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The Online Manager: Challenges of the Digital Age

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2011-02-28
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Having written the Communication Manager’s column for 9-1-1 Magazine for the past 15 years, I now look forward to making the transition to the web from print. While I have already had a few columns posted here, these were actually leftovers that had been waiting publication. So, from this month forward I’ll be able to take advantage of the immediacy of the web and post content that is truly fresh.

The year 2010 marked the fifth decade in which I managed a multi-jurisdictional PSAP, and I can’t help but reflect back on where we’ve been as I plan to address on how best to move ahead.  Just the other day I caught a re-run of the 1970’s cop show Adam 12. On this particular episode officers Reed and Malloy stopped a couple for drunken driving. No arrest was made. It seems as if they just shipped them home. While attitudes certainly have changed, equipment has, as well. In this and every episode, there are no portable radios to be seen. Foot pursuits and other situations where assistance is needed require somebody to go back to the car. A two-channel mobile serving the entire City of Los Angeles graces the passenger compartment, and also serves as a convenient resting place for the hard copy stolen car “hot sheet.” So much for the need for a mobile data terminal.

While times may have been a lot simpler then, both policies and technology have overtaken us. We are dealing with issues in both our operational and human resources arenas that directly relate to the so-called electronic explosion of the past decade. Likely many of us have been impacted by the need for narrowbanding and the subsequent requirement to upgrade or replace scads of equipment during some of the most troubling economic conditions in recent memory. Add to the mix that our technical systems now have less shelf life than ever, so even keeping the level of service that we have is going to cost.

But, as we all know, keeping what we’ve got is never an option. Doing more with less has become business as usual in the 21st. Century. And some of that requirement, too, is driven by technology. Over the past few months, the FCC has taken a number of steps to expedite to roll out of Next Generation 9-1-1; the most recent of which being a call for public comment. While as of this writing there is no official due date, all the signs seem to indicate that we should be planning for sooner rather than later.

All of this brings our discussion to the subject of social media. Facebook, Twitter, texting and a plethora of until recently unknown term now permeate our vocabulary and our lifestyles. While the deaf and hearing impaired have a good reason to push for 9-1-1 text messaging, the use of text messaging is by no means restricted to a singular group. However, keeping in mind that the “SM” in “SMS” – the methodology used to support text messaging actually stands for “short message”, you have a quick glimpse at one of the reasons why the status quo for text doesn’t exactly line up well with 9-1-1.

Perhaps as important as the technology are the public expectations for social media. The American Red Cross conducted a very interesting study into this, and their results should not shock us. Basically, many people believe that public safety agencies monitor their websites for incoming emergency messages, and that social media presents a viable means of reporting an incident. This was underscored when a bike rider in Connecticut summoned help from around the globe when she became injured in a fall. This time all worked out, and the story made many top ten lists for the year 2010.

Of course, this “public” of which I speak also constitutes our overall hiring pool, many of whom are identified as being part of the “millennium” generation. The good news is that this generation has grown up with technology and are unafraid. The bad news is that this generation has grown up with technology and is unafraid.  In the case of the former we may actually spend less time training these recruits, because in many cases – application software aside – they may have a better grasp of the nuts and bolts than we do. With regard to the latter, they are used to being constantly surrounded by personal rather than institutional technology. To them email is passé. Think I’m kidding? Since 2009 there have been more social media posts made than emails sent, and these posts are being made in large part by the people who are filling out our employment applications.

How – or if – to put constraints on their use of social media is a discussion that takes more than a column to discuss. Free speech? Yep, it’s certainly a right. But the conversations to which we are privy in the PSAP shouldn’t be the topic of viral videos. And as several states move to restrict the public release of 9-1-1 tapes to cut down on sensationalism, Wiki-leaks spring up faster than a jack-rabbit. When your life is a blog it may sometimes be difficult to draw the line, but draw the line we must through coherent guidelines and open discussions. As I posted recently on a blog to an applicant seeking advice, “being tagged doing a keg stand on Facebook should not be considered a career enhancement.” I’ll talk to you soon.


Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.


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