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Tweet This, Google That: Managing 9-1-1 in the Digital Age

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-06-12
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While the implementation of true Next Generation 9-1-1 may not be around the very next corner, we’ve taken several steps to at least cautiously move in that direction. An increasing number of Public Safety Answering Points have added the ability to receive text messages, while others plan on switching from analog trunks to digital nets. Of course, all of this has its roots in the consumer electronics revolution, which has changed the face of how we do business.

Perhaps the first inclination we had of the challenges to come was the introduction of the cell phone. We’re now three decades down the road and still dealing with that. As technology evolves, so too must we evolve. Sometimes subtle changes evoke less than subtle responses.

In this regard, I’d like to concentrate on two different but related developments. This first is the proliferation of applications designed for mobile devices. Often abbreviated as “apps,” these programs provide some sort of value added for the mobile consumer. A number of them have been designed for public safety – we’ll discuss them in next month’s column. For now, I’d like to turn our attention to social media, and the access to cell phones and the Internet. Because if this isn’t an issue in your center, you’re probably still using dispatch cards and a paper map.

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Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and smart phones have become an integral part of our landscape to the point that our reliance upon them has become the brunt of many a joke.  While not as connected as members of younger generations, I still feel naked without one, even on a trip to the corner store. This coming from a guy who drove halfway across the country without one, B.C. (Before Cellphones.) As a manager, you will find an even stronger attachment to these devices by your staff; some to the point of feeling as if their wireless phone was a physical and psychological extension of themselves. This is where the fun begins.

Perhaps the most burning question of our time will not be “Does God exist?” Nor will it be “Are we alone in the universe?” “Are vaccines universally beneficial?,” and “Do we need immigration reform?” will pale in comparison to the true test of men’s souls. By that I mean, “Should personal cell phones be allowed in the PSAP?” Keep in mind, I have heard arguments on both side of this issue. When they are used as an aid, they can become valuable tools to access information not available through formal assets. However, when used improperly, they open an agency to criticism, and even worse.

Was a call delayed because the telecommunicator was checking Facebook? Was critical information concerning a call passed from the center to a first responder by a personal (and therefore unrecorded) device? More troubling, was classified information transmitted from the center to an unauthorized individual in the same manner? Unfortunately, these are not theoretical situations. Each of these scenarios has actually occurred.

As sub-committee chair for the group that created the APCO/ANSI standard:  Best Practices for The Use of Social Media in Public-Safety Communications, I was privy to hearing a number of such stories, including a situation where family members of a first responder killed in the line of duty learned of their loss through social media posts made by dispatchers. This was in advance of any formal notification from the employing agency. Which leads us to our next issue: the need for a social media policy.

While it’s difficult to support the decision making that went into sharing such delicate information immediately to the world, as administrators we are often guided by formalized regulations. That’s why having a comprehensive social media policy is critical in our current environment. Nothing should be taken for granted. It’s imperative to cover both official and non-official use of the Internet, and to clarify the distinction between the two.

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Can employees access their private social media accounts while on duty? If so, what (if any) are the limitations? Is access permitted only during specified times? If so, what are these times, and if they are based on conditions (such as slow call volume), who defines this? Can work related information be discussed? If so, what are the limitations? If the agency has social media accounts, who can access them, when, why, and for what? What constitutes an official post?

When off-duty, what can employees post regarding their agency or job? This can be a very gray area, and I strongly suggest that agencies involve local human resource and legal experts in this area. While many departments have rules against disruptive or embarrassing conduct, the definition of this is not often universally clear. I am aware of cases where public employees have been terminated for racist remarks on their personal accounts. On the other hand, on June 1, the Supreme Court of the United States sided with a Pennsylvania man convicted of posting online threats, saying that prosecutors failed to offer evidence that he had made a true threat with intent to hurt a specific individual. And so the water muddies.

Next month, I’ll be back to talk about how social media can be used by agencies to improve service, and how applications are positioned to change the way we handle emergencies. Until then, I’d encourage you to visit this APCO link to view the current standard.

 

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in three states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See www.barryfurey.com

 

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