As the winds of change continue to gust in our world of public safety communications, we struggle to maintain a strong footing to avoid being swept away. Nevertheless, what a privilege it is to be a part of this surge in the use of new technology.

While it is so obvious to most of us “ole timers” how our industry has been revolutionized by the use of new technology, some of our younger generation may take its existence for granted, assuming that it always has been around. And although the use of technology in our business is not new, the pace at which this technology is evolving today is somewhat phenomenal and even mind-boggling to some of us. While there may be arguments, both pro and con, relative to the impact of this explosion of new technology, equipment and systems, most agree that it's a good thing.

That said, this explosion is presenting some real challenges to our industry. Our nation's first responders now have a plethora of technology tools, all intended to provide them with more information at a dramatically faster rate. When we use the term “first responders” it typically denotes those firefighters, EMS and law enforcement personnel who actually respond to emergency events.

Although it is debated in some circles, first responders also include the thousands of call-takers, dispatchers, technicians and managers in our nation's emergency communications centers. I do not believe that anyone can dispute the fact that our nation's public safety call-takers and dispatchers routinely are the first link to emergency services and that they, in fact, provide that all-important gateway to vital response services.

Those of us who were around in the 1970s can well remember and relate to the impact that computer-aided dispatch systems had on our emergency communications centers. This was, at the time, certainly a new concept, which affected not only the way we did our jobs but also how we recruited personnel and trained them.

The advent of this technology also marked the beginning of the expanded use of data collected at the time of emergency services deployment. Soon to follow would be mobile data systems, which would prove to be effective in transmitting information to and from field units. These two developments were among the first major shifts in the use of emerging technology in our communications centers and examples of some of the challenges associated with the use of new technology.

Today we continue to explore the many potential ways in which even more information can be pushed into and out of our nation's emergency communications centers. Trunk-to-trunk transfer and communications with third-party call centers, attaching still photos and even videos to a 911 call — along with the use of voice-over-IP technologies to deliver such calls — are just a few of the many technological developments that our communications operations are experiencing.

APCO applauds the magnificent efforts of all the technologists, developers and entrepreneurs who continue to find more efficient ways to gather and transfer the vast amounts of information available. We encourage and support these efforts, but we want to make sure we never forget about the one thing in this field that has remained constant — the people. We must continue to include those whose job it is to use this technology in the early stages of research and development.

On that note, it is critical to ensure that technology does not inadvertently outpace our human ability and our human resources to process and use it effectively. The managers of our nation's public safety answering points must remain in a position to ensure that they can provide adequate staffing, training and facilities to support this technology boom, lest continued advancements in technology become a burden to our operations rather than a benefit.


Willis Carter is president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and the chief of communications for the Shreveport (La.) Fire Department.