Help wanted: 911 sector needs more early adopters
A small band of early adopters is working to lead the public safety sector into the future—but more are needed to accelerate the pace of innovation
Nearly six decades ago, Everett M. Rogers, an assistant professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University, published a book in which he espoused his theory regarding how innovation adoption plays out in any given social group. Rogers divided the social group into five distinct categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.
In the public-safety sector, most agencies fall into one of the latter three categories. It takes them a very long time to embrace innovation. Typically, this is because they are conservative in their thinking, lack financial resources, are suspicious of innovation and/or simply do not like change. In any given social group, according to Rogers, 84% of members will fall within one of these categories.
Being counted amongst the innovators would be nice—who wouldn’t want to be on the leading edge? But that is an unrealistic goal for most public-safety agencies. Indeed, only 2.5% of any given social group can be described as innovators, according to Rogers. Innovators usually have far greater resources than their peers, and thus can afford to be wrong occasionally. So, they tend to embrace new technologies and approaches much faster—often as soon as it becomes available.
Now let’s consider the early-adopter category. Public-safety agencies that fall into it are just as visionary as the innovators but are more cautious. The biggest difference between innovators and early adopters is that the latter tends to do a lot more homework.
“The next shiny object needs to support and, more importantly, improve the mission,” says Dave Sehnert, director of innovation and integration for Mission Critical Partners, a public-safety communications consulting firm. “If it doesn’t, then it should be pushed to the back burner.”
Given their penchant for due diligence, when early adopters embrace a new technology, operational approach or policy direction, everyone else takes notice. The early adopters then are any sector’s leaders, and that includes public safety.
Public safety needs more early adopters, and the sooner they step forward, the better. Advanced technology, new approaches and innovative thinking all lead to enhanced emergency-response outcomes and safer emergency responders—and enhanced outcomes equate to more lives and property saved.
But while becoming an early adopter is a noble pursuit, it isn’t always easy.
To be an early adopter, one needs an equal measure of passion, resolve, intuition, vision, drive and grit to overcome the myriad challenges that surely will emerge. The first, most elemental, challenge involves time—or, more accurately, the lack of it. Public-safety agencies are busy places, and their personnel are busy people. That makes it difficult to conduct the type of research necessary to decide which innovations to pursue. Given the staffing shortages that afflict many public-safety agencies across the country, this is a challenge not easily resolved.
However, numerous other challenges were discussed last fall at the second annual Early Adopter Summit—hosted by the North Central Texas Emergency Communications District (NCT9-1-1)—that do have potential solutions.
Here’s one example: whenever the public-safety sector is assessed, conversation invariably centers on the legacy networks, systems and equipment that many believe are holding the sector back. There is truth in this statement, especially as it concerns the 911 sector, where many public-safety answering points (PSAPs) still are use call-handling equipment that was installed decades ago. Such solutions were designed for a wireline world and then later retrofitted to accommodate wireless and voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications.
However, it can be argued that legacy thinking is even more problematic. Public-safety officials traditionally have been slow to evolve in how they think. It is essential now, more than ever, that they embrace the possibilities. This is done to great effect in the commercial sector virtually every day. Consider for a moment the ride-sharing and, later, delivery service known as Uber. A decade ago, it didn’t exist. Taxis had been around forever and got the job done. The legacy thinkers of the day couldn’t contemplate that there might be a different, perhaps better, way of going about things.
But then someone did—a computer programmer named Garrett Camp. Soon after, the early adopters jumped on board, and the result was Uber, which drove a transformative change in the way people moved. precisely because it did the same thing taxi companies do, but profoundly different. Today, it is estimated that Uber has 110 million users worldwide and that the service handles one-quarter of food deliveries in the United States. The public-safety sector needs more people to similarly step into the light to bring transformative change to emergency response.
But that leads to another challenge—overcoming fear. Specifically, fear of the unknown and fear of failure, which are different but equally paralyzing. Jim Lake, director of Charleston County (S.C.) Consolidated 911 Center, touched upon this during the early-adopter summit in which he and other notable public-safety officials participated.
Lake’s center had conducted a pilot project to study whether crowd-sourced data could be leveraged to improve situational awareness for emergency responders. This represented uncharted waters, and who knew what was swimming around in those waters? Yet, Lake was undeterred, deciding to follow his instincts rather than succumbing to any fears.
“Until we start taking the first steps, we’re not going to know what we need to implement,” he says.
And that’s how an early adopter thinks.
Politics also can vex early adopters. Politicians often don’t understand technology, so it can take a lot of time and effort to get them to convince them it is needed—an essential step, because they typically hold the purse strings. Sometimes, citizens also have to be convinced. Unmanned aerial vehicles—a.k.a., drones—are an example. Without question, drones have great utility for public-safety applications. Here’s how they can be used:
- Search and rescue
- Enhancing situational awareness
- Structure-fire assessment
- Monitoring for hotspots during fire incidents
- Monitoring hazmat incidents
- Monitoring hostage situations
- Investigation of fires or car crashes
- Crowd monitoring at public events
- Subdivision addressing and aerial photography to support 911 service
- Bomb investigations
- Pursuit of criminals
- Crime-scene analysis
Clearly, drones are a great tool for providing emergency responders with information that will help them perform their jobs more effectively and keep them safer. But they also make citizens nervous, because a perception exists that they also can be used to invade one’s privacy. Fueling this is that most state legislatures have not considered drone use by public safety. Texas, for example, has prohibitive laws concerning drone use due to privacy concerns. While there are 21 exceptions to those laws, public-safety drone use isn’t among them.
This omission is constraining NCT9-1-1’s use of drones to more accurately address subdivisions, which in turn results in better PSAP mapping, as well as faster and more accurate emergency-response dispatch. This is vitally important in life-and-death situations, when every second matters. Compounding the frustration is that the Texas legislature convenes biennially from January through May. So, it will be another two years before this situation can be revisited.
“You can get a 911 call today, push a button, and have a drone over that house in a minute, so that the responding police officers and firefighters can have eyes [on the situation],” says Maher Maso, the former mayor of Frisco, Texas, and the summit’s keynote speaker. “That technology exists—but politically, we can’t implement it. Will it make our communities safer? Absolutely. … But the laws haven’t caught up yet.”
Some of the most exciting technological advancements in public safety involve regional systems that enhance interoperability, data sharing, redundancy and resiliency. For example, implementation of a regional emergency service Internet Protocol network, or ESInet, would enable all connected 911 centers to transfer their operations quickly and seamlessly to an adjoining center in a “bug out” scenario. But implementing regional solutions often is difficult, because of the disparate governance structures of the participating jurisdictions—what works in one jurisdiction might not work in the jurisdiction next door.
Persistence is the key to overcoming all of these challenges, according to Steve McMurrer, 911 systems administrator for Fairfax County, Virginia.
“You have to endlessly communicate,” McMurrer says. “You have to say the same thing in different ways to different people—and sometimes even to the same people.”
Dana Wahlberg, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Emergency Communications Networks division, agrees.
“We need to be louder—too often, we roll up our sleeves and make the best of what we have to work with,” Wahlberg says.
Funding is an equally large challenge that is tied to politics. The truth is that the technology needed to enhance emergency response is expensive. According to Maso, “Public safety isn’t as big a deal when it comes to [public officials] writing the check.”
To combat this, Maso suggests that public safety officials speak to politicians through the citizens they serve.
“Conduct facility tours, hold birthday parties at fire stations—whatever it takes,” Maso says. “You have to reach out to the citizens—they won’t reach out to you. It’s good to tell citizens that they are safe, but it’s better to explain to them why they are safe.”
And then there is the law of unintended consequences. Sometimes technology implemented to resolve one challenge creates others. The use of video in a 911 center immediately comes to mind. There is little question that video will enhance situational awareness, but unless it can be triaged and analyzed effectively, it quickly will lose its utility.
Also, 911 telecommunicators almost certainly will encounter gruesome images—perhaps from a serious car wreck— that they don’t encounter today, images that might overwhelm them. This is not to say that video should be avoided. These challenges can be overcome by revising hiring and training practices and perhaps by leveraging artificial intelligence systems that can determine whether videos or images are too graphic, and—if so—provide the telecommunicator with a text description of the content.
Michelle Potts, manager of the Chandler (Arizona) Police Department’s communications section, offers another example of of unintended consequences, when a decision was made to consolidate seven smaller dispatch monitors into a single 43-inch monitor.
“The thought was that this would save us some real estate for things we wanted to add in the future and give the telecommunicators greater flexibility and customization, which always is a good thing,” Potts says. “We thought that this was a genius move, but of all the fun things we’ve done, this turned out to be the most contentious.”
That’s because unexpected issues cropped up, such as how the 911 center’s lighting affected screen visibility and how the larger monitor tilted, that caused consternation amongst the telecommunicators.
“It took us 18 months to get everything up and going to a point where we’re actually good,” Potts says.
In summary, early adopters face many challenges, but nearly all of them can be overcome with time, effort and intelligent thinking. Early adopters bring innovation to public safety that is sorely needed to enhance the life-safety mission. More are needed—are you willing to join their ranks? If you’re already innovating and interested in sharing you story at the next Early Adopter Summit, please reach out.
Christy Williams is NCT9-1-1’s director and a past president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Christy can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.