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From The Chair: The Ever-Onward March of Technology

Author: Paul D. Bagley

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-08-26
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It is difficult to faze 9-1-1 dispatchers.  But there is one phrase that strikes terror in them, "We're upgrading!"  This installment of "From the Chair" asks the question, "Is introducing the latest and greatest technology really helping to do the job better?"  To explore that question the article focuses on the CAD.

Once upon a time there was a consortium of people who believed that their many fears and needs could be assuaged and satisfied if only they could create a machine that could solve their problems.  They had seen what computers could do in solving specific tasks, and they began to envision a similar device on a much grander scale.  They worked for years designing the electronic architecture that would be able to store the vast quantity of data, and still be able to carry out all the functions they had in mind.  They struggled for years to construct this behemoth, and twice as many years programming its brain and feeding it data for its memory banks.  Finally, after decades of toil, the sum total of all human knowledge and expertise was contained within this single system.  It was wired up to control every aspect of modern civilization including control of their environment, growing their food supplies and, providing for the common defense.  The day came to christen the giant computer, and their political leader was given the honor of asking the machine its first question.  After a contemplative moment at the console, the leader typed in the question to which he felt mankind needed an answer.  “Is there a God?” he pecked out on the keyboard.  The giant machine churned for a moment or two, and then spit out the answer — “Now there is!”

As the emergency service community’s reliance upon electronic systems grows exponentially, it’s not a giant leap for us to be reminded of the cautions of pop duo Zager and Evans in their 1969 hit song, “In the Year 2525.”  Have we already become too dependent upon technology for solving problems?  Are all the things computers do for us really solving problems, or are they actually creating new ones?  The answer to all these questions is a resounding yes.

Not so long ago being an emergency dispatcher meant possessing basic communications skills: the ability to read, write, listen, and verbalize.  Accurate typing was a highly desirable plus, but the hunt-and-peck method would suffice.  Being able to spell was also considered a noble personal attribute.  Somehow, these skills have given way in our society to things such as good hand-eye-coordination with a mouse, prowess in dealing adroitly with point-and-click, and the ability to choose accurately from a word list when prompted to do so after you’ve misspelled something.  Many public and private school systems across the country have already eliminated instruction in cursive writing because of the belief that handwriting, as we know it, is soon to be extinct, supplanted by a resurgence of the custom in times gone by, of individuals making “their mark.”  The digital age has sacrificed individual style for compartmentalization and efficiency.  Even as I write these words, I am reminded that I am using a computer that employs digital technology in order to convey my message.

One of the underlying problems with the technological boom that has occurred within the emergency service industry is the misnomer that more is better.  The Chief was originally sold on the idea of a CAD (Computer-Aided Dispatch) program because it promised to deliver more data because each and every call was being captured digitally for future reference.  This appeals to The Chief because he or she can use this plethora of data to justify spending, and promoting, additional equipment and manpower.  But, the more data one collects, the more archival memory is needed to store it, and the faster the computer must be in order to search through all those archives to retrieve the pertinent information.  It’s a vicious cycle where increasing one aspect of the equation dictates an increase throughout the system.  Also, just how much of that data do we really need?

From coast to coast, the most alarming concern within the industry is the trend that new sophisticated CAD systems are crashing without warning, leaving agencies without the means to dispatch emergency calls through established methods.  Sometimes the issue is the complexity of the software overwhelming the hardware.  Sometimes the hardware actually moves faster than the software was designed to run.  Sometimes it’s the sheer weight of all the data being collected and stored that bogs the system down.  It’s also possible that fault rests with the many CAD manufacturers that rush their products to market before sufficient beta and load-testing can be accomplished and evaluated.  But of course, there is always the old chestnut that is far too often resurrected and used as a fallback position: blame the dispatcher.  It’s the dispatcher who didn’t use the system properly or wasn’t sufficiently trained in its use.

CAD development is likely more difficult than consumer software because of the rapidly evolving list of tasks that keeps getting added to a dispatcher’s job description.  Many centers have moved from just answering calls and dispatching the appropriate resources, to an all-in-one hub where alarms are overseen and dozens of security cameras are monitored by dispatchers in addition to their regular emergency communications duties.  This alarm monitoring, video surveillance, and reconnaissance are among the many add-on responsibilities that the technology age has produced.  Digital loggers have improved recordings over the days of reel-to-reel quarter inch tape, but at a price.  Just because something showed up on a monitor at any given time, and is recorded for playback, is no guarantee that a human being (aka a dispatcher) saw it when it happened.  Yet, those recordings are how dispatcher actions are often judged.

It’s true there are some instances when the person in The Chair has failed in some way to do everything they should, every minute of their day.  We’re all guilty of that because we are, as I previously mentioned, human.  The whole point behind embracing all the new technologies available was to furnish dispatchers with better equipment and tools to handle the enormous, and ever-increasing, job before them.  And while technology makes much of our ever-changing job description possible, it has also nourished a culture of blame; finger-pointing has evolved to the equivalent of an Olympic event.  The act of throwing the lowest figure on the totem pole under the bus has become an art form for those who oversee operations.

In a recent matchup between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays, there was a controversial call by an umpire who ruled a Boston player out as he slid into home plate.  The instant replay clearly showed the runner’s foot touching the plate before the tag was made by the Tampa Bay catcher.  But the call stood because there was no provision in major league baseball for the use of instant replay in decisions other than home runs.  The umpire reviewed the tapes after the game, and to his credit, he declared that he had made the wrong call.  Regardless, the runner was called out, the run wasn’t credited to Boston, and Tampa Bay went a half-game ahead of Boston in the eastern division standings for the first time all season.  That umpire, and many of his colleagues, has stated publicly that they would welcome instant replay in helping them to make the right decision because the technology has come so far in recent years.  Careful boys – many of us in dispatch felt the same way not that long ago and look where things are now! [MLB on August 12, 2013, has indeed decided to implement instant replay on all plays except the strike zone. - ed.]

While technology may have evolved sufficiently to decide close calls in major sporting events, it’s another story in the communication center where close calls aren’t a matter of a team scoring a point, but instead are decisions involving life and death.  The more sophisticated the system, the more training and experience is needed to operate it.  The more sophisticated the system, the more care and feeding it will need in the form of routine maintenance.  This all adds up to more potential points of failure, and a greatly reduced margin for error.  Error on the playing field might alter the outcome of a game, and thus determine a championship.  But error in emergency dispatch can result in the loss of life, and for those in The Chair, that kind of loss is unacceptable. 

When CAD systems evolve to the point where they are 100% reliable, and computers never crash, and protocols for CAD use are well-established, and thorough training of personnel has been universally accomplished, we can then rightfully focus our attention on the frail human factor as the reason for a failure.  But unlike the instant replay that is with us even now, I feel certain that that day lies in the very distant future.  When it comes though, like the dutiful minion that I am, I shall bow down and pay homage to the true technological god — and spend the rest of my life cursing mankind for creating it.

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.

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