Will The Telecommunicator Role Become More Like Air Traffic Control?

August 12, 2013

Todd Piett

I used to fly for a living.  In fact, I used to regularly land at the busiest airport in the world (surprise –it’s not Atlanta, Chicago or Dallas – it was actually an Army helicopter training facility in Alabama supporting thousands of take-offs and landings each day).  What always amazed me was the way the Air Traffic Controllers managed the huge volume of traffic.  They deftly jumped between hundreds of simultaneous pilots in various phases of flight (take-off, ground maneuvers, short final, leaving the airspace, etc.) without a hitch.  Whether it was a stressful emergency or simple tedious task, each interaction was professional and succinct.  As we look forward to NG9-1-1, the parallels between ATC and the role of a Telecommunicator are becoming increasingly evident. 

Today, we think of call taking and dispatching as two key functions in the PSAP but let’s consider how those functions will change with the advent of IP-enabled networks and the sophisticated rules-based routing and handling of an ever expanding list of emergency “call” types.  First, calls will no longer only be phone based conversations.  We focus a lot on Text-to-911 but NG9-1-1 networks will support a whole new set of communications on which we haven’t even scratched the surface – from instant messaging and social medial to automated sensors that could as easily be hooked to a wearable medical device as to a flood level monitor under a bridge. 

Emergency calls of the future will look a lot different than they do today.  Leaving aside the impact on protocols, let’s just consider how the actual communication flow will change.  For example, if a flood monitor triggers that it is exceeding a certain threshold what is the action taken in the PSAP?  Ideally nothing.  The first threshold is hopefully not set at a point where it is already an emergency requiring dispatch of EMS, Fire or Police.  Whether a public works group that controls the outflow rate at a dam, or a transportation department group that closes off roads that are in flood prone areas, the first “responders” in this model might not be wearing badges.  However, the role of “air traffic control” still exists.  Somewhere there must be a 24×7 escalation point that monitors situations as they transform from the mundane to the dangerous. 

PSAPs are uniquely suited to this function.  PSAPs are staffed 24×7 with personnel that are trained to multi-task, understand protocols and following steps in a process, and are plugged into all the various agencies via redundant communications networks. In order to remain successful in the NG9-1-1 age, PSAPs will need to apply a model of ATC not only to the outputs (field responders) but also to manage the multiple sources of new inputs that will come into the center along with NG9-1-1. Right now, we essentially deal with two or three inputs: a 9-1-1 call (and a small number of TTY and video relay calls), maybe an alarm interface, and officer-initiated activity. With NG9-1-1 that will expand to text, photo/video, and sensor data of all types. The trick in NG9-1-1 will be providing the information necessary to provide the full picture to the telecommunicator without overwhelming with information that doesn’t require their immediate attention.

Enter the ATC console analogy.  Much the way an air traffic controller jumps between radios and focuses on different aircraft at different points depending on their specific point in time needs, telecommunicators will need tools that help them prioritize.  The 41st call about an accident on highway 95 should receive an automated response that alerts the caller that help is on the way but easily allows them to escalate to a human interaction if necessary.  Much the way the ATC systems only alert the controller when a plane deviates from its assigned altitude or is straying dangerously close to another aircraft, our telecommunication systems need to be smart enough to alert the telecommunicator when attention is warranted and then provide the information necessary to quickly determine a course of action. 

This is easier said than done, but we can learn a lot from other industries that have gone before us in forging a productive marriage between automation and human escalation, and its not just about technology and HMI (Human Machine Interface).  This evolution of the role has big implications for how we hire and train.  It’s an exciting time in our industry.  We have the opportunity to transform the effectiveness of public safety response and mold the telecommunicator profession!

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