During this week's Association of Public Safety Communications Officials conference in Minneapolis, Jim Kuthy, a psychologist who is the principal consultant for CritiCall, a Folsom, Calif.-based company that offers pre-employment testing services for 911 dispatchers and call-takers, offered some cautionary advice regarding next-generation 911 technology.

While a self-described fan of NG-911 and its potential to be a game-changer, Kuthy told attendees to avoid succumbing to the hype and the temptation to keep up with the Joneses — at least until they know exactly what they're getting themselves into.

"Just because some other dispatch agency is doing something, don't necessarily think that it's great for your agency," he said.

The strength of NG-911 — its ability to enable 911 centers to receive multimedia that will provide dispatchers with greater situational awareness — is also its biggest problem, because telecommunicators already have a lot to do, according to Kuthy. Indeed, in many instances, telecommunicators are being overwhelmed, largely due to hiring freezes and cutbacks that have thinned their ranks.

"If we keep adding things for dispatchers to do without thinking about the human elements that are involved, it's essentially going to crash and burn," Kuthy said.

When more things are added to a person's plate, the response typically is to prioritize. That leads eventually to cognitive overload and burnout because, as it turns out, humans weren't built to multitask, according to Kuthy.

"Human beings were not designed to do more than one task at a time," he said. "We tell ourselves we are, but we aren't."

Indeed, the common perception is that those who multitask are more productive. But according to Kuthy, research has indicated that people who try to do more than one thing at a time actually are less productive. To illustrate the point, Kuthy told of a research study in which participants took part in a driving simulation while their brain waves were monitored using MRI technology. When they were asked to talk on their cell phones while driving, their brain waves that are associated with the ability to pay attention were cut in half, he said.

One aspect of NG-911 that many — particularly the hearing-impaired community — find exciting is the ability to place a 911 text call. But 911 texting has limitations that will vex many telecommunicators, according to Kuthy. For example, during a 911 voice call, telecommunicators are able to hear what's happening in the background, as well as the tone and inflection of the caller's voice, both of which are important clues that can help them make the right dispatch decisions — and which are lacking in a 911 text.

"Text is not printed voice," Kuthy said. "Because text provides no external clues, you don't know what's going on. There are no screaming babies or sirens in the background, there's no urgency, so you're kind of in the dark."

Miscommunication is another big problem, partly because texters often rely on acronyms and shorthand that easily can be misconstrued. As an example, Kuthy pointed out that LOL means "laugh out loud" — or it can mean "lots of love." The auto-correct function of many phones also creates similar trouble. Kuthy told of one transmission where the sender typed "gonna," which auto-correct changed to "gunman."

"Miscommunications due to auto-correct features are extremely common," Kuthy said. "When words change, context and meaning changes, and that creates all sorts of issues."

Yet another problem with 911 texts is that they often will be accompanied by attachments, such as video taken by a bystander at an emergency incident. But such attachments can unleash viruses and malware that could do severe damage to the network — something that no public safety answering point (PSAP) can afford.

"What's the rule that we tell everybody who's working on a computer? 'Don't open any unsolicited information you've received that's attached to an e-mail, or to any other kind of message you get.'" Kuthy said. "With NG-911, you're now inviting people to send you exactly what you've been trained not to open. What happens when you open it and it's not a video, but a virus that takes your entire system down?"

Finally, SMS messages often arrive out of sequence, something that can be very problematic when time is of the essence and lives are at stake.

"So, you can get the second message before you get the first," Kuthy said. "Talk about confusing. Do you really want to have people's lives depend on something like that?"

The answer to that question is not necessarily "no," Kuthy said. He simply wants PSAPs to do the necessary research to ensure that migrating to NG-911 is the right decision.

"Make decisions based on facts, not opinions, and don't be driven by the cool new technology," Kuthy said. "Keep in mind that, once this is introduced, it's going to be tough to go back, even if it doesn't work. So, it's kind of like, what's the rush? I'm not a big fan of introducing things just because people want it — it should work.

"I'm not saying don't do this. I'm saying do the research first. What can we do to make sure it works properly before we implement it? Don't implement it first and then do the research. It's too late — people are going to die."

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