Florida 911 system needs drastic reform

The 911 call system in Florida needs major reform. This under-funded program lacks the structure and organization citizens deserve. In order to enhance citizen protection, the state should offer more funding and training to operators to properly handle all calls.

A report published in August, “Florida 911: The State of Emergency,” funded by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice (GCCFV), analyzed how Florida’s 911 system failed numerous times, resulting in preventable casualties.

The study was commissioned after the January 2008 murder of Denise Amber Lee. According to CNN, she was kidnapped, raped by the killer in his own home, shot in the head and buried in a ditch. During the trial, jury members heard two 911 calls: one from the victim and another from a witness.

The six-minute call made by Lee was dispatched to police, who then hunted for the kidnapper. Jane Kowalski, the witness who made the other call, followed the car for a while and told the 911 operator that she was hearing “not a happy scream, a get-me-out-of-here scream,” but lost them.

Unfortunately, this call was not properly relayed to officers by the dispatcher. According to the St. Petersburg Times, the reason the call was not dispatched to the officers was because of a shift change. The dispatchers are suspended while their performance is being reviewed.

Since the 911 system is under-funded, its workers must obviously be underpaid as well. This results in the reduced enthusiasm for the job and lack of interest in the work, causing loss of quality. But for a 911 dispatcher, awareness is crucial. It’s the difference between life and death in many instances.

The report detailed 18 recommendations that GCCFV believes are crucial changes that need to occur within the system. They found that “Florida has no one board, office or person with the authority to monitor how effectively calls for emergency assistance are handled, and has no statewide data to assess error rate, response time or any other measure of the delivery of service.”

If the state cannot examine how effectively the dispatchers are performing their task, then it cannot make any improvements or recommendations. These findings suggest that countless other lives could have been saved and other criminals caught. If the dispatchers are not working efficiently or fast enough, then better training needs to be implemented.

Another critical finding was that less than two-thirds of the cost of the 911 system is paid by the state. The rest is left for the counties and local governments to handle. Florida’s 911 fees are in the bottom third of all states and fee collections are declining with each passing year.

This alarming discovery shows how much the state cares for its citizens. The most important program that the state should pay for is the 911 system. This is the system that saves lives and deters crime. If the state offered more funding to help improve the 911 system, maybe helpless victims such as Lee would have been saved.

Training for 911 dispatch workers should be mandated by Florida. The state only recommends training programs to be a dispatcher. A person does not need any training or experience. Each call center makes its own decisions about how and if they should offer training.

Few have brought awareness to this issue, and many Floridians were not aware of the emergency system’s problems and its lack of structure. The report was the first of its kind in Florida to identify problems with the 911 system and offer solutions for solving them.

This report should put pressure on the state to provide higher funds for emergency response services. Americans rely on this service everyday in case of emergencies. If people stake their lives on a 911 call, they deserve to have the full attention of the operator on the other end.

Xhenis Berberi is a senior majoring in political science and economics.