LONG BEACH, Calif. — One of the most stressful jobs in the world is that of the 911 telecommunicator. Every day, call-takers have to calmly and empathetically help people who are having the worst day of their lives. They have to quickly assess each situation — often using less-than-complete information — and then make vital decisions that will affect the incident response. And, they have to be right, or lives will be lost — victims and first responders both.
Next-generation 911 is supposed to help take some of the stress off telecommunicators, because it will provide exponentially more data that will help them make better-informed decisions. But, in some ways, it will add stress, according to speakers who participated this week in the National Emergency Number Association ( ) conference.
Let’s start with something as seemingly benign as the ability to receive text messages from 911 callers. This universally is considered a good thing, for a variety of reasons. First, texting is becoming the preferred mode of communication for many, particularly among those who skew younger — in fact, it is estimated that the average teenager sends and receives more than 3,000 text messages each month. Also, it often is a safer way to communicate when one is in danger, for instance when one is trapped inside a house with an assailant. And the hearing-impaired will benefit, for obvious reasons.
But there is fear that 911 centers will be buried under an avalanche of such messages. On top of that, it takes a lot longer to process a 911 text compared with a voice call, and there may be translation issues, since texters tend to communicate in shorthand but there is no universal method for doing so.
“All of this could easily overload a call center if multiple text calls are happening at the same time,” said Jayme Murbach of Spokane County (Wash.) 911, which has embarked upon an deployment.
In addition, some telecommunicators will lack the computer and typing skills they will need to function in a text-centric environment — and many simply will walk away, according to Shelle Goforth, who also is with Spokane County 911. She estimated projected staff losses due to NG-911 at 25%. To combat this, Goforth advised 911 centers to “slowly phase in” NG-911, so call-takers and dispatchers don’t get overwhelmed by the new technology.
Another problem is that the amount of information that a call-taker can gather from a text call often is quite limited compared with what they can draw out of the caller during a voice call. But, perhaps the biggest problem with 911 text calls is the loss of human connection that is intrinsic to a 911 voice call, said Jim Marshall, director of the 911 Training Institute.
“You miss the emotion that’s in their voice, and you can tell a lot about their stress levels by the tone of their voice,” Marshall said. “It’s not only their words, but also the emotion behind their words, that are telling.”
Also, the tone of the call-taker’s voice is an important tool in talking the victim through the situation, Marshall added.
“Tone is how one conveys empathy, which often will save a person’s life,” he said.
Regarding the limited information that can be gathered during a text call compared with a voice call, the ability to attach video and images to a 911 text significantly will counteract that deficiency, Marshall said.
“Pictures indeed are worth a thousand words, because people don’t always describe things well,” he said, adding that video and pictures also can be used to corroborate what a victim or witness has reported and provide additional detail.
The downside to video and images is that they will expose telecommunicators to horrors that they previously hadn’t seen first-hand. For instance, they will begin to see gruesome injuries from car accidents. Marshall believes that it only a matter of time before a call-taker actually witnesses a murder over live streaming video. That’s going to ratchet up the stress levels exponentially.
“We have to get ready for that,” he said. “We have to let people know about the black ice that’s out there.”
Goforth agreed: “You have to let them know that they’re going to see unpleasant things.”
Despite all of this, Marshall and Goforth both stressed that the upside of NG-911 far exceeds its downside, particularly because of its vide and photo capabilities.
“That will be crucial to processing a call,” Goforth said. “More information is beneficial to everyone.”