Last December, standards went into effect in the state of Michigan that require 911 telecommunicators in the state to undergo 40 hours of training within their first 18 months on the job, another 40 hours by the 24-month mark, and then 24 hours of continuing education every two years after that.

According to April Heinze, assistant director of Eaton County Central Dispatch in Charlotte, Mich.—who spoke about telecommunicator training during last month’s National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference—getting policymakers to agree to such standards “is a long process, no matter what you do.” Indeed, it took five years to get the current standards implemented, Heinze said.

“There were hearings and then rulemakings, and then comment periods, and then more hearings and rulemakings,” Heinze said. “It took us a very long time to get there.”

But in the end, they really didn’t get what they wanted. While the standards are a good start, telecommunicators in Michigan won’t be tested on what they purportedly learn during their training sessions. Consequently, while they will be trained, they won’t be certified.

“There are times where you just have to get what you can passed initially, and then you can move forward, and that’s really where we're at,” Heinze said in an interview after the session. “The pushback is funding. We have a lot of PSAPs—and you’re going to see this across the country—we have a lot of very small PSAPs, [and they wonder], ‘How am I going to train these people, how am I going to send them out for training, how do I do this with the small staff that I have and still stay within my means?’”

Indeed, the effort to implement training and certification programs involves “a lot politics, a lot of give and take,” said Nathan Lee, president and director of the Denise Amber Lee Foundation. Nathan Lee would know, because the foundation that bears his late wife’s name was instrumental in getting legislation enacted in the state of Florida in 2009 that established a statewide training-and-certification program for telecommunicators. In January 2008, 21-year-old Denise Lee—the mother of two young children—was abducted from her home and murdered. Allegedly, 911 telecommunicators made mistakes on the night of her abduction that hindered search efforts.

Currently, only a handful of states have telecommunicator-certification programs in place, but others are working on implementing them. Illinois is one of those states. One of the leaders of that effort is Brian Tegtmeyer, executive director of DuPage Public Safety Communications, or DU-COMM, in Glendale Heights, Ill. In Illinois, the goal is to establish a 120-hour training program that will culminate in testing and certification, he said.

“We want certification, we want a test, we want recertification, we want quality assurance,” Tegtmeyer said.

However, he acknowledged that the quality-assurance element will be challenging for PSAPs.

“We do feel that quality assurance needs to be part of it,” Tegtmeyer said.  “But we recognize that one of the challenges is that any legislation that is going to require quality assurance is going to be harder to enforce than legislation that just is trying to get you to enforce the fact that training is required.”

Jamison Peevyhouse—executive director of Weakley County, Tenn., and a member of a NENA working group that is studying telecommunicator training and certification—agrees that any training program without a testing component is essentially toothless.

“There should be something that validates that this person not only has completed the course work but also grasps the knowledge of that function,” Peevyhouse said. “Anyone can go to class. But how do we validate that person knows what they’re doing when we hire them? What is the point of having of a standard, if there’s no way of validating whether the standard is being met?”

Another hot-button issue involves grandfathering, according to Lee.

“A grandfathering clause was entered into the Florida bill that said those who were dispatchers for at least 5 years were grandfathered in, as long as they could pass the test,” Lee said. “For me, that was a sore spot, because the call-taker who made the mistake in my wife’s case had been there for 15 years.”

Lee’s point is that passing a test is just the first step in a long process; telecommunicators need continuing education to keep their skills sharp and to prepare them for new types of calls that continually emerge. For example, 911 call-takers today are encountering chemical suicides , diversion calls and emergency medical calls involving new designer drugs—all of which are situations that didn’t exist until recently.

Ideally, a national telecommunicator training-and certification program would emerge, but this lofty goal might be easier said than done, according to Peevyhouse.

“It’s difficult to get 50 states to agree, when there are millions of ways of doing things,” he said.

So, the matter likely will be left in the hands of the states for the foreseeable future. Lee urged those who are working on the establishment of training-and-certification programs to reach out to those who are further along the path, so that they know what the obstacles are.

“Reinventing the wheel isn’t necessary,” he said. “I could tell you about 20 different things that we encountered along the way … so that you can avoid them.”

While the task will be arduous, it will be worth the effort, according to Peevyhouse, who said that every PSAP has, somewhere in its records, a call like the Denise Amber Lee call in Florida five years ago.

“Let that be your driving factor in this,” he said. “[Telecommunicator certification] is too important to let it go much longer.”