September 08, 2021
Roxanne VanGundy

I remember the first time that I walked into my second dispatch center job. I had just moved across the country with my family to a different state. With 4 years in at my other center, I knew right away that everything looked different in my new center. I remember wondering why there were so many paper maps on the wall? In my old center, we hardly had any at all. We relied on our mapping solution with our phone system, as well as a separate map within our CAD that plotted the locations of our calls.  Why were there only a few computer screens?

As I scanned the room and found the book case, I saw map books, atlases and mileage books as far as the eyes could see. Maps upon maps, upon more maps.

It took me a while to figure out why there were so many there.

Location in the Past

They didn’t have any digital maps. None.

There wasn’t any GIS mapping of most of the state, so that meant no Phase 1 or Phase 2 location data. When someone called 911, the only way you would know where they are was if they told you. Luckily the phone rang differently if someone was calling from outside of the general area, but that was the only way you knew there was a different location coming your way.

Even more of a surprise? There were places that I was dispatching in that didn’t even have access to 911 service.  If someone was having a 911 emergency in these locations, they would have to call a toll-free number to reach emergency services. Imagine that for a second. Someone is actively breaking into your house and you have to remember the toll-free number to emergency services?

I was shocked. While I understood that most emergency call centers didn’t all have the same capabilities, I assumed that all centers had some level of technology – like digital maps and a basic number for citizens to reach someone in an emergency for help.

Not my new center and not in many center’s around this nation. Many of us take for granted the basic systems and tools we utilize daily to do our jobs. We forget that there are others out there who would kill to have what we have at our disposal.

My new center was one of them.

People assume, just as I did, that the technology you will find in one area will be the same technology in the next.  It slapped me in the face quite quickly that even driving to the next city could dramatically impact the response times, services offered, such as medical emergency protocols and the ability to locate you.

The Importance of Real-Time Location

The lack of caller location and mapping capabilities hit home after taking a 911 call of an officer down, after less than a year in my new center. The caller was a former officer from my jurisdiction. He had recently moved to an area in the southern part of the state, but I did not know that at the time.

The call came in and rang as an outside call so I knew this was somewhere outside the city, but could be anywhere in 300,000 some odd square miles. That’s a lot of unknown ground to cover.

As I answered, all I heard was screaming and almost deafening crying. I still remember the sounds of crying today.  I announced myself several times, in an attempt to ascertain what was happening there. The cell signal was not good. The call kept cutting out and I only heard fragments of words: dead, shot, gone, oh god.  I was able to make out a city name that I was not familiar with… all I had was a number and a handful of words to go on.

I raced to the pile of map books, trying to find the city name that was given, still trying to figure out what was going on at the location. “Hello, can someone please tell me what’s going on?”

Pages flying in maps, I desperately kept trying to locate the unknown city while listening to fragments of the incident unfolding in my ear.

I couldn’t help them immediately, or send them help because I still wasn’t sure where they were. Minutes ticked away, and the phone went dead.

As emergency telecommunicators, we’ve all felt that feeling before. The uncertainty that comes when you realize you may not be able to help your caller. Your palms get sweaty, your heart races, everything comes into laser focus as you try to think of ways to help. You start to feel sick.

I called the number back, nothing.

I called a second time. Still nothing.

It took several more minutes to find the name of the city that the caller mentioned, but I still didn’t know if that was truly where they were or exactly where they were within that city. I had no way to know.

Now, I realize that the “dispatch gods” had already decided the fate of this call before I ever said “911 what’s your emergency”. I do know that. But sitting there as the call was over, not having any way to help our responders secure the scene, or know exactly where this incident was located, is a trauma that I still carry today. I felt like it was my fault that our units were out there, alone. I felt that it was my fault that I couldn’t tell our responding units where or what was exactly happening. It was all my fault.

I truly believe not having the ability to properly do my job had a huge impact on me. Having to waste valuable minutes trying to locate these callers and to not have at least a starting point for my responding units was a feeling of helplessness that I can’t begin to describe.

What’s Stopping 9-1-1 Centers from Upgrading?

We talk often of wellness initiatives within the 911 community, but when do we talk about giving dispatchers across the country the tools they need to do their jobs?  Perhaps having those tools would have made all the difference in my perspective and outlook of so many calls that I had to take in that center.

What’s holding up 911 technology upgrades?  Why are we not leveraging all of the technology that we can within our centers?  In my opinion, the primary reason this isn’t happening is fear. Fear of the learning curve. Fear of the costs. Fear of the unknown.

It all comes down to simple fear.

So, let’s break each of those down for a second.

The fear of a steep learning curve has a lot of layers that I really relate to. Point blank, learning new things isn’t easy for everyone, myself included. One of the larger problems that we have in 911 is that administrators often dump new technology on their people without adequate support, then get upset when people don’t have a broad enough understanding of the new shiny toy.

As Directors, Managers, and Supervisors we have to stop doing that. You can’t just say, “Learn this by Friday,” and expect that everyone is going to understand how their new technology is going to benefit them, if they even understand the inner workings of it at all.

Changing a part of our job muscle memory is quite difficult, even for the most seasoned learners. When we bring on new technology, we also need to have a creative, comprehensive approach to how we are going to initially train our people on it and how we will continue to keep training them on it to stay sharp. Having a training plan at your initial roll out will help your people feel more secure about asking questions, and that we are all going to learn together. It reduces stress, and in my opinion, increases buy in on the new product.

Technology Training is Key

Another piece to this fear is the age gap. As an older learner, sometimes it’s difficult for me to connect the dots on new things. I wouldn’t say I’m especially technical either, so learning the intricacies of new programs can be challenging, too.

As an industry, we have individuals in 911 that are from 18 to 65 with vastly different learning styles to consider. This increases the complexity and necessity for detailed training plans. How will you reach each of your learners effectively? I recommend engaging with your product company and asking them for assistance. Most technology companies have a pool of trainers or customer success managers they can pull from to assist you. They want to set you up for success.

Additionally, with your training plan, we have to consider that people have massive fatigue from all of the change learning that has been thrust upon us in the last decade. New tech, new policies and rapidly changing expectations have caused even the youngest, most willing learners undue stress.

As emergency telecommunicators, we have to know a lot about a wide variety of things and after a while, that gets tiring.  That’s why I believe along with a robust training plan, as an administrator, you also have to have a bit of a marketing plan that you can roll out to help the team understand the “why” for this new technology. How is it going to benefit them? How are we all going to learn this together? Encourage questions and give them avenues to find information about the product on their own. It seems silly, but internally marketing the new technology can help bring your center together as training starts.

Remember, we don’t have time to wait to get on board with new technology. Citizens believe that we have all of the latest and greatest technology already. If we can order a pizza or an Uber and can watch our driver on a map on our phone, logic tells the public that 911 should be able to do the same thing.

So tired or not, we have to develop those ideas to get our folks interested in learning.

Will you have naysayers and those Negative Nancy’s? Sure, of course you will. A part of your internal marketing plan for any new technology or policy roll out in your center must include a way to combat that. But let’s face it, 911 has always been and always will be an evolving industry. We have to evolve with it.

Moving Forward

When times are as difficult as they’ve been over the last year and half with COVID, retention and hiring issues, why add one more brick like technology to the load? As the great Tyrell Morris from Orleans Parish always says, and I quote him loosely, “Mediocrity can’t live in our centers anymore”.

We can’t have excuses anymore why our dispatchers don’t have adequate mapping, or can’t take Text to 911. We have to show up for everyone involved. As 911, we have to give all we can to incidents and the cornerstone of that is technology. Our responders and our citizens are betting their lives on us.

What about the fear of the cost? As an administrator, this is something I have to weigh heavily, cost versus gain. I have to make a tiny budget go very far. I know I’m not the only one. But I ask those 911 center administrator’s, city commissions, county commissions and state legislators – “How badly do you want to be in the news?”

For me, I only want to be in the news for the good things. The lost hiker we found, a baby we helped to deliver successfully. It takes one incident to be known as “that center”.  If we save, help, aid even one person in our jurisdiction because we made the technology investment to serve them, why wouldn’t we want to do that?  One life is worth any amount of money spent.

Also, let’s go back to the wellness component of our dispatchers. Why wouldn’t you want to give your employees all the tools possible to keep your first responders and citizens safe? Why wouldn’t you want to protect not only your jurisdictions liability, but the welfare of your employees and constituents?  To me, that feels like a no-brainer.

There are many opportunities for alternative funding. Is this technology something covered under your state 911 funds? Are there grants out there that can secure you the tools that your center needs? Even partial grants can help to fund large scale purchases. Can you team up with other agencies to help mitigate cost? There are so many options if you think creatively and do a bit of research.

The Fear of the Unknown

Finally, the biggest fear we need to discuss is the fear of the unknown. 911 dispatch culture is rooted in the fear of the unknown. That’s how we do business – worst case scenario at all times. We try to eliminate all the issues that could arise from the unknown and if we can’t then we just don’t do it.

When something new comes out that changes the way we are going to have to do things, it’s hard to be open-minded. I totally get that. It’s something that I fight all of the time. I am someone who faces everything as a skeptic.

With new technology it can be hard to see the benefits at first.

Take Video to 911 for example. This is something that will be coming to us soon in our state. People are already starting to talk about all of the negatives. In all honesty, I was one of the people saying that our state wasn’t ready for this when it came on our radar.

I didn’t like the fact that my center could be faced with seeing something they were not prepared for. That seems to be the common concern.

But my outlook was changed when I was challenged by someone to look at it differently.

How often do we take a call that sounds REALLY bad? Maybe the call has lots of screaming and the caller is telling us quite a story? You hang up thinking all of the worst things, your mind starts racing. You are picturing your units rolling into the worst scene ever.

Guys, our minds play tricks. They exaggerate things to the worst degree. That caller’s big story could have been a tall tale and we let our minds go to the very worst scenario.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have a bird’s eye view into those situations that you aren’t exactly sure of? Wouldn’t it be nice to have an idea of what your units are walking into?

With video to 911, you would be in control of establishing that connection. If you felt prepared to see what the caller showed you, wouldn’t that be a tremendous tool to provide closure to an incident?  Now you could see what was truly going on somewhere without having your mind paint the picture for you.

When I thought of it that way, it changed my view dramatically.

The fear of the unknown is always going to be there, in any situation that we are in personally or professionally. The technology that’s out there in 911 puts a lot of the control in the dispatcher’s hands. Being proficient in those applications through proper training and management support, will help us overcome any obstacle we face.

We have to stop thinking in 911, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Let’s start thinking about what’s the BEST that could happen if we had more technology?

We’re All in this Together

And before you say, “Roxy, this technology is going to push traditional dispatching out the window!” Nobody is asking for us to stop having outside of the box thinkers behind the mic. We will always need a traditional dispatcher that knows that that unmarked trail is 2 miles south of the Edwardson Farm and that an old tire that marks the entrance. All day long we need dispatchers that still have that local knowledge and those personal touches. But wouldn’t we want to also have the tools to enhance those super hero level skills?  I think so. Technology is never going to take away from someone who understands the area like you do, someone who knows their people and their local geography. New technology is just going to help these superheroes scale their impact in the community.

And make no mistake all of these fears are valid, Team Gold. I absolutely understand and empathize with each of them. But as a 911 center in this country we have to keep pushing forward. If you are a center that lacks technology, I’d encourage you to sit down and figure out how you can start gaining it. Think about these fears and if some of them are yours? How do you overcome them? How do you keep pushing forward if you get a “no”?

Get a plan together for your center. Where do you want to be in a year? Start goal setting and doing the research now. You don’t have to be an administrator to do it. Front line, you can put in this work as well. What would help you? How can we pay to get it? As an administrator, I would LOVE to have one of my people bring me a proposal for change like that.

And if you are a center that has all of the latest technology, you aren’t off the hook either. We can’t stop speaking up for those who don’t have the tools to do their jobs. As technology leaders, we also need to be technology supporters. We need to advocate for others whose voices aren’t as loud as ours. When one 911 center fails, we all fail. No citizen is going to remember that whatever named center was negligent. They are going to remember that 911 is negligent. We have to come together to help those who don’t have the same budgets, support or opportunities.

Because as I often say, 911 is only going to succeed in the future if we do it together.



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