NG911: Preparing public safety dispatchers for the future

Now is the time to prepare elements such as peer support and employee assistance programs for the specific impact NG911 may have on dispatchers

By Jenna Swafford
Police1 Special Contributor

Public safety dispatching is in a constant state of evolution in the face of advancing technologies. Where 911 calls were once entered via cards on conveyer belts and voice dispatched on large blinking consoles, now in their place are Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) consoles, mouse-driven screens, and wireless headsets.

The Next Generation of 911 (NG911) is a term that encompasses the coming technology as it relates to the electronic systems and technologies that are utilized as part of public safety dispatching.

NG911 has often been described as a black cloud of ambiguity hanging over public safety because no one knows what exact NG911 technologies the future will hold. As a result, there is currently little training for dispatchers specifically on the potential impact of NG911.

NG911: Closer than You Think
Having been a dispatcher for 15 years, the technologies of NG911 seemed to me to be too futuristic to be reality. But the reality is, text message pilot programs are being implemented throughout the country with Blackhawk County, Iowa, being the first in the country in 2009 to pilot texts.

But more than the text messages, video call pilot programs such as Sweden’s “Reach112” program (Swedish 911) are being conducted for the hearing impaired community.

The National Emergency Numbers Association (NENA) conducted an Industry Collaborative Event (ICE) in October of 2012 in Chicago, piloting a similar video call for the hearing impaired.

In California, the Redwood City Police Department conducted a three-month pilot on their website in which citizens could communicate live with a police officer in real time.

On the NG911 horizon is the potential for public safety dispatchers to receive text messages, photos and videos, or even carry on video conversations with potential victims, suspects, or witnesses to crimes.

As social media invades all aspects of law enforcement, communications centers need to be ready for the impact. NG911 is not the future, it’s here now, but the training for the vital first point of contact the community has with public safety, dispatchers, is nearly non-existent.

Those who have not worked in public safety might equate the NG911 technology change to a Microsoft Word or Windows update, uncomfortable and an inconvenience. But for those in public safety, this change is much like a Computer Aided Dispatch change or the integration of Mobile Data Computers into patrol vehicles.

Training is the Key
There is a dire need to ensure dispatchers are not only adequately trained on the new technologies they will be utilizing, but also trained on how the transition may impact them personally. The process of change itself may have a huge personal impact as well as changing the fundamental job description of a dispatcher.

Imagine a dispatcher face to face with a caller during a critical incident. There are so many aspects one might consider on how to train dispatchers in the updated skills necessary to communicate in this fashion.

For instance, there are communication skills necessary to not escalate a face to face hostage situation and consider how those skills might differ from a dispatcher’s current training in diffusing calls. Those are the same skills currently being taught to police officers in how to deal with face to face interactions with the community.

Today, police officers are also educated in body language and facial expressions. A dispatcher on a video call would need training on recognizing elements of body language in callers as well as their own body language/facial expressions, which they commonly use as a means of self-preservation and disassociation in traditional 911 calls.

Emotional intelligence training for dispatchers would help them learn about themselves, their biases and triggers, and how those impact their interactions with citizens, co-workers, and the officers in the field.

There is research that indicates dispatchers may suffer from similar physiological responses as first responders at the scene, but dispatchers do not get the closure of being involved in the resolution.

The argument can be made that live images of crime are prevalent in mainstream media. However, dispatchers are drawn to this job for the anonymity and being insulated from the visual images of crime.

Additionally, as dispatchers we connect with our callers on some level, regardless of our ability to disassociate ourselves. The visual images may strengthen that connection and increase the impact to the dispatcher.

The ability for a dispatcher to open images that may contain the suspect information on a crime is imperative, but what is the personal impact of viewing those images?

Now is the time to prepare elements such as peer support and employee assistance programs for the specific impact NG911 may have on dispatchers.

In this profession we are often “disaster driven” and training is often done in the aftermath of a critical incident or even a fatal error. We should focus on training as pre-planning to mitigate the impact of changes like NG911.

Failing to prepare for NG911 could have potentially disastrous results for the professional of public safety dispatching in terms of stress leave, medical and stress retirement, or the most devastating result of all, suicide. NG911 is here today, training should have started yesterday.

About the Author
Jena Swafford has been a Public Safety Dispatch Supervisor with the Sacramento Police Department for the past fifteen years. While working as a dispatcher, Jena obtained a Bachelors degree in Criminal Justice, a Masters degree in Emergency Administration, an Emergency Numbers Professional Certification (ENP), and recently graduated from the Post Master Instructor Certification Course (MICC) concentrating in NG911.

Jena Swafford offers a course called Next Generation 9-1-1; The Evolution of a Communication Center, which officers training on NG911 that will focus on these aspects — new technology, updated skills, and the emotional impact to dispatchers.

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