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From the Chair: 9-1-1 Mobility

Author: Paul D. Bagley

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-07-29
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There is a tidal wave of change coming for the emergency telecommunications industry that is known simply as NG9-1-1.  It’s all about mobility now.  Modern emergency telecommunications began with a simple idea a few decades back and developed into a national standard three-digit number known as 9-1-1.  Next came E9-1-1; the E stood for Enhanced.  The primary difference with the enhanced version was the cooperation of the telephone industry in providing Automatic Number and Automatic Location Information (ANI/ALI) data for the caller’s phone number and location identification.  Then the wireless telephone industry got involved with all kinds of phased-in additions to E9-1-1 where tracking geographic location of the caller was to be accomplished (this one is more or less still in the “what if” stage).  While many locations may easily get a firm fix on latitude and longitude, altitude is still somewhat problematic.  A ten-story building with a footprint that is one hundred feet square has one hundred-thousand square feet of floor space, and each ten-thousand square foot floor must be searched one at a time to find a cellular caller.  Imagine that problem in a taller building; say 100+ floors, with a footprint the size of a city block that has an emergency “somewhere” inside.  Triangulation may narrow the search a little, but it will still require a toilsome effort by responders to find a caller who is incapable of verbalizing their specific location or who is using a phone that has ceased to function properly.  Enter NG9-1-1, or Next Generation 9-1-1. 

The gurus in the high-tech industries have been busying themselves trying to solve some of the known problems, while simultaneously finding new and creative ways by which citizens – you know, those creature-like individuals who call us demanding help? – can access emergency services.  Let’s see: we began by reducing seven-digit dialing down to three, and the public still programs 9-1-1 into their speed-dialers so the dog could step on the phone and call us.  We added in automatic number and location identification in case the caller is unable to speak their problem so we at least know where to send someone.  We incorporated access for cellular technology because the United States is such a mobile society and mobility is cherished above all other things.  We’ve even evolved to the point where we can track a caller’s whereabouts through GPS.  Now the government movers and shakers want 9-1-1 to become accessible through Facebook and Twitter?  They want callers to be able to “text” their call-for-service, or even fax it to us?   What will Congress do next: require telepathic connectivity capability?  Those with the power lack the knowledge; those with the knowledge lack the power – and so it is in emergency dispatch.

Aside from the obvious increase in butt-dials to be encountered from all the kids with their jeans hanging down below their underwear, implementation of all these new emerging technologies will be time-consuming, difficult, and costly.  Regulators at the national, state, and local levels will have a hand in dictating what ultimately evolves into the set of tasks that dispatchers will have to perform in order to make NG9-1-1 a reality.  Some, but few, dispatchers will be polled for their ideas during the current design phase; fewer will be consulted during the regulatory stage.  One thing will be certain – dispatchers will have to become more technologically savvy in order to provide our “mobile” public with the emergency connectivity their require. 

Okay, NG9-1-1 is coming.  The expense to update half a million PSAPs and dispatch centers across the country will eventually be found, and additional funds needed to train personnel to deal with all this new technology will somehow blossom forth from the many branches of the always-bountiful tree of tax revenues.  I believe this is where someone usually inserts the line, “When pigs can fly!”

Whether we like it or not, both the bodies of human knowledge and technology grow faster than any one person can assimilate them.  The inevitability of it all doesn’t make that fact any easy to accept.  But big changes are coming and we need to prepare for them, if for no other reason than to make our own lives easier.  Dispatchers will rise to the challenge as we always have.  They will embrace the new technologies even though they will have little input into their development and implementation.  Some of the changes will make a dispatcher’s life easier.  Others will tax their intellectual prowess and emotional wellbeing to the max.  But while the planners and the programmers are busily addressing the demands of our mobile society, what are they doing to insure that PSAPs and dispatchers have those same capabilities?

PSAPs and Emergency Communication Centers (ECCs) are almost always in fixed locations.  The only time anyone thinks of dispatchers taking the field is when there is a major incident brewing that requires an on-scene dispatcher presence to help sort through the chaos.  That on-scene presence is seldom for accommodating the ECC, but rather the incident commander.   Incident command trailers and vehicles, since the inception of the oxymoron “Homeland Security,” have sprouted like mushrooms across the country.  Thousands of units have been purchased with grant money from DHS and they are outfitted with cutting-edge technologies that aren’t available back at the home PSAP.  Satellite telecommunication, IP-based connections and microwave make these units self-sustaining, provided they’re connected to a power source or a generator.  Plug it in and go!

When the World Trade Center came crashing down in 2001, so too did the New York City emergency operations center.  Since most PSAPs are located in public buildings they are just as vulnerable to destruction as was New York over a decade ago.  The real purpose in all the DHS grants is to provide communications in the event of a similar disaster.  Terrorists are not the only things that create disasters.  Given the breadth of climatic changes that we’ve seen over that same decade, it takes little imagination to envision weather becoming a principle factor in many disasters.  Would a dispatch center be any better off if it were destroyed by flood, tornado, or hurricane rather than a terrorist act?  How about an earthquake or a devastating fire?  As General George S. Patton once observed, “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.”  At a time when the technological world is gearing everything toward mobility in accessibility, why does the emergency telecommunications industry still cling to the outdated brick-and-mortar concept?  Did we learn nothing from 9/11?  It took the Murrah Federal Building bombing for us to start considering interoperability.  When are we going to start grasping the significance of General Patton’s observation?

A pragmatic look at today’s PSAPs suggests that tradition is the primary reason that mobility hasn’t been considered a strong motivation thus far.  Twisted-pair, CAT5, CAT6, and even fiber optic cabling for connectivity with callers has been the fundamental logistic that previously restricted communications centers to fixed locations.  But the days of hardwire connectivity being essential to PSAP operations are over.  Mobility can exist at the receiving end of emergency calls just as easily as it can at the initiating end.  The big question is, “why.”  Why would a PSAP want to be mobile?

Well, there is the obvious issue of getting out of harm’s way.  When the flood water or the tornado is about to wipe out the PSAP you’ve got to find a place and a method for handling the ensuing emergency calls from all those tweeters and cell callers after it has struck.  If the PSAP isn’t there anymore, the show must still go on and an alternative method and location must be found.  Why not make operations mobile in the first place in order to avoid the additional chaos that comes from having everything go down for any length of time?

Now I’m not suggesting that the motivation for mobility need be along the lines of Yasser Arafat’s standard; “never a night in the same place.”  I’m a pessimist, but not to that extent, and I’m certainly not paranoid.  However, being functionally mobile with all operations would mean that stealth could be added into the mix if and when it ever became necessary.  The only downside to moving around a lot is that your relief needs to know where you are in order to be able to relieve you. 

Since dispatcher wants and needs are routinely at the bottom of any list of things to be considered by planners or by management, I suggest that greater efficiency might be found outside the confines of a single room.  Emergency telecommunications could evolve into a model that is closely parallel to that employed by many private companies all over the country – numerous workers telecommute and labor from home saving commuting costs at a time when those costs are through the roof.  Employees work longer hours and often prove more productive beyond the walls of an office building.  Face it; with a properly equipped laptop and a headset, dispatching can be done virtually anywhere.  Certainly security is a concern, and employee work product would have to be closely monitored for seamlessness and efficiency.  But the argument that it is technologically impossible has disappeared, opening up new avenues for a dispatching cadre that could include people with an array of walking disabilities that preempt them from doing the job outside of their own domicile.  It’s a heck of lot easier and cheaper to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act by letting people work in their own homes than it is to accommodate a variety of disabilities by retrofitting a single workplace.  And make no mistake about it; there is a significant portion of our population who can handle well the emotional rigors of dispatch if mobility in communications can overcome and accommodate their immobility. 

Regardless of whether emergency PSAPs become mobile in our lifetime, the sheer number of new technologies being thrust upon our industry can, at times, be overwhelming.  Attend a conference or a trade show and you will immediately be assaulted by a corps of vendors who all vie for your attention with their latest offerings.  CADs that do everything but make coffee, logging systems that will recover the missing eighteen minutes of the Nixon tapes, and radios that will transmit and receive to and from the far side of the Moon are just the openers.  Bells and whistles abound when it comes to software and hardware and judicious shoppers will closely assess need versus what is being offered.  While NG9-1-1 is coming at us at full speed, we need to be wary of what is actually being offered under the guise of NG9-1-1 to insure that what we get is what we need.  For as we keep General Patton’s thoughts in mind, we need also to be mindful of his comrade in arms, General Omar Bradley.  I’ve quoted him before in this column, but his observation is appropriate to this discussion as well: "If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner." 

Failure should not be included in any emergency telecommunicator’s options box because our job is about life and death.  If our technology fails, we fail.  More important; if we fail to plan properly, our technology fails and we fail.  Redundancy and mobility should be key ingredients in all future planning of PSAP operations, and proper PSAP planning should include the valuable input of the people who actually sit in The Chair? 

 

Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.”

"From the Chair" is produced for 9-1-1 Magazine by 9-1-1Lifeline, a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs.  For more information visit http://9-1-1lifeline.org.

Photos: R D Larson/9-1-1 Magazine archives

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