This summer, staff at five public-safety answering points (PSAPs) across the U.S. got a taste of the future of 911 communications. As part of a proof-of-concept demonstration sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation, call-takers sitting at experimental workstations received text messages and streaming video, took in data from crash-notification systems, held videoconferences with peers at other emergency call centers and otherwise test-drove a variety of next-generation 911 technologies.

The applications were impressive, said John Merklinger, director of the Rochester-Monroe County (N.Y.) Emergency Communications Department, one of the test sites. But the prospect of introducing 911 systems based on IP technology also raises some serious operational issues, he noted. For starters: “Clearly, there's going to be a lot more training of telecommunicators.”

As call centers migrate to NG 911, the new technology could spell big changes for call-takers and dispatchers. Center operators and standards-setting bodies are just starting to sketch out how those jobs might change in the coming years, as well as how centers will train employees to perform the new procedures that come with NG 911.

A few scenarios look likely, however. Some people will use text, rather than voice, to report emergencies. Images transmitted from cell phones and surveillance cameras will help call-takers assess what's going on at an incident, and dispatchers might relay those images to first responders heading to the scene. PSAPs in different locations, linked by an IP network, will relay calls to balance their workload or take over if another center breaks down. Onboard data systems will send PSAPs detailed information about vehicular accidents immediately after they occur.

“Certainly, one of the concerns is information overload,” Merklinger said, referring to the crash notification. As call centers introduce this and other next-generation applications, they will need to establish business rules for managing the incoming flood of information. Moreover, they will have to train staff on a slew of new functions, features and procedures. “The way we do business on some things today will change, I'm sure,” he said.

In Vermont, telecommunicators already have experienced the first of those changes. In February 2007, Vermont implemented a statewide, IP-based 911 system — the first such deployment of NG 911 in the country. Vermont's Enhanced 911 Board operates eight PSAPs across the state. Each is responsible for a specific geographic area, but now that they are linked via a single IP network, they can field calls for one another, and managers can change the way calls are routed as needed.

“We call it a virtual PSAP,” said David Serra, the board's executive director. Staffers filling the state's 34 call-taker positions have started working as though their eight separate locations make up one big communications center.

NG 911 also has altered telecommunicators' jobs in Vermont by introducing new software with a map-based interface. Although call-handling procedures haven't changed much, the board did have to train all 153 call-takers to use the new interface. “We have found that even slight changes in what the call-taker sees every day, as a matter of routine, is cause for retraining,” Serra said.

Vermont has yet to introduce next-generation functions that require staff to handle large volumes of new information. But in the future, call-takers certainly will need more training to respond to photos and images sent from the scene of an incident or to transmit maps from a computer-aided dispatching system to the screen in a responder's vehicle, Serra said.

Call-takers working on next-generation systems will be much more driven by what they see, rather than only by what they hear, said Wanda McCarley, operations group manager at the Tarrant County 911 District in Fort Worth, Texas. “Things will be far more interactive. That's good in some cases,” she said. But it's hard to perform interactive functions well while you're multitasking — which, of course, 911 operators do all the time, she said.

One aspect of NG 911 that has some call center managers especially concerned is the prospect of receiving text messages from cell phones, as people who communicate by text use an idiosyncratic language of abbreviations. “There's no standard there,” McCarley said, “so there's nothing to train to.”

To prepare for handling incoming text, members of several committees of the National Emergency Number Association met with high school students in Nashville, Tenn., while attending a conference there last January. They wanted to learn when and how young people might use text messages to seek help, said Rick Jones, operations issues director for NENA.

The adjustment to text might not be as difficult for PSAPs as some people fear, Jones said. Many call-taker and dispatchers do a lot of text messaging in their personal lives. “They already know the language,” he said. Merklinger agreed: “Younger employees will have no problems at all with that.”

Also, because many PSAP call-takers are trained to communicate with hearing-impaired callers using teletypewriter (TTY) systems, 911 centers already have models that can be adapted for text messaging, Jones said.

“Deaf people use their own language: GA, ‘go ahead’ SK, ‘signing off.’ We just had to learn it. It's not difficult,” said Sue Pivetta, a former telecommunicator and founder of Professional Pride Training in Sumner, Wash. “In fact, it's quick. It's meant to speed things up.”

Although the language of texting isn't standardized, Pivetta said she knows from experience — receiving text messages from her grandson — that it's not hard to figure out.

Introducing video images to the mix would require another level of new training, or perhaps a whole new job description for some PSAP employees. While visiting South Africa, Pivetta observed call centers that employed people solely to study images transmitted from surveillance cameras. Their job was to detect unusual activity at high-crime intersections.

“That's a whole different set of skills,” she said, adding that it might require a person with different aptitudes than those that make a good call-taker. “Someone who's used to communicating — talking — is going to have a hard time sitting and observing.”

Whatever new shapes that PSAP jobs might take in the future, technology advances will force center operators to speed up the evolution of the work force, McCarley said. Today, every time a center implements a new, more complex system, it loses a few employees.

“Our work force of the future is going to have to be not only technology-tolerant, but technology-savvy, willing to get out there on the cutting edge,” she said. “It's not just a matter of training. It's a matter of hiring the right people.”

Given the vast — and ever-growing — variety of duties a PSAP employee performs, those new hires definitely will need sharp memories.

“To get to the level of proficiency that's required for some of the tasks that will be next-gen, you're going to have to be not only trained, but also able to remember when you do it [only] once a day or twice a day,” McCarley said. “And that's hard.”

Before anyone determines how to train call-takers and dispatchers, managers and supervisors at emergency communications centers will need training of their own, NENA's Jones said. They'll have to learn to configure communications systems that send the right information to the right people.

For example, when next-generation systems come on line, they will feature applications capable of transmitting data from electronic medical devices. Only a fraction of that data is useful to call-takers trying to determine whom they should alert about an incident, Jones said. But “there's a considerable amount of data that will help the first responders, and others, in the emergency medical care,” he said.

Center operators will have to protect call-takers from a barrage of extraneous information, as well. “It's going to be established so you get what's necessary to handle the call, and others get what they need to do their part in the call,” Jones said.

If the tests this summer are any indication, telecommunicators may well adapt to NG 911 technology without undue strain. In Rochester, where four center employees handled most of the tests, Merklinger marveled at how quickly they got used to the new procedures.

“They picked up and learned the software in a very short period of time, maybe an hour and a half or two hours. They were whipping around the software and handling calls just like they were any other 911 calls,” he said. “I think that's a good sign that the training may not be as difficult as we think it's going to be.”

U.S. DOT'S NG 911 PROOF-OF-CONCEPT DEMONSTRATIONS

Participating PSAPs:

  • Emergency Communications Department, Rochester, N.Y.
  • King County E-911 System, Seattle
  • Metropolitan Emergency Services Board — Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center, St. Paul, Minn.
  • Public Safety Services Bureau, Helena, MT
  • Office of State Treasurer, Indiana Wireless 911 Board

Participating laboratories operated by:

  • Booz Allen Hamilton
  • Texas A&M University
  • Columbia University

System requirements that were tested included:

  • The ability of PSAPs to receive voice, video, text (IM, SMS) and data
  • Improving 911 access for deaf/hearing-impaired (video relay services, text messaging)
  • Caller location identification for landline, wireless and VoIP 911 calls
  • Transmission of telematics data directly to the PSAP (Advanced Automatic Crash Notification), such as crash location, speed, vehicular rollover, and crash velocity
  • 911 call routing and call transfer based on caller's location
  • IP networking and security

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation