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Putting the "AP" in PSAP: The Role of Adjunct Software in the Emergency Experience

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-07-24
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In last month’s column, “Tweet This – Google That,” I discussed some issues related to dealing with change in electronic communications.  This month, I’d like to continue this discussion, with the focus on applications.

Applications, or “apps” as they are as commonly known, are programs used to provide enhanced features and capabilities of smart devices. In essence, one of the things that makes smart phones “smart” is their ability to perform functions outside the realm of a conventional telephone. Now, a good deal of these applications are used in daily life, and range from the exotic to the mundane.  Androids have more than 10,000 choices available; iPhones ten times that many. There are apps available to manage your health and to keep track of your grocery list, as well as those designed to generate random excuses tell your boss, or to simulate the sound of a stapler. As to why you’d want to replicate that sound without the ability to actually fasten things together, I can’t advise, but whatever your need, there is probably an application out there to address it.

That comes to public safety, as well.  An excellent source for these can be found online at appcomm.org. For the citizen, these can include agency specific information and crime prevention tips, as well as mobile monitoring capacity. For the public safety professional, items such as hazardous materials guides, mapping, and global positioning systems are available.  As with general applications, the beauty – and utility – of the application may be in the eye and ear of the beholder.

One example which I have mentioned over time was designed to “phone a friend” or friends whenever the user called 9-1-1. On the surface, this seems like a convenient way to notify loved ones of situations of interest. Except: this automatic call-up can’t possibly know what the 9-1-1 call was about. While your list members may call you to find out, in a real emergency they’ll likely not be able to reach you and do the next best thing: call 9-1-1.  Which will connect them to their own local Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) and a telecommunicator who will probably be clueless about why they’re calling.

Applications that enhance the 9-1-1 experience present food for thought.  If an app allows callers additional services above the norm, how can this application be secured? Is it to be provided by the PSAP, or purchased by the end user? Should different levels of service be supported at all? How are vendors selected for these services? Does contracting with one eliminate the potential of competition, or does true competition not exist? While these are critical discussions, they pale in comparison to the issue of applications that might be required for basic access to services. Travelling that path would take us on a slippery slope indeed, and would fly in the face of the Federal Communications Commission’s decision on non-initialized handsets. While we suffered the consequences of numerous prank calls and false alarms because of it, their hearts were in the right place. If you see a phone you should be able to pick it up in an emergency and call 9-1-1. Nothing should stand in the way of that ability – especially an add-on application.

Another factor concerning applications is reliability. Do they work as advertised? Carriers and customer premise equipment manufacturers spend significant time in quality control. Software is subjected to stringent loading and scripted functionality tests to assure fitness for duty. Even then, occasional glitches can slip by. Are applications universally tested to this level? Google will tell you that there are a number of firms out there that provide such validation, but is this testing at the level required for 9-1-1? As PSAP managers, do we know what that level is, and if so, do we include such compliance in our decision making when it comes to whether or not an application is acceptable for use?

Maybe we don’t even have that choice anyway. When 9-1-1 related applications are available from numerous sources on the open consumer market, we’re pretty powerless to control their proliferation. This raises yet another issue; the potential for a false sense of security.  Suppose a consumer purchases an application (or inherits a phone containing that app) assuming that it works as designed and that the local dispatch center supports all the functionality advertised? Perhaps they’ll check with the PSAP prior to purchase, or before an emergency arises, but that still leaves a reasonable chance that the gap between expectations and reality will be discovered in the midst of a real crisis.  Not a pleasant thought.

Of course, as we move more and more towards the use of applications, we further increase our exposure to malware. While a number of factors make smartphones less vulnerable to viruses than PCs, it’s still something to consider. With public safety at stake, we must keep a vigilant eye turned towards this issue.  That being said, there’s obviously a bunch of folks out there who are developing software in response to existing needs and issues.  There is no reason to anticipate that this will change anytime soon, nor is their reason for us to desire that it does. If applications, for example, were to provide a reliable and accurate solution to the mobile location problem, it’s hard to imagine that we would not embrace the answer.

The 9-1-1 experience has morphed in a period of less than 50 years from unintelligent fixed devices to portable smart phones, and beyond. In the not too distant future, are there greater changes yet to come? According to my Magic 8 Ball Application, “It is decidedly so.”

 

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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