'My wife, Denise, should be alive today'

Denise’s last and worst day on Earth began as most days, loving and providing for our two little boys. January 17, 2008, was no different. While cutting our oldest son’s hair (Noah, age 2) on the back porch of our North Port, Florida home, a predator named Michael King was cruising the neighborhood, looking for opportunities. Somehow he gained entry to our home and abducted Denise, leaving our children home crying alone. With Denise’s father a detective for the local sheriff’s office, the next two days saw a region-wide manhunt like never before seen in Southwest Florida.

Five 911 calls were made that day, including one witnessing the abduction and staying on the phone for more than 9 minutes. But because of a lack of proper training, procedures and quality assurance, this call failed to produce a dispatch of this life-saving information to waiting road deputies. One call was made by Denise herself, somehow dialing 911 on her kidnapper’s cell phone without his knowledge and giving clues to the call taker as if she were talking to her abductor.

Two days later Denise’s body was found in a shallow grave, naked, with a single gunshot wound to the head.

As a widowed 23-year-old father of two little boys, I tried to make some sense of a senseless tragedy. The national publicity of this awful event led to me communicating with thousands of people, including many disgusted 911 personnel, about the possible causes of this unimaginable breakdown and being asked to speak around the country at state and national public safety conferences.

I am not in the emergency communications industry. I have no idea how the system works. Being on the outside looking in gives me a unique perspective from a citizen’s point of view.

The one glaring observation from this citizen is that there are no standardized, uniform training and certification standards of 911 call takers and dispatchers on how to handle these types of events. In fact, there appears to be no training required at all in many areas of the country. This one fact, whenever I talk to the average guy on the street, leaves them shocked and in disbelief. I don’t have to tell any industry personnel that the average citizen has no idea of the inner workings of a 911 emergency communications center.

One hundred percent of those citizens I have talked with expect that these first responders listening to their screaming calls for help are highly trained to send help. They cannot be the weakest link in the chain of response in their most desperate time of need.

This one tragedy involving the loving mother of my two boys galvanized and focused the disgust of Florida citizens to finally say enough is enough, and led to the passage of Florida’s first mandatory, uniform training and certification standard in 2010, F.S.401.465. It requires anyone taking or dispatching a 911 call to complete a 232-hour curriculum and pass a state administered exam for certification.

The Denise Amber Lee Foundation has travelled the country the last two years speaking on this issue. Most states we have visited require certifications for hairstylists, nail technicians, tattoo artists, etc. In my home state of Florida, a hairstylist is required to complete 1,200 hours of training, yet some states and agencies feel it is okay to put an untrained, sometimes temporary worker in the hot seat to take a screaming mother’s 911 call for help.

This isn’t just a Florida issue, however. In this highly mobile society it is a national issue. The majority of the public expects a 911 call in Florida to be handled with the same level of proficiency as a 911 call in Washington.

A recent report (APCO ProCHRT Report 2011) by the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials International showed as many as 49 percent of states required no training or certification of 911 telecommunicators. In our travels and speaking with industry leaders, some of the states with training statutes felt they are either ignored or insufficient. There aren’t any “teeth” in the legislative language; no tests are required or there exists no follow-up by third parties for compliance. In some states training is just a suggested, voluntary standard.

I met a state 911 leader at a conference where I was asked to speak and told him that I saw his state requires training. He looked at me oddly. Wanting to confirm, I asked, “Didn’t I read where your state mandates a certain number of hours of training?” He again looked at me oddly and said, “It says that in the legislative code but no one follows up to see if it is being done statewide. There are no exam requirements to assure proficiency. There is no continuing education required.”

As we went to additional states, this was a common concern in many of them. These conferences typically draw the best and brightest of 911. The majority of them are dedicated, conscientious professionals who train themselves and their employees way beyond any minimum standard. Unfortunately, the common concern among these professionals is they are in the minority of agencies within their state; this is a huge public safety issue.

Think about the amazing similarities between 911 service and the air traffic control system. When you board a plane in New York and fly to California, you travel through numerous air traffic control zones, but because of standardized training and procedures passage from one zone to another is seamless. In contrast, as in my wife’s case, her killer travelled through two counties and one municipality. Three separate PSAPs were involved with the 911 calls that night but because of differing levels of training and procedures, our story ends up on “Dateline NBC” and CNN as another unfortunate result of “human error.”

Let me say that I have never met a more compassionate and dedicated group of people than those that work in the 911 industry. They share our pain in the senseless loss of Denise and, in many ways, are more outraged that their industry let her down on that January day in 2008. To all of those in the police community who frantically looked for Denise that night and stood shoulder to shoulder with me as we combed the palmetto brush of Southwest Florida for two days looking for clues, thank you, thank you, thank you! I urge the public safety community to join us in saying, “enough is enough.”

Let’s dedicate our limited financial resources to our precious human resources first and provide our 911 telecommunicators with access to the extensive training and certification they deserve and the public expects. The more and better training these first responders experience, the less stress they will feel and the less turnover communication center directors will experience.

Requiring and ensuring proficiency through professional certification recognition will instill a broader sense of pride and dedication to the valuable role they play in public safety and again, reduce turnover. Keep that aging CAD system working until your people are trained. It is far more expensive to replace telecommunicators every year or so due to stress, burnout, lack of guidance or lack of training, than to replace your hardware every five years.

Train and certify proficiency in your communications center to reduce the opportunities for “human error.”

Please, do it for Denise.