What were to happen if you called 911 and no one answered? Unfortunately, this has happened all too often recently across our state. The 911 centers also known as Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) have been plagued with outages since January 2013. This subject was brought to my attention during a recent Joint Legislative meeting on Justice and Public Safety. I set out to find out more about these outages and the story behind the State 911 Board.
First, here’s a little background information on the 911 system. There is a 911 Board that oversees all of the 911 centers in the state, but each center falls under different management. For instance, one county’s center may fall under the county manager, while another falls under a police chief. The 911 Board was created in 2008.
An interesting fact: PSAPs across the state do not currently have set standards they abide by. The Board does have the authority to issue a set of standards, but that power was not given to the Board until 2010. According to Richard Taylor, Executive Director for the 911 Board, the board starting working on those standards “almost immediately” after they were given the power to do so. Taylor stated that it takes “at least 12 to 18 months” to have those standards implemented. So the earliest the standards could have been implemented would have been January 2012.
Unfortunately, the Board hit a wall with the first set of standards. A bill was introduced in the Senate during the 2011-12 session delaying the implementation of those standards. Senate Bill 94 states that “No operating standards set by the 911 Board pursuant to Article 3 of Chapter 62A of the General Statutes shall be effective until January 1, 2014.” When asked why there was opposition to the implementation of the standards Taylor cited two concerns.
The first regarded the rule that there had to be at least two people working around the clock at all times in every PSAP across the state. Taylor claimed some of the smaller counties took issue with this because they simply could not afford to keep two people on the clock at all times because the 911 Board does not pay the fee for telecommunicators. This rule has since been dropped because of the financial burden on the smaller counties.
The second concern was the requirement of certification of telecommunicators. Taylor said at this point 911 centers could hire “anyone off the street” to answer 911 calls. There are no certification requirements to become a telecommunicator unless that particular center falls under the management of a sheriff. Sheriffs require that all telecommunicators have certification. Taylor stated that certain police chiefs and fire chiefs may use the certification for their telecommunicators, but are not required to do so. Under the new standards there will be a requirement that all telecommunicators receive certification that includes a minimum of 40 hours of training with at least 16 hours of continuing education.
In the joint legislative meeting, Taylor cited the lack of certification as being a big problem when it came to the level of service in certain PSAPs. His hope is that the level of service will increase tremendously if certification becomes a requirement.
The bad press that the 911 Board and centers have received so far this year are due to the outages. So far there have been 21 outages across the state since January. When asked if there was any way to track the number of calls that have gone unanswered during that time, Taylor replied that there was no way for his department to know that information. He stated that the only unanswered call he knew of was one in Moore County.
A home burned to the ground in August after the Moore County PSAP suffered an outage. A neighbor tried calling 911 when he saw the home in flames, and said it just kept ringing. He then tried calling the direct numbers for the sheriff’s office and communications center and those too continued to ring.
Outages can be related to multiple problems. Of the 21 outages, 57 percent are due to failures with telephone companies. Another 19 percent are due to accidents that may include a cable being cut or a pole being hit. The last 24 percent can be attributed to PSAP problems that may include events such as a power outage. Regardless of what type of outage, there needs to be an assurance that no 911 call goes unanswered.
The question now becomes: What are the solutions? What does the 911 Board need to do in order to keep more outages from happening? Stay tuned next week to find out where 911 goes from here.