Applications already are being developed for the public-safety sector, and while some—like Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department—are putting them to good use, others are urging agencies to use caution.

“Some of the apps are good, and some are not very good at all,” said Marty Bausano, deputy director of St. Clair County (Ill.) 911 Emergency Telephone System Board, who spoke on the topic at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference in June.

One of the big issues is that application developers often don’t have a very good grasp of how public-safety answering points (PSAPs) operate, or how they differ from each other, according to Sandy Beitel, 911 coordinator for the Ogle County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Office, who also spoke. Consequently, NENA and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) developed a joint working group that has published a document designed to better educate app developers, Beitel said.

“I run very small centers—I have two PSAPs with a total of six positions—whereas [cities like] Charlotte, Houston and Dallas have very large centers. While we all have the same concerns, some of our [operations] are very different,” she said. “Application developers, in the beginning, didn’t understand all of the disparities between the different centers.”

Worse, many didn’t understand even the basics of PSAP operations, according to Beitel.

“There’s a reference code that is carried with the 911 call to indicate POP or PSAP routing, and a lot of the developers didn’t understand that,” she said. “They didn’t realize that we had these predefined geographical [coverage] areas.”  

Bausano echoed Beitel’s comments, saying that app developers often don’t understand the limitations of many PSAPs.

“Most centers currently cannot accept text, pictures or videos,” she said. “Also, does the app require the PSAP to have Internet access to receive the information? That’s so important, because a lot of PSAPs are not even allowed to have Internet access—these may be dispatch centers that are [overseen] by a local government that simply will not allow an employee to have Internet access.

“A lot of app developers have no idea that there are those limitations at a PSAP today.”

It is imperative that any 911-oriented apps integrate with PSAP platforms and that they provide information in the manner that PSAPs need to receive it, Bausano said. Meanwhile, agencies need to be aware that some apps require the purchase of proprietary hardware and software, as well as usage fees, she said.

Bausano said there are other significant questions, including:

·         Will the applications significantly add to the workloads of telecommunicators, who—in many cases—already are overburdened?

·         Does the app developer have service-level agreements in place and, more importantly, the ability to troubleshoot when something goes awry?

·         Does the app initially route the call to a third-party call center?

In another related session during the NENA conference, Todd Piett, ENP, chief product officer for Rave Mobile Safety—a vendor of public-safety software—spoke to the first question above. He said that 911 telecommunicators soon will begin to look a lot like air-traffic controllers.

“If you think managing GIS data is a pain, wait until you have to worry about a thousand connections from a thousand different app vendors pushing things in,” Piett said.

Regarding the final question above, Bausano pointed to OnStar as the shining example of a third-party call center that does things right. Unfortunately, not every third-party call center is OnStar.

“All of you are aware of OnStar and what a great, robust system it is—and what a great job their call centers do,” she said. “Is the app developer going to use a third-party call center that is accredited? Will that call center provide pre-arrival [emergency medical dispatch], if your jurisdiction is one that currently provides pre-arrival EMD?

“If there are any other specifics that your county or state requires, will the third-party call center be able to meet those requirements? Or did the app developer contract with a third-party call center that has no knowledge of police, fire or EMS?”

Apps that interface with the public pose their own set of challenges, according to Beitel. For starters, television programs have given the public a false sense of what actually is feasible in terms of app capabilities. In addition, many apps notify family and friends when a user contacts 911.

“There are a lot of issues with that,” Beitel said. “What’s going to happen when mom gets a text that Johnny has called 911? Mom is going to rush to where Johnny is.  You’re going to have an influx of people [at the scene], or you’re going to have an influx of calls into your 911 center from people asking ‘What’s going on?’ and that’s going to increase your workload.”

What the public-safety sector needs is an applications clearinghouse, Beitel said.

“There are so many of these things coming out,” she said. “We learn about these apps from people who see them on some website and send us the information, because they know we’re on a committee, because there is no clearinghouse.”