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Where's Watson When We Really Need Him?

Author: Barry Furey

Date: 2013-08-19
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It has been greatly accepted that the first words uttered over the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell were, “Come here Watson, I need you!” The legend further follows that the call somehow involved Bell spilling a jar of acid on himself, making the first telephone call, in a sense,  also the first call to 9-1-1. Digging a little deeper into the story, one finds that these may have not been the exact words or purpose of the first transmission, but nowadays it would sure be nice to have someone to in the next room to call to come and fix all our problems.

Now if Bell hadn’t beaten out competitor Eiisha Gray, it would have complicated the logos on telephone trucks decades later, and spawned a gaggle of “baby grays,” which would not have quite had the same ring to it – pun intended. There also would not have been a Watson then – or now - when we really need him the most.

Obviously, back in the pioneering days of telephony, technology was a lot simpler than it is today. Complexity grows over time. Man had walked in space before we handled our first true 9-1-1 call, and Automatic Number Identification (ANI) and Automatic Location Identification (ALI) came along after that. One can argue that 9-1-1 never got any better since then. Certainly, cell phones have increased our ability to deal with calls on limited access highways, on the water, and in areas where citizens were typically out of touch. But there was something both comforting and reliable about locating callers whose telephone was literally bolted to the wall, and answering these calls on devices that didn’t rely on anything more hi-tech than a push-button.

However, while our space program may have limped out of the 1960s, public safety technology hit the ground running. Among the additions to our everyday vocabularies during the past half century are terms such as Computer Aided Dispatch, Automatic Vehicle Location, Mobile Data Terminal, In Vehicle Navigation, Wireless 9-1-1, Trunking, Computer Telephone Integration, FirstNet, and Next Generation 9-1-1. Although each operates independently, there is also a requirement for each to operate as part of a larger system; a system we know as 9-1-1. More importantly, someone is expected to operate these disparate and complex pieces of technology in order to reliably get help to people in a hurry. This is often easier said than done.

It doesn’t take but a scan of the national news to see some of the outcomes. A major city has issues implementing a CAD system. An entire state throws out a contract for a radio system after years of work laced with debate. Now I realize that behind every so-called issue, there is a political back story, and that oftentimes things don’t work as designed because the design gets changed not by the end user or an engineer, but rather by an accountant looking to save a buck. None-the-less, I can’t help but wonder if we are expecting too much from our systems, and too much from our people.

As it stands right now, it seems to me as if an awful lot of centers come up short when measured against Erlang, APCO, NENA, and NFPA standards. And keep in mind that these formulae measure the things that we are doing now and the way that we do them. While initial trials of text-to-9-1-1 have generally resulted in low call volumes, can we be absolutely 100% sure that these results will be ongoing, and not a fleeting phenomenon? I’ve heard some rationale that texting aside, people who can speak and hear want to speak to another person and hear a voice during an emergency. But will the Next Generation of 9-1-1 users feel that way? Will telling the public to call before they text have any impact after additional decades of talking with our thumbs?

It’s another question altogether as to what impact videos and photos will have on call handling times. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, what worth is it if it shows up as the sole piece of information transmitted by a 9-1-1 call? Who is the actor? Who is the victim? What exactly is going on? There are still many questions to be answered. And my experience is that these answers and others like them will not be forthcoming anytime soon; especially if we expect a consensus. There are many lessons still left to be learned.

In the interim, we may be left with the need to play 20 questions before you send an ambulance, write procedure manuals largely intended to cover our posteriors, and build and design systems that the Geico caveman surely could not comprehend. If Alexander Graham Bell were around today, perhaps he’d change his quote to that of Thomas F.B. Morse; inventor of the telegraph. “What hath God wrought,” seems to sum up the situation nicely.


Our 9-1-1 Center Management columnist Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.  As an independent columnist for 9-1-1 magazine, Barry’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.


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