If I look back at where I came from, beginning in the fire service 34 years ago, we had large portables that were like bricks. They were very simple, with simplex operation. Each department had their own radio guy. Today we have over 200 channels, multiple zones and trunking. The radio system is now much more complex and its management is typically done by an agency.

The next stage to which we go from here is recognizing the need for a national broadband network. We also need to see an evolution in terms of how we use commercial wireless phones. If I were to envision the future, it's the device I use every day that also can be used in public-safety mode. It has a functional mode that can be changed back and forth to provide situational awareness, weather, satellite and other real-time information.

On the 911 side, we've seen many paradigm shifts. When I first came in, the service you had was individual agency numbers. People called the fire department individually. Then we moved to 911 and transferred calls to agencies. Now we've transitioned to a total 911 and dispatch center. Then came enhanced 911 that gave you the location of the caller, so now if the person couldn't speak, you could see where the caller was.

Then VoIP came along, and that created some challenges for enhanced 911 because the system couldn't geographically identify the caller's location. Not knowing where the call was coming from caused us to take a step back. Cell phones originally had the same issue, but now we're moving in the right direction with GPS giving us location.

Technology is making us move forward, but we're also stepping back. We have to make sure as we move forward that new technologies don't take away progress in terms of safety and response. We need to tie all of these things together.

In the future, a caller will be able to call in and indicate they can take a picture or video and send it directly to the 911 center. I want to be able to use that information for situational awareness so that it gives me an instant feel for the resources that need to be dispatched. If a bridge has collapsed, my first thought is that a portion of it collapsed, but if I find out a whole bridge collapsed, that is a whole different situation demanding a very different response.
as told to Lynnette Luna

Charles Werner is chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department and chair of the SAFECOM executive committee.