Re-Thinking the Role of Call Taking and Dispatch in a NG9-1-1 World

January 28, 2015

Todd Piett

Whether you’ve thought about it as the ability to support text messaging, IP-based call routing, getting additional data on a caller, or something completely different, NG9-1-1 is finally becoming a reality for many jurisdictions. NG9-1-1 is formally defined by NENA as a system comprised of Emergency Services IP networks (ESInets), IP-based Software Services and Applications, Databases and Data Management processes that are interconnected to Public Safety Answering Point premise equipment. It changes the type of “calls” we receive AND provides the ability to enhance the response process with additional information about the incident. Intimately tied to the enhancements to the capabilities inside the PSAP, is the deployment of a public safety broadband network which will enable seamless data transfer to and from units in the field.

But what does that mean for those handling emergency calls for service? We’ve spent a lot of time talking about cool things that are enabled by this new technology, and even the training, recruiting and stress factors involved, but perhaps not enough about what it really means to how the telecommunicator’s role is really defined. In the traditional PSAP environment, a call is answered, triaged through a specific script and dispatched (either by the same individual or a separate dispatcher). In a Next-Gen PSAP (I’ll use the term Next-Gen to differentiate between the NG9-1-1 technology, and an entire process transformation), the “call” may come from a sensor indicating a dangerous condition. The “call” may be enhanced with other data such as nearby video feeds or building floor plans indicating locations of hazardous materials. Once the first responder is on site, additional information may flow from the scene such as wearable gas sensor data. This is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to data that will be at the fingertips of responders and call takers – from drone video feeds, to infrared optics that can look through buildings, to detailed medical histories. Already a whole new crop of aggregation, analytics and dashboards are emerging, not unlike those seen in a network operations center.
None of the scenarios listed above are probably seen as science fiction to most anymore. The real issue is how does this information change what we do. Triage is a term that is very applicable. Who will process new information, identifying what is relevant and distribute it to the appropriate parties? Many responders will tell you it is unreasonable to expect a responder running into a “hot” environment to be looking at their mobile device for situational awareness. Additionally, the traditional on-scene incident command model may be outdated. With video, drones and sensor technologies, far more information is available digitally than through our naked eye. The result is that incident commanders end up taking time to setup physically on scene in a sub-optimal environment (poor bandwidth, small screens, etc.) communicating what they see on screen over the radio or via messaging apps. So… does it make more sense to reconsider the PSAP as incident command? If so, what does that mean for the telecommunicator? Do they become a communications specialist supporting the incident commander?

Many larger cities like Albuquerque, Chicago, Miami and others have taken a Real Time Crime Center approach. These centers are basically fully staffed a support centers which engage oin more complicated calls for service, providing analytical support and even taking the role of incident command in some situations. For a larger center, this is a compelling model and one that makes sense given the sheer number of incidents they can effect. Smaller centers may not have the luxury of permanently staffing such an operation and will need to look at how they quickly spin up a mini-real time crime center inside the PSAP with existing personnel.

In our work around active shooter incidents, we’ve seen this type of model already in place in many PSAPs, albeit not with the full array of technology mentioned above. Because of the short duration of most active shooter incidents, responders recognize that it is not feasible to setup on scene incident command and simply run the initial phases of their operations from the PSAP. SOPs may dictate that a law enforcement shift supervisor deploys to the PSAP to coordinate the initial response. Inside the PSAP, the incident commander can draw not only on technology assets (video feeds, structure plans, emergency notification tools, etc) but also on the 9-1-1 staff for support. Making this model work requires a new way to view the job of 9-1-1. Because of the impact information can have on the response and the fact the availability of that information will continue to evolve over the life of the incident, telecommunicators can’t view their job as complete when responders are on scene. They must view themselves as a virtual responder, providing eyes and ears and helping to triage information for those in the line of fire.

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