Everyone knows the number, almost no one knows how it works.
Why is this essential? While 911 is ubiquitous, what 911 does and how it operates is not well known. As is so often the case, perception often becomes reality, such as 911 being perceived as an enforcement or policing response. Too many people think 911 is just a switchboard not meriting particular skills or expertise by call handlers., It’s everywhere, and when it doesn’t work, the general public assumes that’s the fault of the people who work in the system, rather than a symptom of systemic failure or disinvestment. System failures include inadequately resourcing response options to ensure the right responder can be deployed at the right time, to technological system failures that can result in deploying responders to the wrong address, or to not having a reliable address to deploy a response at all. The result of people not knowing how the 911 system works, along with knowledge in terms of its functioning and vulnerabilities, is that the 911 system is misunderstood by a broad swath of America., This recommendation reflects the need to clarify what 911 is and isn’t, and to build the constituency, visibility, political will, and enthusiasm needed to realize and sustain a highly effective and imperative system that contributes to public health and community wellbeing.
1. Build local awareness
- Partner with major and minor league sports teams, as well as colleges, universities, and high schools, that spotlight 911 professionals as “local heroes” at various sporting events.
- An example here can be found in the way that police and fire departments partner with major league sports teams. Most sports fans will be familiar with the ubiquitous presence of local police and fire color guards during the national anthem at major league sporting events. Many teams host first responder nights and honor exemplary first responders during games. Some teams have even named awards after them. ECCs and 911 professionals should find ways to partner in similar ways. This will help shine a light on 911 professionals, as “heroes behind the headset,” by advancing a deeper understanding of and appreciation for this critical workforce and educating the public about the nature of the profession and building a talent pipeline.
- Work with school superintendents and principals to ensure that 911 professionals are included in career days and “know the helpers” days starting in elementary school.
2. Support accurate storytelling
- Develop and disseminate press guidelines to help reporters ensure their reporting on 911 is accurate and complete and doesn’t reinforce existing misconceptions (e.g., that police and 911 are synonymous).
- Develop a simple module/video for elementary schools introducing children to 911.
- Recognize that 911 professionals, public safety officers, and the public have differing expectations of the 911 system and chart a path to reconciling them.
3. With major support from philanthropy, create and launch public awareness and targeted messaging campaigns that reintroduce 911 and address the following:
- What 911 is: 911 is a separate, complex system, as essential to public health and safety as police, fire, and emergency medical services, but it is separate from these other services. 911 is the gateway to care and wellbeing for people in extreme distress.
- The people of 911: The professionals, “heroes wearing the headsets,” are first responders. A national visibility campaign, designed to help the public understand what 911 professionals do will provide staff with the recognition they deserve while also making 911 a more desirable career option, opening opportunities to expand recruitment and increase staffing to optimal levels. Positioning 911 as a viable, desirable career path for those who are brave, committed, dedicated, and want to serve their communities is vital for recruitment and retention.
- 911 as a national resource: 911 is essential to our country’s future, but it is not a given that it will be there for us all. Create momentum for minimum national standards and federal funding.
- 911 is uniting: Access to 911 should be something that connects us all, even in our very divided country. 911 is committed to representing all of the communities served.
- For an example, one need look no further than the burgeoning messaging campaign around 988. While much work remains in order to get the word out, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has developed a key messaging campaign for 988, and many nonprofits have developed coordinated messaging campaigns. This messaging has been picked up and broadcast by podcasts and other outlets.
4. Develop and distribute messaging specific for the executive office of the president on launching a federal center for 911 as needed.
- See chapter nine on national support.
- The executive office of the president issues key messaging on many topics. See, for example, the Biden administration’s announcement about a comprehensive mental health strategy in early 2022.
5. Equip the field with advocacy tools and messaging to support reclassification and new funding streams.
- See chapter nine on national support.
6. Develop and distribute messaging that can be used by ECCs to support recruitment and the proper use of 911, work with local community colleges, and more to create career pathways.
- Ensure that these tools both reflect and reinforce the shift to greater diversity in the 911 professionals’ community.
- For example, for many years, police and sheriff departments have tried various messaging strategies (such as “hiring in the spirit of service”) to engage applicants and have created pathways for youth (such as cadet programs) to learn about and consider policing as a career.
7. Through geomapping, op-ed placement, visibility events, and more, lift up progress and what’s working. The purpose of these efforts is to demonstrate that this work is entirely possible to shift the narrative from “Can this even work in my community?” to “How can I make this work in my community?
8. Support momentum
- Provide backbone support to the Transform911 workgroup co-chairs, members, and other valuable spokespeople as they translate these recommendations and make the case to constituents.
- Involve economically and socially marginalized community members who have been affected by 911 (See chapter four on the people), to help support and inform the 911 ecosystem and to provide compensation so that they are able to fully participate.
- Create opportunities for interested communities to find others who are on the same journey.
9. Create opportunities appropriate for a given ECC to allow the community to “see under the hood,” whether that’s a short video, ECC tours, or other mechanisms.
- Community members and 911 professionals should work together to educate one another on their perspectives with a goal of increasing confidence in the use of 911, including using public education opportunities, surveys, listening sessions, and in-person observations at ECCs.
- An example here comes from the West Midlands Police in England, which created a short video to educate the public on the UK’s THRIVE (Threat, Harm, Risk, Investigation, Vulnerability, and Engagement) assessment, and a fact sheet, which was developed to ensure that the department delivers the right response at the right time for any given public emergency call for service.
 Transform911 workgroup conversations and data shared from practitioners, i.e., practitioner-based evidence gleaned through the Transform911 workgroup process.
 Transform911: Assessing the Landscape and Identifying New Areas of Action and Inquiry, https://www.transform911.org/resource-hub/transforming-911-report/.
 US Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), “Recruitment, Hiring, and Retention,” https://cops.usdoj.gov/recruitment_hiring_and_retention.
 Donovan S. Thomas, “D.C. police look to increase ranks, expand cadet program,” The Washington Post, November 18, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/11/18/dc-police-high-school-cadet/.