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The Next Generation of Emergency Communications

Terms like Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), next generation communications, D block and interoperability have entered even the darkest corners of public safety communications. Operators for the last few years have been dealing with the changes switching from analog to digital and many to whole new radio systems. Now these new terms have entered our vernacular. But what do they mean? Especially what do they mean to those public safety telecommunications operators who are in the trenches working the floor?

Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1)

NG9-1-1 is essentially an upgrade of the 9-1-1 infrastructure that allows communications between individuals and 9-1-1 operators. Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) will have the ability to be on a wireless mobile network allowing communication beyond the voice over a telephone landline that defined 9-1-1 in the past. NG9-1-1 is more in line with what commercial entities have been offering and upgrading for quite some time. Callers will have the ability to transmit images, text messages, video and other data through a wireless server straight to the PSAP. In this transition some see this as futuristic public safety telecommunications, while some of the younger 9-1-1/dispatchers see this as public safety finally catching up with technology that has always been a part of their lives.

Numerous public safety organizations, such as APCO and NENA have been involved in legislation and incorporating best practices so that public safety gets the broadband spectrum it needs to support NG9-1-1 and next generation communications, but also assisting in determining funding and governance as well. In looking at the changes, a few concerns crop up.

Call access, transfer and back-up between PSAPs

One of the issues that has plagued 9-1-1 over the years is what to do when a PSAP is overwhelmed with calls. Most systems currently do not have the capability to roll-over those calls to another PSAP without much technical difficulty. Some systems do not have this capability at all. If a caller rings 9-1-1 during a time of heavy call volume they will get a busy signal. Often heavy call volume can happen because a vehicle accident occurs on the freeway during rush hour or at midnight on New Year’s Eve when residents decide it is a good idea to fire into the air. If these small scale events trigger a busy signal, this does not increase the public’s confidence in our ability to handle a large scale event, such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

With NG9-1-1, PSAPs will have the ability to have call access, transfer and back-up with other PSAPs. Although the benefits of this are huge especially in small, rural areas where only one operator may be on shift, there are also some protocols that must be in place for this to work smoothly. For example, what training will operators have to work together? How will each agency have the ability to determine locations within jurisdictions they are unfamiliar with? Will agencies have similar standards for their public safety operators increasing our confidence in another agency’s operators? How will the notification work? Will operators in a PSAP be alerted that a roll-over has occurred and how will this be handled? If a call is allegedly mishandled, which agency will fund the defense?

Although many of these questions make it seem public safety operators cannot work together across jurisdictional lines that is not the intent. Instead they offer a look at the often lack of training and understanding agencies have at the floor level when they are forced into situations where they have to work together without a good understanding of the rules and guidelines which help individuals with a common goal but different policies and procedures work together smoothly, efficiently and effectively.

Text

Look around and you and you are almost certain to see someone involved in text messaging. This has become a common way of communicating for many people, especially as young adults. In fact for some individuals, for example those in the deaf community, texting has opened a whole new way to communicate with the hearing world. NG9-1-1 includes the ability for PSAPs to receive text messages. One vision is that text messages would come through the ANI/ALI.

Again, this sounds like a great innovation. Again, many questions would need to be addressed for it to be successful on the floor. Although many operators, young and old, are intimately familiar with texting and the language of texting, some are not. All of the LOLs, ROFL and BRBs that come up would have to be explained to some operators. In essence, a translation guide would be needed so that everyone is speaking the same language. With text abbreviations, some people can message faster than even some dispatchers can type. That’s fast. Without the ability to speak the same language, text messaging through NG9-1-1 could end up with misunderstandings. These should be addressed, again, in best practices and training. The fact that not everyone speaks the language associated with modern technology cannot be overlooked in public safety innovation.

Video/Images

Of all the changes coming out of NG9-1-1, this is the one that I have the most concerns about. Citizens will be able to send not only text messages to 9-1-1 but also picture images and video. Again, this sounds like a great advance and one that will be helpful in many situations. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. What if you no longer have to rely only on what you are hearing and the answers to the questions you are asking? You could see a picture or a video of what is occurring in real time on the other end of that mobile device.

Here’s where my concerns crop up. We, as operators, are already often left feeling helpless in crisis situations in which we can only offer support through our voices. We hear many horrific things. Many of us can still hear screams of suffering or the sounds of shots fired on a suicidal subject call. These are mental images attached to our hearing that we will never un-hear. Now imagine being able to see the chaos and not being able to do anything physically about it. An officer on scene can at least utilize his or her training and presence to do something. An operator can essentially do nothing but watch. How will this trauma be mitigated by the department? An APCO representative advised me that this is something that is being looked into. I am relieved to hear this because so many 9-1-1 operators/dispatchers suffer symptoms of the trauma they experience day in and day out without the added visual imagery.

Another issue that comes to mind is liability. Hindsight and Monday morning quarterbacks will always be able to see the glint of a gun in the background on a video image. But, what if you didn’t? What if you were so busy doing your job, typing, listening, and having situational awareness in reference to the phone but also the radio room around you that you missed something? Again, so many of us have those “I should have seen, heard, known…” moments locked in our minds for perpetuity.  NG9-1-1 will exponentially add to that. We need to address those on the front end to help mitigate our liability and protect ourselves and each other.

NG9-1-1 and next generation communications, in my mind, is a wonderful thing. Interoperability between departments, disciplines and all the partner agencies that assist with public safety events both big and small will be a benefit to us all.  What I would like to see is questions of how this new technology will affect those public safety communications operators who work with the systems asked and answered from the very beginning. Too often, new technology and advancements in public safety that are inherently a good thing are dropped in our laps and with all the good comes the bad as well. We need to address how next generation communications will affect us all and make sure we support our 9-1-1 operators/dispatchers through best practices, training and policies and procedures that protect them while they protect the public.

 

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