PSAP Digital Trends: From Next Generation 911 to Social Media

More than three-quarters of American citizens have a smart phone. Their daily habits include sending texts and emails, creating videos and photos, chatting on various social networks, and more. They are using these same devices when communicating with 911 call takers, public safety responders, and various media outlets. As a result, all of that incoming digital data gets even more complicated when multiple agencies come together to serve their communities.

I recently spoke with Alex Richardson, a market analyst focused on critical communications at IHS Markit, about his findings on how digital communications are changing command and control rooms. Here’s what he had to share.

Next Generation 911 (NG911) is the result of widespread usage of digital technology. What new major technologies and trends do you see affecting PSAPs in the near future?
The critical capability in my opinion is geospatial routing. A huge issue with 911 today is not always being able to identify the exact location of a call. With wireline calls, this was less of an issue. Now with over 75 percent of emergency calls coming from cell phones, emergency call-takers have the challenge of trying to triangulate a call’s location from cell towers.

Migrating to NG911, an IP based system, will change the kinds of data PSAPs are able to receive from the public—videos, texts, and potentially even Facebook messages. However, call-takers will need specialized training to handle this. Newly designed interfaces for CAD systems will be needed and GIS capabilities will play a greater role than ever before. Many of the tertiary systems, such as records management software (RMS), will need to store the data.

IP-based platforms are a completely different topology, allowing for a multitude of possibilities. While there are clear benefits, many challenges remain, as one 911 director explained to me, “An IP-based problem is like dealing with a Mars rover. There aren’t many reference points and currently deployments are a challenge.”

Your research shows the greatest trend affecting PSAPs in North America is consolidation and regionalization (i.e. centralizing, connecting, or sharing CAD data). Why is this happening, and why now?
The main drivers to consolidation and regionalization are budget cuts and issues with funding in the public safety sector. Essentially, agencies have to address an increasing number of emergency calls and incidents with aging technology, and it has become challenging to upgrade these systems.

Regionalization for this reason makes sense. On top of the cost savings, there are other gained benefits such as increased visibility into operations and dispatching efficiencies. Consolidation is not always physical. Often control rooms or PSAPs are virtually consolidated where a single CAD platform is shared across agencies. Seamless integration and interoperability between control rooms is a key advantage, especially during a situation, like a riot or large-scale accident, where you have tremendously high call volumes and a system goes out. Automatic call rerouting is ideal in this scenario.

Overall, regionalization offers multiple benefits, even government incentives at times. But there are still some perceived threats such as ‘loss of control’ or job-loss. From the discussions I’ve had, massive layoffs are rarely an issue and often most PSAPs take this into account by transferring people or working around retirement. Normally it makes sense to regionalize, but of course, the costs and benefits must be weighed beforehand.

How has social media advanced policing and the protocols and standards for public safety?
Public safety uses social media typically in two ways, but the application of this technology really depends on a few things:  the agency’s role in emergency response, the incident type, information requirements and general objectives.

More commonly, social media is used as an intelligence-gathering tool, but the key to using social media in this way is to establish baseline rates for a certain content’s occurrence. Law enforcement can perform analysis on certain content after an event such as keywords, topics, or locations to get a sense of activity in a specific area. On the other hand, social media can also be used to engage the public for assistance or to send out alerts and updates on a case.

If you’d like to explore the acceleration towards PSAP regionalization, consolidation, and information sharing, register today for our March 21 webinar: Understanding How PSAP Interoperability is Advancing Command & Control.

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