Can ITSM Save 9-1-1's Disjointed Call Center Problem

The implications of having disaggregated 911 call centers in this country is apparent. John Oliver featured the issue several weeks ago on Last Week Tonight, after which I did a little research of my own to see if I could learn more. In doing so, I realized there were people all over the country who’d had these terrible 911 call experiences. I am one of them – in our nation’s capital, no less.

Implications of a Disjointed Call Center

I was a DC resident for four years. Over the course of those years I called 911 about four times and not once received the assistance I needed. The most disturbing call I made was when I was being followed home on foot. I called 911, frantic, asked if they could send a police officer right away, and gave them my specific street address.

My follower sped up; I started running.

I crossed the street; he crossed the street.

I became more panicked on the phone and the operator was asking me questions about what the man looked like and what he was wearing.

At this point, I became very frustrated with the operator and pleaded with her to stop asking me questions and send the police to my house. She said she couldn’t send anyone without getting an accurate description of the person who was chasing me!

I was so frustrated that I hung up the phone because the “assistance” was actually doing nothing more than impeding me from getting to safety. Luckily, I was able to make it to safety on my own – only after he followed me through the gate of my front yard. He left when someone inside my house heard the commotion and came outside.

Needless to say, I have a personal connection to this problem, which is what drove me to dig into an issue my ITSM background told me would be much more complex than it appeared on the surface – or on the show. And it absolutely was.

The ability to call 911 is an expectation, however, 911 is not a system or a tool. These call centers operate independently. According to, The 911 Associations’ website, there are 5,899 primary and secondary public-safety answering points, or PSAPs around the country. I am not an expert on 911 but given my background in IT Service Management, I can see they are not using the best practices currently available. More often than not, this results in a lot of repetitive and unnecessary costs.

Why is this a problem? Because all the centers have to implement changes independently. For instance, the infrastructure that supports this system was built before mobile phone technology existed. Retroactively putting in place systems that can effectively manage mobile phone technology for almost 6,000 centers would be an astronomical cost. Additionally, while using mobile phone technology to locate a caller would be ideal, it will not provide any immediate ROI benefits to the individual call centers (financially, at least).

So we should just leave it the way it is and keep disappointing the public when they are in danger, sometimes with dire consequences? Hardly seems like a reasonable response (or lack thereof, really).

In the short term, lives could be saved and confidence restored by improved or new processes; i.e. if the caller is being chased and in immediate danger, dispatch the police and save “What does he look like?” for a follow up question. Problems related to location could also be solved with better human interactions and questions driven by scenarios. This obviously sounds much easier than it is in practice – and it isn’t a holistic solution. However, if these call centers where aggregated into one, centrally managed call center, it would be much easier to manage changes, promote consistency, and develop trends and best practices. It would also promote better opportunities for knowledge sharing and lessons learned.

As technology continues to change, it is ever more important that 911 changes their model and adopts best practices to enhance their services. When you are in the business of saving lives, not money, it is vital for the providers to, at a minimum, practice Continual Service Improvement, Change Management, Problem Management, Demand Management. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

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Here’s how to rebrand it as a true single point of contact.

Originally published July 07 2016, updated January 01 2019