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From The Chair: Socialized Media
Author: Paul D. Bagley
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
So far it's been a quiet night. You handled a few disturbances, a handful of family disputes, and an alarm here and there. Then this pops up in your queue: "d 5-o crash on jensen ppl hurt tnk cUd B trapd." Wow! Your first text message since your center started receiving them. No problem, it's clear as day. Or is it? Your dispatching who, to where, for what? This installment of From the Chair looks at a future where 9-1-1 inevitably collides with "Socialized Media."
Like many people, I maintain a personal page on that Goliath of all social media— Facebook. Unlike many, I spend little time on it. When I first jumped aboard a few years ago it was merely a conduit for communicating with family and friends; many of whom were not in my email address book. As Facebook morphed into the advertising monster that it has become, and as it changed the parameters of usage for those of us logging on, by my way of thinking it became less and less user-friendly. In the beginning, I understood “The Wall.” I liked the way I could place photographs on the site for friends to view. However, this new timeline concept that Mr. Zuckerberg’s minions have created leaves me cold. But then I imagine I’m not their target audience.
One thing I do like about Facebook is that when my name is mentioned anywhere else on the site, that mention shows up on my wall. A young man I trained as a dispatcher back in the 1980s actually quoted me to someone else in dispatch and the quote made it back to me. I had told him all those many years ago that there were only two things that could keep a dispatcher from assuming The Chair—laryngitis and explosive diarrhea. I didn’t track the genesis of the quote so I have no way of knowing what prompted him to offer it. But it was reassuring for me as his instructor that my words actually took root.
Social media is becoming so main stream in America that it is actually partof the basis for the development of emergency telecommunications known as Next Generation 911 (NG911). No longer content with a quick three-digit number to call for service, Americans have decided that they will access dispatchers any way they chose. Tweeting (or is it Twitting?) emergency calls will soon be all the rage with one hundred and forty character code phrases that may or may not provide the needed information for an emergency dispatch. In comparison, a fax sent to emergency dispatch will appear to be similar to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, presuming that the fax contains more than 140 characters. Text messages will be almost as exasperating as tweets, although they might be a little bit longer in some cases. What can we do about it? Alas, nothing.
The march of progress is what sets modern times apart from the Dark Ages. The speed at which technology grows is exponential in nature, and every leap forward seems to bring with it a new set of standards that must be incorporated into the lexicon of emergency telecommunications. Remember when dispatchers answered a single telephone line in order to field every emergency call for service? Okay, so there are only a few of us fossils around who remember a time when a live telephone operator actually routed every call you made – a time that even preceded rotary-dial telephones. As nostalgic as those times may have been, they were the technological dark ages compared to today.
Fifty years ago the U.S. Postal Service, the Post Office in those days, introduced ZIP codes as an essential method for efficient mail delivery. The slogan was, “Mail moves the nation – ZIP code moves the mail!” It was a tough sell in some quarters because people were reluctant to change. But a half a century later those five and nine-digit numbers at the end of the address line are integral to getting “snail mail” where it needs to go. Today, physical mail has been surpassed by the electronic version. Instant communication has become not only commonplace, but an essential way of doing business. Any modern fire department, ambulance service or police department that isn’t outfitted with some kind of internal e-mail system is a dinosaur. The same holds true for emergency dispatch.
Embracing all the new and wondrous devices and methods of engaging in instant messaging is a troublesome proposition for those who sit in The Chair. It is even more so for those who supervise and direct them. All of the new avenues of communication with dispatch will require protocols and codified procedures that accompany them in order to keep things orderly and efficient. The question for each and every communication center that incorporates any part or all of NG911 is, "Will management consider the input of those in The Chair when developing these new protocols and procedures?" If not, they’ll be wasting a precious resource.
I’m not saying that everyone who sits in The Chair has wisdom that transcends that of management – quite the contrary. But my experience has been that those who trade the rank-and-file for the dazzle of supervision and/or management seem to quickly forget all that they ever learned during their time in The Chair. This becomes most evident during the development of new mandated procedures. The prevailing impetus for management appears to be geared toward either saving large sums of money, or upon imposing more tasks on those already overburdened. While it might be desirable to simply draft a set of rules and demand that they be followed, there might be a better way.
Billionaire Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, built a technology empire that is the envy of the industrialized world. One of his many secrets of success was how he delegated certain responsibilities to his staff. Any time he was interested in developing a new procedure or application, he would assign whomever he perceived to be the laziest person around. He knew that individual would cut through all the red tape to find the quickest and easiest way to do the job in order to free up his personal time to get back to being lazy. Not only does this strategy work, but it is a large part of the reason that Microsoft stock continues to be counted among the leading blue-chip companies that are part of the Dow Jones industrial average.
This is not meant to imply in any way that dispatchers are lazy. In my experience the average dispatcher can handle more work in ten minutes than most people can handle in an eight hour shift. Of course not every ten minute period during a shift has that kind of volume, but the workload comes in way above average when compared to most other vocations.
When it comes to selecting an ally from The Chair to help establish new standard operating procedures, managers will be hard-pressed to find “lazy” in the communication center. They may want to look to the more articulate and contemplative employees. This is of particular importance when incorporating new sophisticated technologies into the mix. Every eleven-year-old may be intimately familiar with the operation of an iPad. They certainly know how to text faster than most dispatchers can type. But that doesn’t mean the average dispatcher will intuitively know how to handle the 140-character hieroglyphics that are generated by twits, nor will they necessarily know how to handle the enigmatic ciphers that will invade their workplace via regular text messaging. I suspect that in time the best credential a dispatcher can have on their resume will be a tour of duty as a military cryptographer.
One of my high school teachers once warned me that virtually all human endeavors in the modern world boil down to the application of one of the fundamentals in basic mathematics – finding a common denominator. No one knows how to do this more efficiently than an emergency telecommunicator. Dispatchers are given raw data, sometimes in bulk, which they distill and refine down to an essence which they then relay to the appropriate receivers. It is a painstaking process that requires focus and a sound operation plan-of-attack. Since they already know best how to do the distilling, why not let them help build the next still?
NG911 is coming whether we like it or not. We can only hope that the Gates’, the Zuckerbergs', and all the other technology moguls will take time to consider the impact their corporate decisions have on those in The Chair. While developing their breathtaking new methods which housewives already use to share recipes, corporate executives carry on innocuous conversations with their underlings, and teenagers socialize with one another, all while remaining proprietary to their corporation, they need to consider what will happen when the user is in panic mode. How will their new whiz-bang communication revolution be used or abused when it comes to emergencies? Will it be transparent enough for those in The Chair as they attempt to decipher what a confused and frightened person is trying to convey? More important: will emergency telecommunications collectively find the common denominator among all the new socialized media? Time alone will tell.
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" was conceived and developed for 9-1-1 Magazine by Michael Wallach, founder and president emeritus of 911Lifeline. 911Lifeline is 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://911lifeline.org.