On this episode, we sat down with Brian Tegtmeyer, the National 911 Program Coordinator, to discuss the nationwide emergency call system. He discussed the advantages of Next Generation 911, the progress states have made in adopting to these new standards and how legislators can find out more about the 911 system in their states.
The 911 system was created in the U.S. more than 50 years ago to provide people with a single number to call in an emergency. Changes in technology have created enormous challenges for the system, which now receives more than 80% of its 240 million calls annually from cellphones and about 500,000 texts.
On this episode, we sat down with Brian Tegtmeyer, the National 911 Program Coordinator. The program is part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA.
Tegtmeyer discussed some of the challenges facing the system. Like so many sectors of government and private industry, the 911 system is facing workforce shortages, so much so that nearly half of all call centers face staffing shortfalls even as the number of emergency calls rise every year.
He also discussed the advantages of the Next Generation 911, the progress states have made in adopting to these new standards, funding to help with the transition and how legislators can find out more about the 911 system in their states.
Ed: Hello and welcome to “Our American States,” a podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m your host, Ed Smith.
BT: We are the home of 911.gov, a website that is a clearinghouse for all 911 issues and where we try to bring everyone in the community together.
Ed: That was Brian Tegtmeyer, the national 911 program coordinator. The program is part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA. The 911 system was created in the U.S. more than 50 years ago to provide people with a single number to call in an emergency. Changes in technology have created enormous challenges for the system which now receives more than 80% of its 240 million calls annually from cell phones and about 500,000 texts. Brian discussed some of the challenges facing the system. Like so many sectors of government and private industry, the 911 system is facing workforce shortages so much so that nearly half of all call centers face staffing shortfalls even as the number of emergency calls rise each year.
Brian also discussed the advantages of next generation 911. The progress states have made in adapting these new standards. Funding to help with the transition and how legislators can find out more about the 911 system in their states. Here’s our discussion. Brian, welcome to the podcast. I really appreciate you joining me.
BT: Thank you and I’m happy to be here.
Ed: Brian you are the national coordinator for 911 for NTSA. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that role and what kind of issues fall under the program.
BT: Yes. Thank you. NHTSA’s national 911 program is focused on evening 911 across the nation. Within NHTSA, our prime goal is to support traffic safety and we do that in conjunction with our 911 efforts by supporting the National Roadway Safety Strategy. The National Roadway Safety Strategy is the Department of Transportation’s comprehensive approach to significantly reducing serious injuries and deaths on our nation’s highways, roads and streets. The safety strategy includes the safe system approach which has been embraced by the transportation community as an effective way to address and mitigate the risks inherent in our enormous and complex transportation systems. And the safe system approach includes 5 elements. Safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds and post-crash care.
911 professionals impact all five areas of the safe system approach and have unique abilities to improve post-crash care. To achieve this program NHTSA’s 911 program works to advance 911 issues wholistically and we do this in a variety of different ways. We connect our 911 systems nationwide. We collaborate with our stakeholders and we create and share resources. Most notably we are the home of 911.gov, a website that is a clearinghouse for all 911 issues and where we try to bring everyone in the community together. We are a resource for all federal, state, local, territorial and tribal 911 agencies across the nation.
Ed: We’ve had 911 now for more than 50 years and I’m actually old enough to have been around before 911 and I can’t tell you how we contacted emergency services back then. I think you were supposed to call the local police department, but I suspect a lot of people just dialed 0 and asked the operator for help. I wonder if you can talk about in those 50 years, what kind of misconceptions, misunderstandings and maybe just things people don’t know about 911. Can you talk about that a little bit?
BT: Yea sure. 911 has evolved a lot over the last 50 years and a lot of people, even when they hear it’s 50 years old, the reality is is that it’s probably not 50 years old where they live. A lot of 911 centers really didn’t get moving into the suburban and rural areas of our country until the late ’80s and early 1990s, thus making it a lot newer in more people’s lives than they recognize. I think it’s important when looking at 911 to realize it’s not always what you imagine or see on TV. So let me give you some numbers about 911. There are approximately 240 million annual 911 calls. Over 80% of those 911 calls are from a wireless device. Over a half a million texts to 911 sessions are initiated each year between callers or texters and their local 911 centers. And text to 911 is not available in every 911 center, but it is spreading in availability across the nation. There are over 5,400 911 centers or what we call PSAPs or ECCs across the nation. What might surprise you is the size. Over 30% are just 1 to 2 seat centers located most likely in your local police department or sheriff’s office. Sixty percent are five seats or less. And then the remaining numbers might be those larger centers that you are familiar with when you see a TV show or another example of 911 centers.
Over 60% of 911 centers are operated by law enforcement agencies. 911 structures at the state level vary. They vary across the nation. Some states have very robust programs led by a state office and have state 911 networks. And yet not every state even has a 911 office. 911 telecommunicators are not federally recognized as first responders. I think we will talk about it later but many states have taken actions to recognize first responder status of 911 on the state level, but there is no federal recognition. And at this point, there are over 10 states that still have no minimum recognized training guidelines for telecommunicators. And our 911 centers struggle on a variety of issues most notably our staffing levels.
Ed: Well, I think as you referenced the change in technology, I don’t think it would surprise most of us that most of the calls to 911 are on a cellphone now because I guess most calls anywhere are on a cellphone now. But when people try to send images or texts that kind of thing as you said, a lot of these centers or at least some of these centers can’t handle that. But I wonder if we could talk a little bit about Next Generation 911, which is, as I understand it, can handle a lot of those things and the National 911 Program that is supporting these efforts. What kind of challenges are states facing in trying to upgrade their technology so they are able to handle the phones that most people use these days?
BT: There are many challenges states face when it comes to adopting next generation 911. And just simply put, Next Generation 911 is the moving from a copper analog technology to a digital IP system that is capable of all the things you described. Being able to receive videos, pictures and messaging directly into the 911 center with the same types of technology that our residents are used to using today when they are communicating between each other. So how you communicate with your friends or family is not available when you need 911 services. So that’s the goal of Next Generation 911 is bring all those technologies to the callers in a time of need.
The challenges faced by the states include planning and funding and system interoperability. NASNA, the National Association of State 911 Administrators, estimates that state and local agencies have already invested $2 billion in the movement toward next generation 911. And there are efforts to track the deployment of Next Generation 911 across the nation. And we know that there are states that are in different stages. There are early adopters leading the way. A large group that are in the middle working to take the next and appropriate steps to prepare themselves for this transition. And then we have states that are the late adopters that are trying to figure out how to get this program moving and to support the resources needed.
The NHTSA National 911 Program has been supporting these efforts across the nation. We have been creating resources, collaborating with our stakeholders to assist in this effort.
Ed: Let me ask you about the workforce shortage you alluded to this. We are seeing these kinds of shortages in government and in private industry. Really across the board. And 911 call centers are no exception to that. What can states do or what are they doing to try to address that workforce issue?
BT: Yeah, workforce shortages are the huge issue in 911 operations today. The challenges faced have a variety of solutions. States could focus on reclassification of 911 telecommunicators as first responders if they have not already done so. Missouri, Oklahoma and Washington recently took such actions. This can impact recruitment and retention by recognizing the value of the nation’s 911 Public Safety telecommunicators. Improving the professionalism in the 911 industry is key. Ensuring that states have training requirements to improve the overall standard of care for everyone in the state. In addition, ensuring that 911 is part of all public safety legislation whether its about access to mental health resources or what other public safety professionals is essential. States should be addressing what the workforce challenges are in their state as they may not be the same in others. And look to their professionals in 911 for recommendations on how best to address it on a local level. It’s really a shared approach with problem recognition and trying different solutions. There is not a one size fits all solution to this challenge.
Ed: Well, you know I’m here in Colorado and we have a few large urban areas, but we’ve got a heck of a lot of rural portions of this state and that’s certainly true in many states particularly here in the west and I’m wondering in the rural areas, what kind of challenges does 911 have that maybe it doesn’t experience in the middle of Denver and in the middle of Boston or something like that. What kind of factors contribute to that difference in terms of response time?
BT: Response time is an interesting subject because generally the factors that influence a response time are outside of 911’s per view. In other words, the first responders - the police, fire and EMS that determine their appropriate level of staffing and resource allocation. But 911 centers can impact that response by working together on a regional level to assist in mutual aid between agencies that can improve response times. One way to do this is with computer aided dispatching which is the primary computer that 911 telecommunicators use and creating what’s called cad to cad interoperability. This is where neighboring 911 centers can be connected to their fellow partners in the area and use the dispatch center or the 911 center to dispatch the closest available unit. This makes sure that by partnering together, we can get the best response to the residence in a time of need.
A second way is using structured call taking protocols like EMD or emergency medical dispatching. These are important. And when I talk about these protocols, there are a formal set of questions asked by a 911 call taker and they can provide instructions that the call taker can give to the caller including things like CPR, bleeding control and even the instructions for how to deliver a baby. Structured protocols make the response time 0 minutes. When a trained public safety communicator has a structured protocol, they can provide post-dispatch and pre-arrival instructions immediately to the call.
Ed: Yeah, that’s a really good point. It’s not just a matter of sending someone. It’s a matter of also being on the line and advising people. That’s certainly a valuable part of that. A little over a year ago, the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline went live. And the truth is it takes more than a year to figure out how well something is working and all that sort of thing. But I wonder at this point, what kind of steps states are taking to coordinate calls for help between these two systems and how the two systems differ because I’m sure the word is still getting out to people that in that kind of behavioral health crisis there’s this 988 option rather than 911. So can you talk about that a little bit?
BT: Sure. I think it’s important to understand the purpose. 988 is the three-digit number to access crisis centers for individuals who need assistance with mental health issues. 911 is still the number to call when an immediate response is needed from EMS or police even in a mental health crisis. States are working to coordinate these two systems so that potentially in the future they can work together and potentially transfer calls between them. And while this is an identified goal and NTSA’s 911 program is working with our federal colleagues at health and human services, this is not currently possible for some technical and operational reasons. Technically, calls to 988 route based on the caller’s area code of the phone that they are using. 911 routes to the 911 center by the caller’s location. Operationally, many states rules or 911 centers policies may limit the ability to transfer calls from 911 to 988 as opposed to dispatching emergency responders.
The states 988 and 911 communities are working together to identify these issues and to make the improvements and there are some examples on the local level where this has been successful and where they are working more closely together.
Ed: Well, there’s probably still a lot of evolution for us to keep an eye on there over the next few years. Sort of along those same collaborations and coordination lines, can you talk about how state 911 in emergency medical services systems work together to provide and dispatch effective emergency care?
BT: Well first at NHTSA we work very closely together. The national 911 program is in the NHTSA’s office of EMS. And we are focused on the national roadway safety strategy and that safe system approach we discussed earlier which includes post-crash care. And it’s in improving the post-crash care that we are focused on collaboration between 911 and EMS working together to improve the receipt of the call, location identification, response, triage, treatment and transport of crash victims. Working with our 911 and EMS colleagues at a national, state and local level, these improvements can help identify ways to improve both post-crash care and wholistically all responses from 911 and EMS. This will improve the overall standard of care which is critical to providing effective emergency care from the initial 911 call for service to delivering emergency response all the way to getting the patient to the hospital.
Ed: Many things in government come down to money whether its money for technology or money for workforce that kind of thing. And here you’ve got a big system upgrade going on around the country in all the different states. I wonder are you seeing innovative or alternative funding models being implemented in some states and are there federal resources states can tap into?
BT: That’s a great question and this is a big challenge for 911 overall. A lot of people have been looking for Congress to act and they are considering legislation as they have in previous years, which currently is called the Next Generation 911 Act of 2023, which proposes giving $15 billion to states to support local 911 centers in their adoption of Next Generation 911. As with any federal legislation, it’s unknown if or when it will pass and if it does, when the money would get to the states. States have to be aware of this and ensure that they have their own plans in place for their Next Generation implementation. And importantly how to sustain the systems moving to the future from any grants they might receive. The NHTSA 911 program partners with our colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security and we publish a list of currently available federal grants for 911 and public safety communications on our website at 911.gov. All of this combined gives opportunities to our states and local partners in 911 to find resources that they can best utilize to impact their transition to the next generation 911 and creates sustainable funding models.
Ed: Well funding 911 seems to me like funding mom and apple pie. I think most people in this country would think that that’s a really good idea since they can imagine themselves very easily being on the caller end of a 911 call. As we wrap up, of course, we’ve got an audience of legislators, legislative staff, others interested in state policy and I wonder if there’s anything else you would like to share with that audience about how they can learn more about their states 911 system and plans for improvement.
BT: The very first recommendation I would be making is go visit a local 911 center in your state. Engagement in bringing the legislators to their 911 centers so that they can understand the impact that they can make and see firsthand what and how 911 is operating in their area is really a great place to start. I think being aware of the funding issues, the reclassification discussion of telecommunicators, the need for training requirements and how we can impact workforce and staffing are the other priorities for state legislators when it comes to 911 policies.
Ed: Well Brian this has been great information and I really appreciate you coming on to share it with me and with our audience. And I know that I’d love to have this conversation again in a couple of years and see how that enhanced 911 is doing so thank you very much and have a good day.
BT: Thank you so much.
Ed: I’ve been talking with Brian Tegtmeyer, the National 011 Program Coordinator, about the evolution and challenges in the nation’s emergency call system and ongoing efforts to implement Next Generation 911. Thanks for listening.
You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. Tim Storey, NCSL’s CEO hosts “Legislatures: The Inside Storey” where he focuses on leadership and legislatures. The “Our American States” podcast dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures.