CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. — Everyone who dials 911 needs fast and efficient help with an emergency. The person who takes that call is a crucial link with police, fire, paramedics and other emergency services.
It's essential that emergency dispatchers have a high level of training.
Unfortunately, many 911 emergency dispatchers in Florida do not receive the training they need–a fault that became tragically obvious after the January kidnapping and brutal slaying of a young North Port mother, Denise Lee.
Bills now in the Florida House and Senate would require the state to establish standard criteria, training and certification programs for 911 dispatchers. Neither House Bill 997 nor Senate Bill 1694 would make training and certification mandatory. Sponsors of the bill say funds are not available.
Mandatory training should be the state's ultimate goal, but establishing standards is an important first step.
The dispatcher-training issue has come up before, but received greater impetus this year after Denise Lee's death.
A vital call mishandled
Lee, the mother of two young boys, was abducted from her home on Jan. 17.
Hours later, a motorist driving south on U.S. 41 near the Charlotte County-North Port border called the Charlotte Sheriff's Office's 911 center. She told a dispatcher that she saw someone screaming frantically and banging on the rear window of a dark-colored Chevrolet Camaro.
Dispatchers failed to notify deputies–even though several deputies and North Port police were searching the immediate area for Lee's abductor, who was reported to be driving a green Camaro.
That evening, a state trooper stopped Michael King, who was driving a dark green Camaro. Denise Lee's body was found later in a shallow grave off Toledo Blade Boulevard. King, a North Port resident, has been charged with Lee's abduction, rape and murder.
Subsequently, dispatchers were suspended and underwent remedial training.
Last week Lee's father, Rick Goff, a Charlotte sheriff's sergeant, tearfully told a House committee that the 911 call taken by the dispatcher was "the call that could have saved her life."
Lee's husband, Nathan, has announced plans to sue Charlotte County, claiming that the sheriff's department was negligent in the "wrongful death" of his wife.
No one can say for certain that Lee's murder would have been prevented if deputies had been notified to investigate the call.
But the tragic episode shows a vital need for proper training of 911 dispatchers–and for compatible communication systems.
The Legislature should demand a statewide study of local emergency communication systems to ensure they are compatible with those of surrounding communities. The investigation of the 911 call in the Lee case revealed that a radio "patch" had to be installed on the day of the abduction to allow North Port police and Charlotte deputies to better communicate.
When a life is at stake, no community can afford to have inadequate communication–or emergency operators who are inadequately trained.