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The Next Generation Communications Center

Author: Tony Harrison

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-12-11
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I believe that we are going to see more change in the Communications Center in the next five to ten years than we have seen in the last 25.  When I began my career in 9-1-1 the agency I served did not have 9-1-1 and the first major change was the start of our E9-1-1 center.  Then several years later we had to deal with the expansion of cell phones.  During these years we have had to move to a CAD system and move from a simple 9-1-1 phone system to a PC based phone system.  These have been the major changes in 9-1-1 during the past 20 to 25 years.  But now we are moving to Next Generation 9-1-1.  I prefer to call it Next Generation Communications Center - because I believe NG9-1-1 has a lot more to do with the entire function and operation of the communications center than just 9-1-1.

Let us take a minute to look at what the Next Generation Communication Center will bring to us.

Text to 9-1-1 – Most of us have heard about the ability to send text messages to 9-1-1.  The truth is that is coming and some agencies have already begun taking text 9-1-1 calls.  One of the major reasons for text to 9-1-1 is for the hearing impaired community, who many these days just do not own a TTY machine because it is old technology but most own a smart phone that they can use to communicate not only with the hearing but the hearing impaired.  But, text to 9-1-1 is much larger than helping the hearing impaired.  Just think about that domestic violence victim who cannot safely make a voice call or the person who just has a question to ask and does not want to take the resources to call 9-1-1 but can simply send an easy text message.  At this point we do not know what impact this will have on communications center operations. It is possible that text to 9-1-1 has a small impact on the center but then it could have the impact the cell phones have had over the last twenty years.

Photos/Videos being sent – Along with the ability to send a text comes the ability to send photos or videos from your smart phone to the communications centers.  The biggest concern that I have is what we are going to do with them.  Do we just keep them as part of the record or do we view the photo or video.  Are we supposed to be taking the emergency call, dispatch the call then view what photos and videos I have received about the incident?

Live video from patrol cars or businesses – Some agencies have already installed the equipment that allows video from the patrol car be sent live to the communications centers.  In one system, anytime the patrol car camera is turned on a pop up window in the communications center will display that video.  The next step is that when the hold-up alarm is activated in the convenience store the live video is sent to the alarm company then the alarm company will forward that live video to you. Do you want to watch live video of the 7-11 being robbed?  Your bank being robbed?

Ability to transfer 9-1-1 calls across the state or nation – Today we may be able to transfer a 9-1-1 call to another agency in our immediate area but we cannot send that call across the state in most areas, or across the country.  The promises are that this possibility will be a part of future 9-1-1 systems.

Advanced Telematics – We have all heard about OnStar but the future about the abilities telematics will change how we respond to accidents. The ability to tell us how many people are in the car and what is the probability of injuries after the accident.  In some ways that future is already here with OnStar and other companies currently working with this technology.  But if OnStar can tell me that there are four people in the car and that there is an extremely high probability of traumatic injuries, do we change our normal dispatch of one ambulance, fire and police to two or three ambulances, fire, police and an air ambulance and notify the trauma center to expect multiple patients?  We have already seen OnStar use the ability to slow down a stolen car – what will GM come up with next?

These are a few of the reason that I believe the Communications Center is getting ready to change in ways that some of us never dreamed of when we began our careers in public safety.  As exciting as these changes are I also have many concerns that I believe that many people have not been talking about as much as we should.  At what point are we expecting the front line telecommunicator to do too much?  When do we hit information overload?  Video to the Communication Center sounds great.  But, if I am taking the armed robbery call, dispatching it, watching the video from 7-11 and relaying the information to responding units - is that expecting too much?  If this call goes bad do I want to deal with the trauma of watching the clerk being shot?  But, the ability to provide the responding officer real time information about the scene can increase officer safety.  With the changes that the Next Generation PSAP will bring I think we have to look at staffing, training and work load issues.  These issues are real and serious.  We must continue to have the conversation and take a real look at the benefits of the NG and the impact that this technology will have on the Communications Center that will continue moving toward a command center that looks more like STAR WARS than the simple one screen and one phone of the past. 

Tony Harrison has spent more than 25 years in public safety.  He spent a majority of his career at the Oklahoma City Police Department.  He served as a dispatcher, trainer, training coordinator, and supervisor.  He currently serves as President of the Public Safety Group and resides in Estero, FL.  He can be reached at tharrison@publicsafetygroup.com

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