On the surface, the notion of civilians being able to communicate with 911 centers via any technology — voice, video, pictures or data — sounds like a great idea, especially as non-voice communications become increasingly prevalent in our society.

However, public-safety answering point (PSAP) personnel at conferences this summer repeatedly expressed concern about their ability to effectively process the mountains of information that could come their way during a given incident.

Today, when a 911 call comes in, the call-taker faces the daunting challenge of getting information from an emergency caller who often is emotionally charged. It's a task that understandably requires a great deal of focus on the part of the call-taker.

In a next-gen 911 environment, that call-taker theoretically could receive much more than this voice call. Real-time video from surveillance cameras near the caller's location also may be available, as well as telematics data from a building or vehicle.

While all of this information could be useful to the response effort, many in the PSAP community are concerned that it could prove overwhelming.

“I'm worried that I might miss something the caller's saying because I see something in the video,” said one call-taker. “Or, it could be the other way around, that I get so caught up in the conversation that I don't see something significant in the video.”

It's a legitimate concern. Even the youngest generation of call-takers — those who have grown up multitasking with all the latest computing technology — has to acknowledge that such a scenario could greatly increase the chance of a potentially key piece of information falling through the cracks.

Managing this flow of information to avoid overloading any single PSAP operator is critical, said John Merklinger, communications center director for the Rochester/Monroe County 911 Center.

“It's going to open up a lot of operational questions, and it's definitely going to alter training — even more than I thought,” Merklinger said during a panel discussion at the APCO conference last month.

Having been part of the next-gen project, Merklinger said he believes PSAP operators will need at least 100 hours of continuing-education training per year — almost twice as much as his center does today — to work effectively.

Meanwhile, the organization of 911 resources also has to be reassessed. To prevent a PSAP operator from being distracted by too much information, additional personnel may be needed — for instance, to watch surveillance video.

Of course, smaller PSAPs may not have the resources to do this on their own, so they may need to share resources with other PSAPs. While some believe this means PSAP consolidation, those close to the next-gen 911 effort note that physical consolidation into a single facility is not needed if the PSAPs are connected by an IP network.

Such virtual consolidation or resource-sharing may be more palatable to entities wanting to maintain smaller PSAPs, but creating such agreements will require a significant change in the mindsets of many in the 911 community. While many at the national level have been focused on securing money to pay for the network infrastructure to make it all happen, resolving these operational issues will be just as important in determining whether the migration to next-gen 911 is done successfully.

Donny Jackson is the senior writer for Urgent Communications.