Urgent Matters

Telecommunicators’ role in public-safety communications more vital than ever

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As National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week is celebrated, it is a time to recognize the efforts of 911 telecommunicators and the potential impact they can have in the effective migration to next-generation platforms that will support emergency text, data, photo and video communications,

This week is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, a time when we should all take a moment to recognize the remarkable efforts of those working in 911 public-safety answering points (PSAPs), where emergency calls from the public are processed as the initial step in the first-response effort.

As someone who has been known to get a little too excited over questionable calls during sporting events, I marvel every time I listen to recordings of telecommunicators calmly extracting information from even the most frantic callers, so the appropriate public-safety resources can be dispatched to the scene. It is a stressful and often thankless job to repeatedly process the most important calls of a person’s life, but telecommunicators perform this task around the clock, 365 days per year, typically in a manner that exudes professionalism.

This year’s National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week is particularly notable, because it will be the final one before many PSAPs throughout the country begin implementing platforms necessary to accept emergency text messages through the 911 system.

By May 15, the four nationwide wireless carriers—AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile—have pledged to support text-to-911 capability areas of the U.S. where PSAPs are ready to accept emergency texts and request the service. This commitment is the result of a December 2012 voluntary agreement that these carriers made with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

Earlier this year, the FCC voted to pursue rules that would make text-to-911 support a requirement for all providers of text services. During this time, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler implored PSAPs to “get with it” and deploy the technologies necessary to accept emergency text messages.

The potential benefits of text-to-911 functionality are well known. It is critical for the hard-of-hearing community, which today typically uses text messaging instead of legacy TTY technology to communicate. In addition, there are emergency circumstances when making a 911 voice call is not an option, because the sound from the conversation could endanger the caller.

But many in the 911 community are wary about accepting emergency texts, with concerns voiced about funding shortfalls, operational issues and the training challenges that will come with introducing a new form of media into 911 call centers. And text-to-911 service is just the tip of the iceberg, as the next-generation 911 platform will enable database-driven information, photos and videos to enter PSAPs, which some in the industry fear could result in data overload for telecommunicators that already are stressed.

Each of these are legitimate issues, and it is important that telecommunicators are diligent in voicing them all, so policymakers can better understand what requirements need to be met and the challenges that need to be overcome to make the vision of better-informed first responders a reality.

However, it is vital that these telecommunicators voice their concerns within the context of making sure that the migration to text-to-911 functionality and other next-generation capabilities is executed properly, as opposed to trying to block the change from occurring at all.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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