Urgent Matters

911 telecommunicators must believe in themselves

by Glenn Bischoff
Sep 07, 2012

Next-generation 911 will be challenging, but PSAP call-takers and dispatchers are up to the task.

In this issue, Intrado's Stephen Meer writes in a guest column (see "Next-generation 911 migration can take many forms") that there is no reason why public-safety answering points should feel pressure to migrate to next-generation 911 technologies. He is not alone in his thinking.

The strength of NG-911 — its ability to enable 911 centers to receive multimedia that will provide dispatchers with greater situational awareness — is also its biggest problem, because telecommunicators already have a lot to do, according to Jim Kuthy, a psychologist who is the principal consultant for CritiCall, a Folsom, Calif.-based company that offers pre-employment testing services for 911 dispatchers and call-takers.

Indeed, in many instances, telecommunicators are being overwhelmed, largely due to hiring freezes and cutbacks that have thinned their ranks, according to Kuthy, who spoke on the topic last month during the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials conference.

"If we keep adding things for dispatchers to do without thinking about the human elements that are involved, it's essentially going to crash and burn," Kuthy said.

When more things are added to a person's plate, the response typically is to prioritize. That leads eventually to cognitive overload and burnout because, as it turns out, humans weren't built to multitask, according to Kuthy.

"Human beings were not designed to do more than one task at a time," he said. "We tell ourselves we are, but we aren't."

Indeed, the common perception is that those who multitask are more productive. But according to Kuthy, research has indicated that people who try to do more than one thing at a time actually are less productive. To illustrate the point, Kuthy told of a research study in which participants took part in a driving simulation while their brain waves were monitored using MRI technology. When they were asked to talk on their cell phones while driving, their brain waves that are associated with the ability to pay attention were cut in half, he said.

Kuthy simply wants PSAPs to do the necessary research to ensure that migrating to NG-911 is the right decision.

"I'm not saying don't do this. I'm saying do the research first. What can we do to make sure it works properly before we implement it? Don't implement it first and then do the research. It's too late — people are going to die."

As dire as that sounds, I think Kuthy is correct. But I also think that 911 telecommunicators are capable of much more than they realize. It is human nature to question one's abilities when faced with new responsibilities — just ask any new parent. I am confident that the call-takers and dispatchers in our nation's PSAPs are up to the task regarding NG-911. In time, they will come to believe it, too.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

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