View from the Top

Let’s not just change 911—let’s revolutionize it

Table of Contents:

Disruptive innovation isn’t easy and can be a little scary—but when it occurs, it’s a beautiful thing to witness.

An administrative call-taker can be trained in two weeks, compared with the 20 weeks needed to train a telecommunicator. The result is that the center has been able to find a role for quality people who previously would have been rejected—because they didn’t have the skills or couldn’t handle the stress—and their presence has lessened the staffing shortage.

This, in turn, has reduced the amount of overtime worked by the telecommunicators—dramatically reducing exhaustion and burnout, and providing a cost benefit to the center. Currently, there is discussion about combining the 311 and 911 systems by leveraging the 911 center’s administrative call-takers.      

New Partnerships—Much discussion during the summit centered on best practices for achieving disruptive innovation.  A prevailing theme was the need for collaboration and synergistic partnerships.

For example, a public-safety entity might partner with the state’s department of transportation. Sometimes these partnerships might require out-of-the-box thinking. Dr. Andrea Tapia, associate professor of information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University—someone who is at the leading edge of discovery regarding how social media might be leveraged by public safety—suggested that first-responder agencies seek out partnerships with colleges and universities.

While such an arrangement might seem counter-intuitive, such institutions have funding available for research projects, have lots of enthusiastic students who are looking for internships, and regularly stage proxy events—such as football games that attract a hundred thousand spectators—that could provide a suitable test bed for new technologies and operational approaches.

Take Some Risks—There is little question that the 911 sector is risk adverse, which is perfectly understandable—every time a call comes into a 911 center, someone’s life is on the line. Anything that threatens the status quo creates uncertainty, and uncertainty is anathema to public safety.

But, as David Jones of Mission Critical Partners—a company that provides consulting services to many public-safety agencies, including NCTCOG—suggested during the summit, we all have a responsibility to accept reasonable risk to move innovation adoption forward.

Innovators are okay with uncertainty, and early adopters help others knock down barriers that stand in the way of innovation adoption by leading the way—indeed, many look to the early adopters for guidance. As Jones further suggested, we have to stop talking about the future and start pressuring the status quo now—and everyone in public safety has a role in changing the conversation.

And that’s the point really. There are no old roads leading to what’s next. If you continue to do what you always have done, you will continue to get what you always have got. Don’t be afraid to think big and, more importantly, don’t be afraid to fail. Disruptors aren’t always right—but big change always comes from the disruptors.      

Christy Williams is the director of 911 for the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) and a past president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Christy can be emailed at

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Forward-looking perspectives from top leaders, regarding where our industry is today and, more importantly, where it is heading.

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