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.
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.