The day is coming soon when public-safety answering points (PSAPs) from coast to coast will be able to accept texts, images and video from wireless 911 callers. That's very good news for the general public. But for 911 telecommunicators and those who manage them, the influx of these new media will create myriad challenges.

One of those challenges stems from the fact that the current 911 system works very well. The public now expects it to work, and when it doesn't, the outcry is swift and fierce. Indeed, as much as telecommunicators will have to be trained for the new world they will soon enter, public education also needs to ensue, according to Steve Wisely, director of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials' (APCO) Communications Center and 911 Services Department.

First, citizens who have been told that they can send texts, images and videos when they make a 911 call aren't going to want to hear excuses if 911 centers are unable to receive or process the data effectively. Then there's the matter of people who travel from one city or town to another. The capabilities of 911 centers vary greatly from one locale to the next, but the public generally doesn't know that — and even if they did, they likely wouldn't care, according to Wisely.

“People are going to expect that what they have, everybody has,” he said. “When that's not the case, frustration levels are going to rise. They're going to ask, ‘Why can't you accept pictures? They can back home.’”

But first things first. The new multimedia era will require telecommunicators to multitask as they never have before. “This is going to be a real challenge, especially in smaller centers where telecommunicators have to both take calls and dispatch,” Wisely said. “Most telecommunicators have experience with TTY calls [for the hearing impaired], so texting won't be that big a deal. But throw on top of that talking on the radio, looking at video and dealing with multiple texts, that's going to be a challenge.”

Telecommunicators also are going to witness things they've never seen before, and some of them will find that difficult. Pictures and video captured at a car accident, for instance, will yield images that some will find disturbingly graphic. “Many telecommunicators will find dealing with such images to be emotionally challenging,” Wisely said.

Consequently, hiring practices will have to change, said Rick Jones, operations manager for the National Emergency Number Association. Prospective telecommunicators already are given typing proficiency tests, so replying to incoming text messages shouldn't pose much of a problem. As far as graphic images are concerned, training already exists that should be able to solve that challenge, Jones said.

“We should be able to figure this out,” he said. “Police, fire and EMTs have been trained to be able to deal with viewing a medical scene. This isn't new. All we have to do is apply the same training to call-takers and dispatchers.”

But there are other challenges associated with video. One is that telecommunicators will need to be trained to be able to analyze what they see. Something missed could lead to dispatching mistakes that could get people hurt or, worse, killed.

That's a lot of pressure. Both Wisely and Jones agree that the new age of telecommunicating spawned by the advent of wireless 911 texts, photos and images will bring new stresses that even well-prepared and well-trained telecommunicators will find challenging to overcome. Consequently, PSAP personnel will need more crisis counseling and stress debriefings. It's one thing to field a pressure-packed 911 call — for instance, one that reports a child abduction. Now add in multiple texts, photos and videos and the pressure increases exponentially.

Still another problem is the language of texting — it's all over the board. Some believe that, because telecommunicators are experienced in fielding TTY calls, they will adapt quickly to text messages. That's true — but only to a degree. Years ago, the hearing-impaired community banded together to create a standardized language for TTY calls. “We just had to adopt their language,” Jones said.

But no such standardized language exists in the text world, according to Wisely, who believes that the plethora of abbreviations — shortcuts that vary from region to region and based on various cultural factors — are going to cause telecommunicators headaches, at least for a while. “They're going to wonder, ‘What do they mean with these texts?’” he said. “That's going to cause frustration on both sides of the call.”

To mitigate this problem, Wisely suggested that certain key text phrases be pre-programmed into the PSAP's computer-aided dispatch system, so telecommunicators can reply to an incoming 911 text simply by pressing a function key on their keyboard. Also helpful would be a dictionary of key terms, preferably computerized. “You can't get the black binder out for every call,” Wisely said.

But that's just what they're doing in Waterloo, Iowa. Earlier this year, the Black Hawk County Consolidated Public Safety Communications Center became the first PSAP in the country to field a 911 text call. According to Waterloo Police Chief Tom Jennings, 911 solutions vendor Intrado, which led the effort to bring the capability to the center, created a text-messaging “survival guide” that has come in quite handy.

“It's pretty complete,” Jennings said. “There's no crude stuff or profanity, but it has just about everything else, and it's user-friendly. I was amazed.”

Jennings added that the booklet is alphabetized, easy to use, and leafing through it to look up certain abbreviations hasn't lost any significant time, although he acknowledged that the center has yet to field a 911 text where a life was on the line. As far as lacking definitions for crude or profane abbreviations, Jennings said that “people are able to figure out most of them on their own.”

Telecommunicators in the center trained for about a month to hone their text-messaging skills. Jennings said that there have been no hiccups so far. He made it a point to check in with more seasoned telecommunicators — who comprise about half the staff and who might be less savvy regarding texting than their younger counterparts, he said — and hasn't heard any complaints. “They all feel comfortable with it,” Jennings said.

That could be because the volume of 911 text calls has been small thus far, due to the fact that only one wireless carrier serving the county has made the service available. But even after 911 texting firmly takes root, Jones believes telecommunicators will be up to the task, for a couple of reasons. First, they're used to change.

“Since the 1970s we've had change after change,” Jones said. “The transition to text will be similar to what we encountered when we moved to computerized dispatch. We went from writing on cards to typing on a computer.”

Also, there likely won't be a flood of 911 texts even after the capability becomes ubiquitous, according to Jones, based on a focus group of high school students held last year in Nashville, Tenn. The teenagers were asked under what circumstances they thought they would text a 911 call. Largely they said only in circumstances where making a voice call would endanger them. Because texting is a staple of teenage life today, “that's a pretty good assurance that people aren't going to stop calling and begin texting 911,” Jones said.

Eventually, any concerns over whether telecommunicators will be able to handle the myriad intricacies of text, images and video could be reduced significantly when IP-based next-generation 911 technology becomes commonplace. Once that happens, the system could be configured to automatically reroute any 911 calls containing one or more of these media — seamlessly, without any handoff — perhaps to a special team comprised of individuals who possess the requisite skills to field them adroitly. NG-911 technology would allow such teams to be located in the next town, in the next county or even on the other side of the state.

“It will be as if they're in the next room,” Jones said.

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