Last week at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) annual conference in Las Vegas, Greg Rohde, executive director of the E-911 Institute, expressed his frustration with the lack of progress the 911 sector has made toward what is expected to be a very bright future borne of some amazing technological advances. At the heart of the inertia is a lack of funding.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a consensus within the public-safety community that this future will be realized sooner or later — and that it will take the form of the proverbial double-edge sword. Broadband will enable advanced devices and applications that will generate a blizzard of useful information for first responders. That’s the good news. The potential flip side is that next-generation technology will create so much information that 911 telecommunicators will be buried under an avalanche.

Speaking at APCO during a session that offered efficiency tips for public-safety answering point managers, Jim Quackenbush, director of the Thurston County (Wash.) Department of Communications, touched on the challenge that many PSAP managers one day will face.

“There’s going to be a lot of information coming our way, and we have to be careful that we don’t adopt policies that move too quickly,” Quackenbush said. “For example, I don’t want our telecommunicators to be deluged by telemetry from an [in-vehicle] crash-notification system. … As technology evolves, we have to make sure we don’t overburden telecommunicators.”

Based on personal experience, more information definitely is better. About a dozen years ago, I was involved in a rather nasty car accident two blocks from my home. The other motorist ran a red light and smashed into the side of my car at a high rate of speed. The vehicle was totaled — in fact, the impact was such that the frame was bent. I walked away with a couple of bruises. My son, who was riding in the passenger seat, was less fortunate, though still very lucky. He suffered a head gash—his noggin collided with the air bag at the wrong angle — that took 60 stitches, artfully applied by a plastic surgeon, to close. But other than that and a few bruises, he came out of the accident unscathed.

I’ve thought about that night often since then. As it happened, a police officer was in his patrol car at the intersection, so emergency response was immediate. But what if we had been in the middle of nowhere instead of in the middle of town? In that circumstance, I certainly would want the closest 911 center deluged with vehicle telematics and location information. What if my son’s injuries had been more serious? I certainly would have wanted emergency-room doctors inundated with medical telematics data. And, if EMTs had been able to transmit still or video images of my son’s wounds, the hospital would have realized much sooner that a plastic surgeon was going to be needed.

Most of all, I would have wanted our local PSAP to be able to effectively handle such vital information, which brings me back to Quackenbush’s valid point: that data quickly becomes useless when it cannot be efficiently processed and disseminated.

So what should be done about this? It’s going to take money—and a lot of it—to equip PSAPs with the systems capable of coping with the coming information avalanche. But while Congress talks a good game, it has shown that it cares little about this, as evidenced by the paltry amount of money it has released to the 911 sector since it passed the ENHANCE 911 Act five years ago—$43 million, which is a drop in the bucket (roughly 3.4%) compared with the $1.25 billion it authorized in this legislation. This despite the intense lobbying that has been done on Capitol Hill by some very passionate, capable public-safety communications representatives.

My suggestion would be to get the public involved. If there’s one thing that members of Congress are interested in, it’s getting re-elected. I would create a grassroots campaign that leverages every PSAP in the country to let America know that while the 911 system today is very good, it could be so much better, if only Congress would make it a priority — both by opening the funding spigot and by, once and for all, preventing states from raiding 911 funds.

I think Americans would be outraged, if they knew what has been going on. But I don’t believe that anyone thinks at all about 911 until they have to use it. I know I didn’t. It’s time that the 911 sector tells America all about it, one school, coffee shop and community center at a time.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.