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Tweet 911! Tweet 911!

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I just finished reading an excellent post by esteemed colleague Glen Gilmore, a well respected public servant and social media visionary.  I always enjoy reading his stuff. The post, titled “Twitter 911-A Proposal” offered up the concept of mobilizing 911 centers to distribute important life safety information during crisis using social media platforms. Glen suggests establishing Twitter accounts based on jurisdictional location and 911  (“anytown911”), and  having dispatchers equipped and trained to receive messages via social media platforms, and also be able to disseminate information via the same channels during crisis.  Kudos to G2 for the idea of institutionalizing social media as a life saving communications tool, and throwing down the gauntlet on integrating SM into 911 operations.  He appropriately notes the need to consider the legal ramifications of condoning this type of communication medium for relaying “normal” critical public safety response requests.  While I am not one who usually throws cold water on ideas, I think it is important to point out big hurdles in making this idea reality anytime soon.

First, the basis for my perspective; I oversee the operation of a county-wide fire/EMS dispatch service.   The dispatchers who sit in these digital cockpits are the unsung heroes of emergency services, offering  lifelines to those in the midst of their worst day. They deliberately collect information, offer calm instruction and constantly monitor the safety of deployed responders.  In other words, they are busier than hell, and sometimes go through hell to get folks the help they need.

The communications technology explosion is slowly making its way into emergency dispatch services.  New federal and state mandates, termed “NextGen 911” requires installation of equipment that will allow the public to communicate with 911 centers via VOIP, video, text messaging, GPS location, etc…  Glen’s vision is already starting to become reality in many communities, including mine.  However, there are many challenges (besides no money) that need to be overcome in making this vision reality nationally.  Urgent Communications Magazine wrote an excellent piece last year about NextGen implementation.  Most of the issues noted remain. In my own little piece of the world we are struggling with the following issues:

Show me the people!

Hate to beat a dead horse, but a dispatcher can only monitor so many communication channels before it affects public and officer safety.  Adding new communication pathways that must be constantly monitored and attended decreases the capacity for dispatchers in handling concurrent/simultaneous communication transmissions.  It’s going to take more people to make it work.

Which platform to watch?

Everyone has their preferred method of social/digital media communications.  What is the current “best thing”?  What is the “next best thing”? What will it be a year from now?  Do we monitor Facebook? Twitter? Digg? MySpace? Google Talk? What about Skype?

How many computer screens are too many?

In our center, each dispatcher continuously monitors three screens, with one being the “main screen” used to work the console.  The others are status and map displays.  They also have another one dedicated solely for internet reference use.  While these folks are the masters of multi-tasking, they already feel challenged in monitoring so many data sources.

Integrating call “triage”

Our center uses a computer based fire/EMS triage system that prompts dispatchers to ask a series of questions and dispatches the appropriate level of emergency service based on the responses. How do we integrate this triage system for use in SM channels?

911 tsunami

Routine and highly visible emergency events – fires, car crashes, street fights – typically generate dozens of 911 calls.  Now, make it a really big mess and the dispatch centers quickly become overwhelmed, and we’re only talkin’ phone calls.  Add tweets, DM’s, RT’s and video feeds and things inside the center might get juz a wee bit tense……

No protocol or standard for use

We don’t have protocols or standards for how we will integrate this information, an example of technology being way ahead of adoption of national standards related to operational implementation.

Legal/Privacy/Security

Aaah hell, go ahead and sue me…everyone knows about these anyway. Hack me while you are at it.

OK, now that I got that off my chest I still think Glen is (mostly) right about integrating Twitter into 911 communications.  But, he needs to think bigger (which I suspect he was doing all along) . What Glen proposes is achievable if;

  • We account for the additional workload and “human bandwidth” required.
  • Establish universal text messaging IP standards and related procedures and public education
  • We don’t create solutions around a specific service. Focus on overall capability.
  • Integrate social media/IP communications pathways into future computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems
  • 16 year old teenagers staff our digital call receiver positions (OMG! ROFL!)

Thanks Glen for the stimulating post.  It is certainly not the end of the conversation (ROFL!)

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About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.