When disaster strikes, sometimes a 911 phone operator is the one person sitting between the person who's in distress and the help and information he or she needs. The operator needs to be quick and calm in the face of a caller's personal emergency, which could be anything from the mundane to the catastrophic. Lost pets in trees, suspicious neighbors, suicide attempts -- these are some of the crises that compel people to call local emergency centers in a panic. The men and women who receive them need all the poise and nerve they can muster in order to handle the worst.
They need to be like the men and women who graduate from the Houston Independent School District's High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice.
"You've got to hold your composure," said Ashley Ruiz, a graduate of the school who now works as an operator at the Houston Emergency Center (HEC), which employs a staff of 911 call takers and emergency dispatchers from the Houston Police and Fire departments. She knows what skills she needs to handle a frantic citizen. "Learning how to talk to people and calm them down, knowing that they're just a person like you. You have to stay on the line with them until you hear the police in the background."
The school began in spring 1981 as a recruitment source for minority police officers and is designed to teach students about careers in law enforcement and criminal justice, and it's garnered a noteworthy reputation. In 2007, the school was awarded a silver medal in the U.S. News and World Report's annual list of America's Best High Schools.
Each grade level offers classes related to public safety, but the call-taker training portion didn't get into full swing until the last decade. Ruiz was an early trainee in the program during her senior year from 2004 to 2005, which today is called the Emergency Telecommunicator course. Ruiz now works for the HEC and takes pride in her job.
"You're not only going for a paycheck, but you actually help people. Your job has a purpose, a very big purpose. It feels good," she said.
The Emergency Telecommunicator course has been brought to eager students, thanks to a partnership between the school and the Greater Harris County (GHC) 911 Emergency Network in Texas. It's one of several programs the school offers through its cooperative training program, according to Valgene Holmes, the program director and criminal justice co-op coordinator who spearheaded its implementation.
"Back in 1995, the principal of the school at that time came to me and said we needed a program to teach our seniors to have an opportunity for them to pursue a career path, especially for those students who will probably not be able to afford to go to college," he said. The principal, Norma Morris, gave him two options: corrections or telecommunications. He chose telecommunications and began working with the GHC to develop lessons.
Photo: Valgene Holmes, criminal justice co-op coordinator, Houston Independent School District High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice/Photo by Envision Photography
Holmes said he visited different public safety answering points -- call centers that answer emergency telephones calls -- to create a curriculum that the GHC helped with. "I went to a lot of these agencies to talk to some of the coordinators and found out what each one of them was teaching," he said. "I took all of that information and I came up with a comprehensive curriculum that included the high points of what everybody was teaching."
This was a years-long development process that resulted in the emergency call-taking instruction being incorporated into the high school curriculum
in the early 2000s. It has grown into the emergency telecommunicator course that exists today, which offers enrollees 135 hours of instruction in two semesters. The school has produced more than 300 emergency telecommunicators since 2000. The current telecommunicator course began in 2006, according to HEC Director David Cutler.
Enrollees enter the program their senior year and graduate with their credentials. Coursework is based on standards used by the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch, and students also earn certifications from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education in basic telecommunications and digital map reading, as well as the Texas and National Crime Information Centers standards.
Lessons include training on call prioritization; call handling procedures and etiquette; military time; describing visual features like vehicle, body and clothing details and how to classify incidents according to the appropriate penal code category. Holmes also role-plays with students to prepare them for real emergencies.
The school has a server to support their computer work that duplicates much of the same information the HEC uses to handle real calls in the field. Some classified information, however, is too sensitive for the school server to contain, like personal citizen information, health information and the location of certain hazardous material sites in Houston.
"But the rest of it -- street addressing and everything is as near to our database as it possibly could be," said Jonathan Titus, the HEC's information systems administrator.
The HEC donated the server to the school and the requisite software, and the school set aside computers to be connected to it for students to work off of. The school's system runs autonomously from the HEC's, though Titus and colleagues refresh it as needed with up-to-date data.
Holmes said that this training in high school puts students way ahead of competitors in the job market who haven't gone through the same course.
"Once a person gets hired by an agency to become a telecommunicator, that agency has one year to get them industry certified, which is a 40-hour course. When my students get to them, they already have that certification because they've already gone through the training," he said.
According to Holmes, seniors in the telecommunicator course spend half their day at school and half at a job site working for $10 an hour. This means they get work experience that's buttressed by the other law enforcement and criminal justice training they've been getting in other classes since freshman year.
"It's really good as far as creating a breeding ground for new applicants. When we have people right off the street with very little experience in law enforcement, it takes time to put them in a law enforcement mindset," Cutler said. "They have to understand what the laws are, the type of calls we get, things like that. Well, these seniors graduate, and we put them right to work. They get it where a lot of people you get off the street just don't get it right away."
Photo: The school started in 1981 and has produced more than 300 emergency telecommunicators since 2000./Photo courtesy of the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice
Those who graduate from the call taker program can easily slide into phone operating positions, but they can also use that experience as a steppingstone into other public safety-related careers, or something else entirely.
"Some of them leave and go to college and then join the police department. Some of them have no intention of going to college," Cutler said. "But they still want to be in law enforcement and support services."
Holmes said that some students call the program "the land of opportunity" because it can be a gateway to other professional avenues that might not be open to them otherwise.
"Everyone can't afford to go to college for whatever reason, and they need to have another avenue for a career path other than college," he said.
Holmes added that entry-level salaries in the call-taker field are typically below $30,000 annually, but they're benefited positions that can lead to higher-paying operator positions or jobs in other areas of law enforcement and criminal justice.