By Steve Leese
It is very difficult to tell where future technological developments in Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) will take us. We speculate that they will drastically change the way we conduct our day-to-day business. One way to examine where we are going is to look at the history of changing technology:
Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress was created by WED Enterprises as the prime feature of the General Electric Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. After the World’s Fair, the show was moved to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, where it stayed until 1973 when it was moved to Magic Kingdom, Fla., where it opened in 1975. (1)
The Disney feature was created to display technological advancements in the modern home, and coincidentally it was necessary to update it five times between 1964 and 1975. Visiting the Carousel of Progress today demonstrates how little we can predict the evolution of technological advances. In other words, historically, many of the innovations that are developed today were never anticipated. The Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) of tomorrow will likely evolve in the same way.
Operational aspects of the PSAP will include technology that we cannot yet foresee, since development generally has a compounding effect—meaning that inventions and innovations are built upon each other. Illustrative of this point is the fact that standard development organizations today are creating placeholders for future location accuracy technologies that are not yet defined, in anticipation of their rapid development. PSAP planners will have to think ahead and outside the box. We can start with what we know today, but we must realize change is imminent and exponential.
The PSAP’s fundamental purpose will probably not change, but the means by which we provide the service to the public and first responders will likely be revised. PSAPs will be required to deal with vast amounts of data such as pictures, videos, sensor data and information from other devices. Some of the concerns this additional data will generate include, but are not limited to; training, organizing, delivery, back-up, storage and transport.
Not all of the data that enters the PSAP will have relevance to the incident, and decisions about what information the first responders and public receive will be essential. Think about how much of your last Google search was relevant to the topic of your inquiry. It will be critical to get pertinent information to first responders because they will not have time to digest all of the data available, which will create an “information overload.” For example, pictures or video of a fire scene that are too far away to be of a benefit may only hamper a response.
Just as today’s telecommunicators are able to determine the accuracy of the information from a caller by a variety of means, the telecommunicator of the future will need to develop a sense of what data are relevant. Learning curves, in relation to delivery mechanisms and data type, will mature over time. Will one or more mechanisms be preferred over another? For instance, might it be possible that video combined with a voice call will be deemed more reliable than sensor data? Only time will tell, but training and experience will certainly play a great role in assuring that all of the additional information the PSAP disseminates becomes reliable and useful.
The mechanisms to deliver data to the appropriate personnel will have to be adequate in order to be effective. The storage and backup systems we have today are inadequate for the type and quantity of data we will receive in the future. The PSAP of tomorrow will certainly be more of a resource to the public and first responders than ever before. Think of all the data that will be captured, sorted, drawn from and utilized by emergency services. There will be databases holding provisioned and historical information that will be useful in many circumstances. For instance, facility emergency site plans will be much easier to integrate modify and deliver in an NG9-1-1 environment.
The length of time it takes to process an incident will most certainly change. Currently, there is a need for research and standards development to determine the time needed to complete various NG9-1-1 incident types so that staffing formulas can be updated. Other concerns may focus on the number of times telecommunicators are subpoenaed for courtroom testimony. Because of the increased connection to an incident or a scene NG9-1-1 brings, telecommunicators may be called upon more often. Additionally, telecommunicators may ultimately have a larger role or become instrumental in maintaining the evidence chain of custody for an incident.
It will become increasingly essential for future PSAPs to consider the management and fusion of information. For example, there may be cases where one set of data or information presented in combination with another type will have more significance, and it may be necessary to create algorithms to aid in this determination. If the raw data is not properly gleaned it may be of little use to the first responders and the public. Those involved in PSAP planning today should be prepared to actively participate in the process of finding and implementing solutions to these and other identified concerns. Planning and preparing for the future will not be accomplished instantly, rather it will be an ongoing process that constantly changes similar to the way emerging technologies evolve today.
New technology comes with tremendous costs, but over time will become more manageable. Think of this in relation to the evolution of modern cellular telephone communication technology. In its infancy, cellular phones and plans were out of reach for the average consumer, but now they are commonplace. Other solutions to offset initial costs for new technology may include regional approaches to purchasing options.
As with any equipment additions, maintenance costs will also have to be considered. When additional funding becomes necessary, educating the stakeholders might be the first step we take to prepare for this enormous change.
At times, there seem to be more questions than answers, but one thing is certain: The roles of telecommunicators will be as crucial in the future as they are today, if not more. Telecommunicators will certainly be tasked with more than they are today. Training, selection and recruitment will become tools that are relied upon more heavily than in the past so that the NG9-1-1 systems of tomorrow function as intended. One positive aspect is that the knowledge, skills and abilities of today’s workforce are evolving around the new technology that PSAPs will be faced with, which hopefully will make the transition as seamless as possible.
In addition to the academic skills needed by the worker of the future, workforce projection reports stress the importance of cognitive process skills. Cognitive process skills include higher-order thinking skills such as problem-solving, decision-making and creativity; skills which lead to flexible behavior and the ability to learn. (2)
Becoming involved in the early stages of planning and implementation will ensure that the best possible solutions are in place. Public safety communications officials cannot afford to rest on the last milestone and stop improving. Much work lies ahead, but exciting possibilities for growth are at our doorstep. Just as the Disney Carousel of Progress needed constant updates, so will the PSAP of tomorrow, ultimately evolving into a more enhanced service for citizens in need of help.
Steve Leese worked in public safety for 31 years before moving to APCO International as an Operations Program Manager in 2013.