOG’s 911 program today supports seven emergency communications centers in southeast Texas that serve a population of about 125,000.
Insights: How do you plan to celebrate the anniversary?
Pitt: We’re going to have a small party on April 1 in Washington County, where it all began, simply because it had the largest population of the counties in our region. We’re going to barbecue, have cake and—wait for it—Blue Bell ice cream.
Insights: How would you describe those beginnings?
Pitt: The first ECC was in a two-story wood-frame house that had been converted into a jail—the jail was upstairs. The equipment closet was very aptly named because we literally put all of the gear into a closet. I remember one time when a telephone company technician advised during training that if we wanted to reroute calls, all we had to do was pull the switch down—he meant the toggle switch. He then instructed one of our people to do that, and she yanked the entire switch off the wall and then asked, “like this?” We’ve come a long way since then.
Insights: What has it been like for you to be a woman in the public-safety community? What specific challenges did you encounter, and how did you overcome them?
Pitt: When I started, the emergency-responder world was male-dominated, and it still is that way today. Things are pretty similar on the technology side of things. There were some meetings where I thought there was a little too much testosterone in the room (laughs). But I never felt hindered because I was a woman. That’s due in part to my approach. I ask a lot of questions because that’s how I learn. Talking to whomever I needed to talk to, and asking them the right questions, is how I gained so much knowledge over the years. I have to make a lot of decisions, so I need a lot of information. It has been said that knowledge is power, and in my position that is very true. Also, as time has passed and things have evolved, more and more women have entered the field.
Insights: Have any women been role models for you, or otherwise have influenced your career?
Pitt: When my career first began, all I knew about 911 was how to spell it—it was so new that no one had any experience, much less expertise. But my supervisor was Jill Hyde, and she encouraged me to ask questions and not be afraid to do so. She helped shape me into the person I became.
Insights: Why was it important for you to serve as a liaison between your telecommunicators and the vendors?
Pitt: I understand their expectations and can communicate those to the vendors. Conversely, the telecommunicators don’t need to understand how the technology works. All they need and want to know is whether the technology has the features they need to do their jobs as well as possible, and how the technology change is going to affect them. I am the go-between, and I’m very well-suited to that role because I am a communicator. It’s an important role. I think the fact that I am a very hands-on person has helped me fulfill that role. There hasn’t been a technology upgrade or replacement where I haven’t been onsite. I’m there to make decisions, of course. I’ve learned the hard way that things don’t always go as planned, and you have to be in the room so that you can determine what to do next. But just as important, I’m there so that I later can explain how the change affects our people. We don’t throw them into the deep end—we coach them. That’s just part of my makeup.
Insights: What are the 911 program’s most noteworthy accomplishments over the last three decades?
Pitt: The ability to bring cutting-edge technology to our small region, which only handles about 120,000 emergency calls annually. I like to say that I have champagne tastes on a beer budget (laughs). But I also like to say that every 911 call is important, regardless of whether it occurs in New York City or Snook, Texas. Fortunately we have been able to work with our vendors to bring innovation to the Brazos Valley.
Insights: How were you able to accomplish this?
Pitt: A big factor has been our willingness to participate in pilot projects. We test new technologies and then provide a lot of valuable feedback. An example was the project that integrated a text-to-911 capability into our call-handling system. We did that in 2015 and were the first in the nation to do so—that was a big achievement. That was stressful by itself, but the vendor wanted the feature to go live before that year’s NENA conference. I thought I was going to have to sell my first born to get it done (laughs). I had no project manager training, but there I was managing the project. I navigated it by asking a lot of questions of the right people. The biggest one was, what do we have to do, what do we need, to make this work? I asked that one over and over—and we were successful.
Insights: Any others?
Pitt: Last year we participated in a pilot project that involved a secure cloud-based solution that enables citizens to transmit images and prerecorded or live videos from an emergency incident to one of our ECCs. That capability will integrate nicely when we cut over to our NG911 system in June. It’s very exciting technology that we couldn’t have afforded if we hadn’t been willing to be part of the pilot project.