The challenges of technology for PSAPs
“Homicides, suicides, domestic violence, car crashes. For most people, it’s the stuff of nightmares. For busy 9-1-1 emergency dispatchers, it’s all in a day’s work.” That’s how Northern Illinois University described the challenges facing our nation’s emergency call handlers, who labor day in and day out to keep U.S. residents healthy and safe in the face of catastrophe. But is someone making sure that dispatchers themselves are healthy and safe from the often-devastating stress of their profession?
Research from the university showed that 911 telecommunicators’ exposure to traumatic situations is associated with an elevated risk for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The results suggest that “911 telecommunicators are exposed to duty‐related trauma that may lead to the development of PTSD, and that direct, physical exposure to trauma may not be necessary to increase risk for PTSD in this population.”
Fortunately, new emergency-response technologies have much to offer in mitigating some of these traumatic effects. New solutions for public safety answering points (PSAPs) like video livestreaming, for example, will offer unprecedented situational awareness for responders, aiding in response time and effectiveness where callers are confused or struggling to communicate. They can also assist in resource allocation — sending the right team with the right equipment at the right time. But there’s a downside too: Call-takers using this technology will inevitably be exposed to disturbing images, potentially heightening an already-stressful work environment.
The cost of disruption
Countless industries are undergoing disruption via new innovations or technologies. Generally, this is a positive: think about the ease and affordability of hailing an Uber or renting an Airbnb.
But with the upside, there is usually a downside as well. Whenever an industry goes through an upgrade, it can expect a myriad of challenges. New technologies must be integrated into legacy systems, workers must accustom themselves to new operating procedures and organizations must enhance training programs to achieve smooth implementation.
Created in 1967, the 911 emergency response network is a prime example of a system in need of modernization. Most 911 call centers, for example, use outdated technology triangulating between cell towers to locate victims — but these are only accurate within a mile or so, leading to startling estimates that some 10,000 lives are lost a year in the U.S. alone because emergency workers cannot find the people who have dialed 911. And with PSAPs receiving more than 240 million calls annually, the need for a more advanced, organized and streamlined system has never been clearer.
Before the promise of next-gen 911 can be realized, however, officials must overcome resistance to change, ensure that new features such as live video streaming are integrated in a manner sensitive to dispatchers’ mental well-being and identify solutions that readily integrate with existing infrastructure. Though overcoming these hurdles will require investments of time, training and resources, the payoff for dispatchers and the public will be substantial: Responders’ efficiency and effectiveness will be significantly boosted, and PSAPs will be equipped to save more lives.
Training the next-gen workforce
Many PSAP veterans are understandably reluctant to embrace new technologies, and the introduction of advanced solutions will come with a steep learning curve for a substantial subset of dispatchers. Far from undermining the case for new tech, this simply underscores the importance of educating dispatchers about both the whys and the hows of next-gen technology.
Moreover, a new crop of tech-savvy employees is entering the PSAP workforce, and these workers will adapt much more easily to next-gen solutions. Given the industry’s recruitment challenges, implementing advanced technology will be essential in attracting new, digitally native talent.
Safeguarding mental health
As mentioned above, the introduction of new technologies like live video-streaming from emergencies does not come without challenges. Many dispatchers claim that if they wanted to see an incident unfolding, they would opt to work out in the field — and for many call takers, live feeds of crime scenes or medical emergencies may be more difficult to stomach than verbal descriptions of these events. At the same time, greater visibility means that call-takers will not be left to piece events together in their own minds, as many often do in high-pressure situations. Video feeds can help provide a more realistic view of an incident and its conclusion, enabling call-takers to move more easily to their next calls and review earlier video at a later time for peace of mind.
Also, the technology itself must be designed to minimize risk to call takers, such as including the ability to turn off the video should it become too overwhelming, letting the system record it instead.
The bottom line: For PSAPs to leap into the 21st century with new and innovative technologies, they also must make every effort to take care of call-takers and dispatchers in the process. For some, being able to see an ongoing incident will make it easier to process traumatic situations, while others will struggle with what they have seen and will need counseling and resources to help them move on. Regardless, PSAPs should consider adding access to professionals who are trained in monitoring and caring for public safety employees. Given the trauma already experienced by many call-takers and dispatchers, such sensible measures should be given high priority to help these women and men carry out their jobs healthily and effectively.
As more and more authorities are realizing, next-gen PSAPs are vital to the future of effective public safety. But next-gen solutions will only be truly viable if the industry identifies and prepares for core implementation challenges — from training employees, to caring for dispatchers and call-takers, to weaving new technology into existing systems. These obstacles are real, but short-lived. For the long-term success of the industry — which will ultimately translate into countless lives saved in emergency situations — time is of the essence.