Health Lab UChicago Researchers Aim to Transform the Nation's 911 Call System

WTTW News Crime & Law / July 7, 2022
By Marc Vitali

The 911 emergency response system in the U.S. has been in use since 1968.

A University of Chicago initiative aims to modernize and strengthen the system – and they’ve just published a blueprint for how to do it.

Rebecca Neusteter, executive director of the UChicago Health Lab, one of five of the university’s Urban Labs focusing on crime, education, health, economic opportunity, and energy & environment, says it’s a necessity that the emergency communication system be changed.

“It’s clear that the times call for the most comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s 911 system ever, to ensure that the right professional responds to an emergency call at the right time,” Neusteter said.

The project, called Transform911, one of offers the following recommendations to revamp the current system:

  • Create a cabinet-level position to report to the president on urgent 911 improvements.
    America’s 911 system currently functions through more than 6,000 local emergency communications centers with various levels of oversight and support. The group says the federal government must set national standards for 911 training, technology and data-sharing.
  • Create a federal taskforce on 911 data and technology ethics.
    Innovations in technology have improved emergency response capabilities, but the report says there needs to be consistent standards on the security and privacy of 911 calls and related data.  
  • Support an expert, well-resourced 911 workforce.
    The report says that like other public safety professionals, the 911 workforce must have access to high-quality and consistent training, and state-of-the-art technologies that aid them in their work.
  • Make 911 independent and equal — on par with other public safety departments.
    Most 911 emergency call centers report to other public safety organizations they serve. It is recommend that 911 centers have autonomy to address and report public safety issues in a manner they deem appropriate, without being subordinate to EMS, fire, police, or other public safety entities. 
  • Embed community perspectives in improving 911 response.
    911 is a vital public resource but many people — especially those of color — have grown mistrustful of its services. The report says building relationships between local 911 professionals and the community they serve is essential for making the system more equitable and trusted. 
  • Reintroduce 911 to the American public.
    Experts say too many people think 911 is a switchboard service staffed by operators, rather than a highly skilled public safety response deployed by trained professionals. An awareness campaign reintroducing 911 would instill greater confidence in the nation’s emergency response capabilities and assist in bolstering a career pipeline for 911 professionals.

7 July 2022