The Key to Success (“Sine Qua Non”) for NG911

I don’t speak Latin and you probably don’t either. But the term Sine qua non outstrips English in getting a critical point across. (Definition coming soon, but first a little historical context.) The industrial revolution in America exceeded our wildest dreams in creating technology, transportation, fuel sources, and products that improved the quality of life in our country. Yet it is also a matter of record that our industrial growth outpaced the rate of crucial reflection on health risks to which industrial workers were exposed.  (Think coal-mining before government regulation under Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft, and management of hazardous waste before NIOSH.)

Next Generation 911 represents the greatest leap forward for emergency communications in our history, promising to optimize emergency response, potentially saving more lives on scene. This new Internet Protocol based infrastructure will enable 911 reception of text messaging, real-time video, photographs, and other data yielding much richer information upon which to formulate and engage 911 emergency response. (Imagine the capacity for telecommunicators to see on scene via real-time video as they assist a mother in performing CPR on her child in respiratory distress.) Yet to assure successful adaptation to these technologies, the 911 Wellness Foundation (911WF) urges 911 stakeholders to systematically address three critical questions:

  • How will the telecommunicators’ experience interacting with callers and field responders via NG911 capabilities impact the nature and extent of their mental and emotional labor on the job?
  • What are the implications for their performance and health?  
  • How will we design the human-machine interface, prepare telecommunicators to operate within it, and provide the ongoing evaluation and psychological support they need to maintain optimal personal and professional functioning?

Addressing these questions is the Sine Qua Non of NG911–that is, something absolutely indispensable or essential for success (Merriam’s Dictionary). This point was underscoredas I taught telecommunicators today–all veteran 911 professionals (911Pros). As  they imagined handling calls via real-time video, their responses covered a spectrum I’ve heard consistently around the country . On one side of the room a dispatcher stated enthusiastically: “That won’t bother me. Bring it on. I will have more power to help my field responders”. And then a telecommunicator on my right spoke up: “I chose dispatch, not field response as a career because I don’t want to see it or be on scene.” Even as 911Pros can clearly see the benefits to the public and are united in their devotion to supporting their field responders, they also share a widespread anxiety about the potential for being impacted negatively at the console by multi-sensory exposure to tragic scenes via real-time video. Their concern is supported by science: Roberta Troxell’s 2008 study found that dispatchers are already the first on scene psychologically via Legacy 911 contact and that they experience stress impacts comparable to field responders.

During the Michigan NENA Conference in 2012, former NENA President and current 911 911WF board member Rick Galway led the way to a balanced discussion of these concerns by pointing to an inevitable scenario for which we must prepare: “Sooner or later it is going to happen. A dispatcher is going to take a call via real-time video from a suicidal caller–he’s gonna shoot himself and the dispatcher will see it. We need to be ready.” While technological preparation for the launch of real-time video and other NG911 technologies is advancing rapidly, we must catch up in preparing 911 professionals (911Pros) to assure their Psychological Readiness.

Fortunately, industry leaders are stepping forward to address these concerns. In August, 2013, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) established the Standard on Acute, Traumatic and Chronic Stress calling for all North American PSAPs to assure provision of “Comprehensive Stress Management Programs” for their employees. This standard can assure a basic level of support for our 911Pros in the current Legacy 911 environment if it is universally adapted. Yet in itself it is not adequate to accomodate the predictable increases in stress related to NG911. NENA has begun to explore anticipated increases in NG911 workload. The NENA “Task Overload” Workgroup is surveying their membership to learn “how much is too much” for a dispatcher to handle and how we can identify and manage those variables to prevent overload.

These NENA initiatives are two pillars of work upon which 911 stakeholders must build a much more comprehensive and well-orchestrated plan to secure the future of NG911.

911WF invites vendors, our leading 911 associations and organizations, local 911Pros, elected and appointed officials and citizens to join experts in research and health sciences now in a pragmatic and evidence-based exploration of the three key questions above leading to the establishment of a BluePrint for 911 Wellness in the NG911 PSAP

Please join 911WF in the pursuit of this BluePrint to assure that the NG911 infrastructure has at its core a Human-Machine Interface that is informed by the health sciences and can thereby truly protect the well-being of the dispatcher–the Very First Responder upon whom the entire emergency response system depends.

Thank you for taking time to read this posts. Your comments are encouraged, and to learn more about how you can partner with 911WF in this effort contact Jim Marshall by email, or call 231.881.1434.


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4 Responses to The Key to Success (“Sine Qua Non”) for NG911

  1. Carrie Perialas says:

    It could be a useful tool for many calls but my hope is that they will finally figure out that Dispatchers do in fact suffer from PTSD and other mental illness issues that often go untreated because the dispatchers are afraid to speak up, fearing that they will be weak and emotional. I am one that likes my end of the phone, I considered nursing, then realized that I was not good with all of the fluids and smells. Being able to talk to someone and get them calmed enough to answer questions is how I like it. I know there are other that say it wouldn’t bother them, I hope that is the truth, not that they are afraid to stand up and let their emotions show. Here’s hoping the committee that is working on this take some of these ideas into consideration. Thank you, Jim, for being an advocate for us. It helps knowing there are others that care about our mental health!

    • 911wellness says:

      Thanks so much for your post here! Your concerns are echoed by many veteran dispatchers who learn about NG911. I hear this as being honest and constructive versus “anti-NG911”– we simply must do the work of predicting and planning to manage the probable increases in psychological stress that will be involved in adapting to NG911. 911WF is working hard with other 911 stakeholders to consider and plan in accordance with viable concerns such as yours. NENA is taking leadership here too: their Working Group on Task Overload (in which I am involved) has created a survey to learn how 911Pros feel about upcoming NG911 demands with the goal of ensuring we don’t unwittingly overload the frontline telecommunicator.

      This Overload Working Group is officially tasked with “developing information for PSAPs regarding the number of tasks that can be completed in both a pre-NG9-1-1 and NG9-1-1 environment, a method of testing telecommunicators for multi tasking ability, mitigation techniques and recommended assistance for those affected.” Accordingly, we’ll be looking at the results of this survey and making recommendations to NENA based on input like yours. Look for NENA to send out a News Blast inviting participation in the survey very soon! And thanks again for helping by sharing your view.

  2. Gary Bell says:

    Advocating through NENA and establishing a standard is a great step forward to recognize that there are some minimum requirements needed to support those “rocking the console”. The i-generation, (as I have heard Jim call them DIGITAL NATIVES) will be the labor force that will be handed the torch. How has their “instant gratification” screen centric life style helped to mentally prepare/condition them to deal with this visual media better than those veteran “ANALOG” Communicators. How can anyone prepare for an active shooter capturing real time video taking lives at the school our child attends. CISM, EAP, and EMDR therapy will need to be made more available to staff as those simple carbs currently found in the vending machine.

  3. Lisa Woods says:

    It stresses me out just thinking about adding one more piece of technology to my already overloaded plate of technology that I need to learn to do my job. Not to mention all the new procedures, guidelines and memos video phones will add to my work load. But, I like my job, so I will learn what I have to. I became a dispatcher because I was interested in law enforcement, but wasn’t crazy about being shot at, spit on, or touching or SEEING the trauma. I am also concerned about the added liability (causing more stress) that monitoring an additional screen while multi-tasking will cause. What is going to happen to the call taker/dispatcher that misses seeing a weapon because he/she was distracted toning out an ambulance, or trying to get the call geo verified in CAD? Even in the case of EMD, it is not humanly possible to read instructions and look at a video screen at the same time. What if the dispatcher doesn’t notice in the video some key piece of information and the patient or caller dies… will the dispatcher be held responsible for that out come when the Monday morning quarterbacks get done with them? Two way video is completely out, as citizens do not need to see what the dispatcher looks like. Right now I can shop at my local store and not be harassed, but if callers got to see me, they might approach me in public and this would not be a good thing especially if it was a violent crime type of call. I could go on and on. The work load cell phones alone brought into our centers has been at times overwhelming. (major incident, multiple callers with cell phones)There is still no good answer on how to handle all those butt dials or kids playing with those cell phones- and finding locations because cell phones are not as accurate as land lines on locations.
    I am grateful for the 911 Wellness Foundation and Jim Marshall for all they are doing to help dispatchers cope with the new stressors involved with new technology. Thank you for all you have done, and continue to do.

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