LAS VEGAS--Sometimes life forces us to change, even when we’re not ready. Often, it’s gradual. At other times, it comes at us so fast we have to hold on for dear life. And it may happen to us directly or indirectly through heartbreaking events that change the way we see the world.

In fact, tragedy is way too commonplace. We move about in our daily routine only to be blindsided by a disaster, be it from the wrath of Mother Nature or the result of a man-made event. In my lifetime alone, I have seen the devastation of a terrorist attack—a day I will never forget—as well as destructive hurricanes, tsunamis and wars. We also live in a time where our youth, instead of being focused on furthering their education on university campuses, fear reprisal from mentally ill and unstable people who unleash their rage on unsuspecting students and their faculty. We saw this at Virginia Tech and just last month at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb, Ill., where the safety of a lecture hall turned into a parent’s worst nightmare.

Everyone wants to be safe, to live their lives knowing that their daily routine will move forward uninterrupted by tragedy. But those tasked with keeping our family, neighbors and colleagues alive and secure during emergency situations are only human. Yes, they’ve done the training. They run drills before they apply them in real-life scenarios. They believe in their mission. But in the end, each first responder depends, to some degree, on technological innovation and vendors that bring their wares to market to ensure they can respond appropriately to an incident.

The International Wireless Communications Expo is a reminder of this, with multiple vendors introducing new radio technologies with the promise of performance and reliability. But one area specifically where public-safety innovation is behind commercial capabilities is E-911.

Commercial carriers let cell phone users send multimedia and still images from one end of the country to the other. Friends and family can sign up for unlimited text messaging to keep in touch. Yet, if someone witnesses a crime in progress and captures an image on one of these commercial devices, what’s next? How does that data transmit to a 911 center?

We all know that it doesn’t.

Think of those students in the lecture hall at Virginia Tech of NIU. Each one probably was armed with a cell phone that had the capability to capture still images and send text messages. Imagine the information that could have been sent to campus police and local law enforcement during the shooting rampage if students transmitted information or images of the event. First responders would have been able to recognize the subject, know his or her location and save precious minutes by responding with a full cache of information. It could have been the difference between life and death for many students who perished that day.

Public-safety access points (PSAPs) will adapt to the new technologies, but they still await legislative action and technological innovation to help move them in the right direction.

In addition, there is the human aspect. Call takers and operators jobs continue to be more sophisticated than 15, 10 or even 5 years ago. Each must learn new call-taking software. Handling calls and data from wireless devices will require new processes and procedures. As well, access to more information about emergency situations will involve new decision-support tools that will interpret the data for call takers and dispatchers.

Change is scary. For PSAPs and those personnel essential to the success of E-911, it means reinventing how they do their jobs. With wireless voice and data devices becoming more ubiquitous, however, so will the challenges faced by an already overworked and overstressed segment of the first-responder community: 911 operators and call takers. But each must embrace these disruptions to their daily routine, because, whether each is ready, change is needed—and coming full speed ahead.

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