Jenifer Goodwin

Story Vault

By Jenifer Goodwin

The rapid pace of communications-related technological changes has made teaching people what 9-1-1 can—and can’t—do both more urgent and more complicated.

“Telephony has changed dramatically over the years with wireless phones, texting, and Voice over IP,” said Alisa Simmons, manager of public marketing for the Tarrant County (Texas) 9-1-1 District. “It’s very important that citizens understand the differences between landlines and other devices when they try to reach 9-1-1 for help.”

April 2013 marks the sixth annual National 9-1-1 Education Month, and a busy time for Simmons who spearheads the district’s 9-1-1 public education efforts to reach nearly 2 million people in Fort Worth.

The National 9-1-1 Education Coalition took inspiration from the efforts like that of Tarrant County.

“There’s power in speaking with one voice when it comes to public education and the critical role of the public safety telecommunicator,” said Angel Arocho, NG9-1-1 Institute Board chairman and a Coalition member on behalf of Comcast.

The National 9-1-1 Education Coalition was created to leverage the resources of membership organizations serving the 9-1-1 community, including the NG9-1-1 Institute and the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch. Aside from the expertise it represents, the Coalition also provides educational and public relations materials, including banners, fliers, and posters, free of charge to the nation’s PSAPs.

With 80% of calls to 9-1-1 coming from cell phones, Campaign 2013 focuses on teaching the public to “be 9-1-1-ready” and give clear, precise location information, Arocho said. “Even if you’re a small PSAP operating on a small budget, there are simple things you can do to promote public education.”

Here is how three programs celebrate the month.

Tarrant County, Texas

A 2011 survey of 1,000 residents in Dallas-Fort Worth commissioned by the Tarrant County 9-1-1 District found that 62% believed calltakers could pinpoint their location if calling from a landline in a hotel or office building. Nearly 38% believed that calltakers would know the address if the call to 9-1-1 was from a cell phone, while 17% were unsure.

The survey also found significant misinformation about texting 9-1-1. Nearly one-third (31%) of respondents thought they could text 9-1-1, while 35% said they were unsure. Only 34% correctly answered that 9-1-1 couldn’t accept texts.

To correct such misperceptions, 9-1-1 education is a year-round effort there, said Simmons, with activities that include school assemblies, safety fairs, and other community events. Special events for April include her favorite, an annual “Heroes Conference,” which recognizes members of the public, usually children, who have made a heroic call to 9-1-1.

To gather their stories, Simmons starts asking 9-1-1 center managers for referrals about six months before the event. She reviews the audiotapes looking for certain criteria, such as a child dialing 9-1-1 without the help of an adult. She doesn’t touch calls involving domestic violence cases and looks for stories with happy endings, such as the five-year-old girl who dialed 9-1-1 to report that her grandmother had a seizure while cooking dinner. The dispatcher even helped the little girl safety turn off the stove.

“In all these calls, you can hear the emotion of the kid,” Simmons said. “They are a little upset, a little panicked, but they are in control because the calltaker has them in control.”

Children recognized as 9-1-1 Heroes receive a plaque, a medal, and a backpack with goodies such as movie tickets, gift cards, 9-1-1 umbrellas, a jacket, and a coloring book.

Simmons also provides individual PSAPs with brochures, pens, and other 9-1-1 educational giveaways to hand out at community events and school presentations.

“I will go out to events with them the first few times,” she said. “Once they get going, they handle it on their own.”

King County, Washington

Power outages from winter storms in Seattle turned into a problem-solver for the King County E-911 Program Office, which administers 12 PSAPs making up the regional emergency 9-1-1 system. Knowing the frustration that comes with repeating the same information over and over again in relation to recurring non-emergency calls, the office created the website “Links by Zip” and taught the public how to use it.

By simply accessing the site and supplying a zip code, the resident can retrieve the correct phone numbers for city service inquiries. Since the site was developed in 2009, it has averaged about 40,000 visits annually.

“Just telling people don’t call 9-1-1 for this or that doesn’t work,” said Kayreen Lum, the public education coordinator for the E-911 Program Office. “In a panic, they call 9-1-1. But if you can tell them where to call, and put that information in their hands beforehand, they will be less likely to call (9-1-1).”

A second initiative—”Know Your Cell Well”—reminds residents that texting 9-1-1 isn’t an option and to lock cell phones to cut down on “butt” and “purse” dialing. The number of accidental calls from cell phones has since dropped 19% (from 30% to 11%).

Their most recent program—”Smart911”—established a secure PSAP integrated database of voluntarily registered cell phone numbers correlated with personal profiles, such as work and home addresses, languages spoken, and information about medical conditions or disabilities.

“What we really like about Smart911 is the ability to associate an address with a cell phone,” Lum said. “I live in a 105-unit condo complex. I don’t have a home phone. If I’m not able to speak, and I call 9-1-1, dispatchers can see what complex I’m in, but not what unit I’m in. With Smart911, they will know to try my unit first.”

So far, they’ve collected more than 4,500 profiles from 2,200 households, Lum said.

State of Utah

Several years ago, the Utah 9-1-1 Committee partnered with an outside marketing agency to launch a statewide educational program stressing the importance of remaining calm when calling 9-1-1 and the use of non-emergency numbers when appropriate. The multimedia campaign, themed “Help Us Help Out,” features a website, billboards, a smartphone app for accessing non-emergency numbers, televised public service announcements, and radio spots in Spanish and English. Check out the TV ads at http://911.utah.gov

“The 9-1-1 system isn’t just the technical part—the equipment and network,” said William Harry, executive director of the Salt Lake Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC), and a member of the state committee. “The most important element is the person who has to use the system. People don’t use 9-1-1 on a routine basis and usually they are distraught. They need to know how to use the system to make it easier and more efficient for them for when they do have that emergency.”