The Denise Amber Lee Bill

It’s the New Year, and one can’t help but think of starting anew. In the public safety industry, there’s so much change for 2012 that it’s hard to keep up.

Here in Florida, one of the biggest changes for the public safety telecommunicator is state-mandated standardized training (also known as the Denise Amber Lee Bill). Effective October 1, 2012, all public safety telecommunicators must be state-certified, in addition to continuing education with re-certification every two years. A 232-hour curriculum framework was established with the Florida Department of Education. The Florida Department of Health (DOH) has been tasked with overseeing certification, equivalency and compliance. Subject matter experts worked with DOH in creating a certification exam. The bottom line: October 1, 2012 begins the evolution of public safety telecommunications in Florida, moving in to an era of professionalism based on statewide standardized training, expecting the same level of service whether 9-1-1 is called in the panhandle or the keys.

For Florida, this has been a long-awaited legislation. Several 9-1-1 professionals, led by Fla. APCO, put in an untold number of uncompensated hours attempting to get this bill passed. Unfortunately, the big push came from the kidnap, rape and murder of Denise Amber Lee of North Port, Fla., and the tireless efforts from her husband Nate, father-in-law Mark and father Rick. They vowed to use their personal tragedy and the loss of their beautiful Denise to bring about a positive change in the 9-1-1 system.

The events that took place on January 17, 2008, during the search for Denise shed light on what we, in the industry, have known all along: There’s a desperate need for standardized training and responsibility throughout the state of Florida and the U.S.
Hopes & Benefits
I’ve always felt that there’s no such thing as too much training. Therefore, we should all embrace this legislation; it will be the new foundation for our careers. We’ll now be recognized as the professionals that we are. Someone I recently met said that he thought our industry seemed to do things backward—rather than attending college to get our training and education, then taking our diploma or certificate to potential employers, we take on the expense and time involved for training, hoping all along that the investment is going to pay off.

That statement made me think about a telecommunicator’s position. Isn’t it strange that most folks in the 9-1-1 center stumbled upon their jobs? Maybe they used it as a step toward a position in the field or got the position because a family member encouraged it, but not because they actively sought out the position. This is unlike our counterparts, who, if asked, almost always say they’ve always known they wanted to be a law enforcement officer, deputy, firefighter or medic. I’ve never heard a high school or college student say they want to be a 9-1-1 professional when they graduate.
But hopefully this is the just beginning. We change how we arrive at our positions. We want (at least I do!) people seeking employment with us, not the other way around. We don’t want to keep that problem employee because they’re at least a warm body.

Instead, wouldn’t you just love to have a waiting list of qualified applicants who want to make public safety communications their career—and not just a job? The applicants will have already been through a 9-1-1 academy and are holding a certificate begging you to hire them? They’ll already have had the basics and classroom training out of the way when they come to you. Who have thoughtfully and consciously made the decision to take on the responsibility and commitment of a 9-1-1 Public Safety Telecommunicator? It’s the answer to our dreams!
Hear me out: I know that it will be a long time before we have 9-1-1 academies popping up all over the U.S. pushing out graduates eager to begin their career with us. But I do know that there will be more state-approved training centers in law enforcement offices (in Florida!) to help the little guy that can’t afford the training for all of their new folks that don’t fall under the grandfather clause.

Some 9-1-1 professionals aren’t happy about this recent development in our careers. They’re concerned about the cost and time involved in getting people certified.

Also, there’s talk out there about legislation that could potentially exempt LEOs who are working in the communications centers from the very same training that’s being mandated upon us. Don’t get me wrong—I know that LEOs know exactly how to handle a 9-1-1 call or any other emergency for that matter, but does that same LEO know how to properly “process” the calls that come in the center? Can they efficiently operate CAD (the mapping software), TDD phones, FCIC/NCIC teletype and the multitude of other pieces of equipment that you find in the common communications center? I’m not talking about the folks who have been working in the center on a regular basis and will be grandfathered in under this new bill—I’m talking about the ones who give you a break or cover a shift now and then when you’re short-handed.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, especially those of you from smaller agencies, “But what if there’s no one else?” I’ve worked in those centers where my shift partner called in sick and I was either left to struggle on my own or had one of the officers who was willing to come in and help out (who usually was trained just enough to get by as long as it was a “routine or slow” shift). I’m sure you understand that while I very much appreciated the help, I also had to have one eye on my co-worker to make sure nothing had fallen through the cracks when it got busy or a hot call came in. This bill will help us avoid things falling through the cracks.
Keep in mind that this bill won’t keep all mistakes from happening. When you work with people, there’s always a potential for errors. But wouldn’t we want to be the best we can be? We deserve that, and so does the community we serve. Our jobs are extremely important to the community and to our family in the field. I love my field personnel and my call takers and I want us to be the best of the best—no matter where we work!

Tips for Field Units
The communication center has evolved so much since the 80s, 90s and even in the last 5–10 years. The communication center is no longer the place to dump the injured, the punished or the ones who can’t make it in the field. What could be done 10–15 years ago, no longer works today. Technology is running like wildfire with things like Phase 2, Smart Phones, NexGen911, FIN, and Narrow banding. Telecommunicators can barely keep up with the training ourselves, much less someone who only works once in a while. What happens if a call comes in during a five-minute bathroom break? Do you want to be responsible for what might happen if you’re working in an area where you’re not fully trained? Can you afford it? Can your agency afford it? But more importantly—can you live with it?

If you’re a field unit who works in the communication center on occasion, ask to be certified. If a training course is created and approved for LEOs who work in the centers, specifically covering the functions and use of 9-1-1 equipment, take the time to complete that training. CAD and other equipment are agency-specific and part of the course covers practical hands-on training for the 9-1-1 equipment.

Also, consider getting involved. Keep an eye on what’s going on in our field. There are great sources of information that are available on a regular basis. It’s important to stay in the loop! Whether you’re assisting with training, volunteering or donating to the Denise Amber Lee Foundation, your local chapter of APCO and/or monitoring your legislation as it relates to public safety, it only enhances your knowledge and performance.

In Sum
Remember: This is just one step in the direction of improving our work environment and professionalism. There are going to be more bumps along the way. But I know you can handle it—you’re a public safety professional!

Written with the assistance of Chris Hodges, Lee County Sheriff Office.

If you would like information on getting your state standardized training or public safety training in general, you may find the below links helpful.

9-1-1 Cares

Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO)

National 9-1-1 Resource Center                 

National Emergency Number Association (NENA)

National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED)

National Association of State 9-1-1 Administrators (NASNA)

Public Safety Training Consultants

The Denise Amber Lee Foundation

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