MCP Insights

INTERVIEW: In the Early Days, Implementing 911 Was No Easy Task

Posted on May 31, 2018 by Glenn Bischoff

This blog post is the first in a two-part series with two MCP experts, John Cunnington and Nancy Pollock, who together have more than of 80 years of experience in public safety communications. This blog post is part of our Let's Evolve 911 campaign that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the first 911 call, which took place 50 years ago this year.

A national property insurance firm coined the slogan, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Given the collective experience of MCP’s experts, it is a slogan we too would be justified in using.

In this year when the 50th anniversary of 911 service in the United States is being celebrated, two of those experts, John Cunnington and Nancy Pollock, shared their memories about the things they’ve seen over their well-established 911 careers, with a focus on the evolution of 911 service to date.

MCP Insights: What was 911 service like when you started your career?

John: I started in the mid-1970s, in a very rural part of central Pennsylvania, and for the first six to eight years we didn’t have routine access to 911 service. With only small towns or cities with 911, depending on the type of emergency, citizens would call 10-digit numbers for each discipline: police, fire, EMS and so on. Consolidated communications centers was our key focus. It was a lot to coordinate, and getting calls to the right place was cumbersome, time-consuming and fraught with error. And even though we could see the benefits of consolidating all calls in a single emergency number and platform, many service chiefs and local elected officials resisted the change, citing local control and knowledge. The key to our early success was having a “champion” in each county for consolidation. In my early experience, I was supported by courageous police chiefs, EMTs and firefighters to keep consolidation in the forefront. They were the early adopters in those years.

Nancy: I had a similar experience in northern Minnesota when I started my career in the ‘80s. I remember one police chief who threatened to place an ad in the local paper telling people NOT to dial 911 when the service finally arrived, and to keep dialing the police department 10-digit number instead.

MCP Insights: What drove the resistance?

John: Some chiefs feared that they might lose local control and/or not receive all of the calls from the 911 system that they were supposed to receive, and they felt that they would be separated from the citizenry. Others believed that only their desk officers should be handling emergency calls, because they were intimately familiar with the local environment. How could someone sitting in a center located 20 miles away do that? A common fear among the chiefs concerned loss of local autonomy.

Nancy: There also was a great mistrust of the technology; 911 service was unproven and that was a big challenge to overcome. It was a new way of doing things, and in public safety that’s always a little scary.

MCP Insights: Eventually, 911 service was implemented, but the challenges didn’t stop then, did they?

Nancy: Not at all. For instance, when the service first came to northern Minnesota, the local exchange carrier, Northwestern Bell, which today is part of CenturyLink, didn’t have a selective router in Duluth. So, they had to microwave the calls to a selective router in Minneapolis, and then transport the ALI data back up to Duluth. It was a very cumbersome way of going about it, and extremely costly for the LEC. Basically, they sold the service before they had figured out how to provision it.

John: All sorts of technical and operational issues emerged in the early days of consolidated communications centers and 911 service. One involved addressing, which was done without the benefit of GIS, which hadn’t been made available yet.

John: It was the same in very rural central Pennsylvania. You might have 30 different names for the same road because it went through seven boroughs or towns, three townships and so on. You can start to understand why the police and fire chiefs would say that they’re the only ones who should be fielding and dispatching emergency calls, not some center 20 miles away, because only they would understand the local nuances. Our champions were critical to gaining elected officials support.

In tomorrow's post, John and Nancy will share their thoughts on the 911 sector’s future.

Topics: 911 Anniversary

Subscribe to Newsletter