The Biggest Takeaways from ‘911 Goes to Washington’
Posted on March 13, 2023 by David F. Jones
Several MCPers recently attended the annual “911 Goes to Washington” event, where industry and government leaders converge in the nation’s capital to discuss today’s most pressing emergency-communications policy and funding issues, particularly those pertaining to the 911 community. This annual event is organized by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).
Next Generation 911 Funding Status
Much of the chatter this year was focused on the current state of federal funding to advance Next Generation 911 (NG911) and the urgent need to invest in infrastructure and the 911 professionals who staff the nation’s emergency communications centers (ECCs) 24 x 7. It’s going to cost in the neighborhood of $10 billion to $15 billion to implement NG911 service from coast to coast, and so far, Congress has failed to authorize any significant financial support. At the same time, there appears to be a lack of alignment between some groups within the 911 community, and at least two factions have emerged.
If this sounds oddly familiar, it should because a similar scenario existed over a decade ago as public safety tried to convince Congress to provide adequate funding and essential broadband spectrum needed to implement a nationwide wireless broadband communications network for emergency responders. Unfortunately, significant — and often contentious — disagreement existed then regarding how the network should be built and funded. It was rough sledding for quite a long time.
The needle didn’t move until Congress clarified that it would take no action — and possibly might abandon the notion altogether — unless the public-safety community presented a unified approach to implementing the much-needed network. It finally did so, and Congress eventually authorized $7 billion in funding and 20 megahertz (MHz) of prime broadband spectrum for the effort in legislation enacted in 2012. The result was the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) implemented by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).
Congress seems to grasp the importance and necessity of NG911 and believes that a spectrum auction is the best way to generate the funding needed for nationwide implementation. But while the environment appears to be conducive to Congress providing the necessary financial support, it needs a push. Every 911 official should reach out to the various associations and allied organizations lobbying on behalf of NG911 and implore them to intensify their efforts because the time is ripe for doing so.
The Need for Consensus
A colleague is fond of saying that the most valuable piece of real estate on the planet is the middle ground because that’s where deals get done. With that in mind, we implore the two factions warring over how NG911 will be implemented to set aside their differences and reach a consensus. This was accomplished to make FirstNet a success, so it can be done again. And it needs to be done, sooner rather than later, because the 911 community needs to be able to move forward with a unified approach as soon as Congress loosens its purse strings — and having an approach in place might be just the push that Congress needs.
A Spotlight on 911 Telecommunicators
The need to invest in 911 telecommunicators and supervisors who work in the nation’s emergency communications centers (ECCs) also was a hot discussion topic during the 911 Goes to Washington event. Numerous reasons for this need exist, as follows:
- Much progress has been made regarding telecommunicator training, but there’s still more to do. Consequently, the National 911 Program announced during 911 Goes to Washington that it plans to refresh the “Recommended Minimum Training Guidelines for Telecommunicators” that it first published six years ago. This is an excellent step forward, so much so that we’re hoping the National 911 Program considers a similar effort pertaining to ECC supervisors.
- Very often, telecommunicators who have done exemplary work on the ECC floor are rewarded with a promotion to the supervisor role — but they often receive no job-specific training or instruction that would help them develop leadership skills. This is just as problematic as telecommunicators receiving inadequate training because lives are on the line whenever someone dials 911 and both telecommunicators and supervisors both need to be at the top of their game. Moreover, citizens expect a consistent and high-quality level of care regardless of whether they are in an urban, rural, or tribal area — which isn’t the case today.
- Investing better also means increasing compensation for telecommunicators. After recently completing a compensation survey for one of our clients, their local elected officials increased the pay of some telecommunicators by 40 percent to be competitive with other local employers. In contrast, we have another client whose telecommunicators cannot afford to live within the county where they work because of the prohibitive cost of living — some drive 1-2 hours each way to their ECC. This is highly problematic. ECCs across the country are coping with a severe staffing shortage and inadequate compensation is a driving factor.
- Finally, investing better means elevating the telecommunicator profession — and it is a profession.
Telecommunicators are highly skilled people who make decisions in the blink of an eye when lives are on the line and every second matters. They keep callers calm when they are experiencing the worst moment of their lives. They provide field responders with situational awareness needed to help them perform their roles more effectively and to keep them safer. They always have been the first of the first responders — they contribute to saving lives and property every day — but they traditionally have not been thought of in the same manner as police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel. This needs to change, not just within the public-safety community but also within the general public. The sooner it does, the sooner it will be possible to attract more people to the profession and to retain them for the long haul.
According to a recent survey conducted by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) and the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA), 36 percent of respondents indicated that their centers had fewer positions filled last year than they did in 2019, with the average vacancy rate at 25 percent. Further, the vacancy rates in some centers are astounding:
- 166 reported vacancy rates of 30-49 percent
- 92 reported vacancy rates of 50-69 percent
- 13 respondents reported vacancy rates of 70 percent or more
- One reported a vacancy rate of 83 percent
These numbers are alarming by themselves. But when one considers that the survey received 771 responses and there are somewhere between 5,500 and 6,000 ECCs in the United States, the numbers become chilling when they are extrapolated across the entire 911 community. Not only do the vacancy rates have an effect on ECC performance, but they also take a tremendous physical and mental toll on telecommunicators and supervisors who are forced to pick up the slack. The resultant burnout is a prime factor in the flood of 911 personnel who have been leaving the profession.
The only way to recruit, hire, and retain telecommunicators and supervisors — and thus alleviate the 911 community’s staffing crisis long term — is to improve their compensation, train them better, and elevate their profession. All of this will take time. In the meantime, MCP subject-matter experts are skilled in streamlining hiring workflows and applying workforce-optimization strategies and tactics to enable ECCs to accomplish more with the staffing they have — please reach out.
David F. Jones is an MCP cofounder and senior vice president of strategic accounts; he also is a NENA past president. Email him at DavidJones@MissionCriticalPartners.com.