Public-safety answering points (PSAPs) should have an expanded role as first-responder communications migrate to FirstNet and next-generation 911 (NG911), but officials and policymakers need to begin planning soon to address this “coming challenge,” FirstNet Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson said recently.

“I feel a dramatic change coming in the next decade in what PSAPs are and what they do,” Johnson said during a meeting of FirstNet’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) last month.

Driving this change will be the expected explosion of multimedia data that will be available to public safety from myriad sensor and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that can be transmitted over the IP-based networks that will be the foundation of FirstNet and NG911, Johnson said. These broadband networks are a stark contrast to the voice-centric systems that public safety has used for decades, he said.

“If I were to oversimplify it, [the PSAP] is the broker between the problem and the solution today—you call with a problem, they know what the solutions are, and they connect the two and keep up communication there,” Johnson said.

However, with FirstNet and NG911, PSAPs will have the opportunity to receive much more data about an incident much sooner than ever, whether the information comes from social media, a photo/video submitted by a 911 caller or a sensor delivering telemetry information about a potential fire or vehicle crash. Such data could enable lightning-quick responses, but someone at the new levels of decision-making will have to occur at the PSAP, Johnson said.

“The fact is that the dispatch center in a next-gen 911 environment is going to be the first part of the investigation,” Johnson said, noting that someone in the PSAP will need to decide whether a suspect’s photo—particularly one submitted via a 911 call with no other collaborating evidence—should be distributed to local public-safety officials.

“The reality is that when you start getting it down to this level, you start to see that the PSAP shifts from a broker role to Stage 1 of thinking through the crime itself and how you share information,” Johnson said.