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How to Better Manage Tech Advances in Public Safety (Contributed)

New technology has brought tremendous benefits to the emergency response community, but it has also brought significant change as well. Finding a better way to process that change will be the key to success going forward.

In our personal lives, most of us don’t like change. We get into routines like waking up at the same time each morning or putting our right shoe on before our left. But in our professional lives, we need to adjust daily to keep up with changing demands and evolving technologies. Nowhere is change more critical than in the area of public safety, especially for 911 emergency response centers.

It’s been more than 50 years since the first 911 emergency call was made in the United States. Since that time, 911 has contributed to dramatic improvements in public safety, but the role of 911 has remained largely unchanged. Now, the rapid evolution of technology — particularly in communications and safety-related applications — is disrupting their operation. 

Traditionally, emergency response centers, or public safety answering points (PSAPs), have been slow to keep up with technological improvements and changes in public expectations. For example, most response center systems don't support smartphone technology, aren't able to track mobile location, and can’t receive photos or videos from the field. Texting functions are all too frequently non-existent.

Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems are often not integrated with emergency response communications, so dispatchers can’t speak with first responders through the same system. Most current systems don’t allow dispatchers to harness mainstream technological advances to be smarter in the way they respond to incidents and situations. And very few systems are integrated with nearby agencies, making it incredibly difficult to deal with large-scale emergencies or natural disasters. 

Since public safety threats are always evolving, emergency response organizations need to adapt and change to stay ahead. As an industry, public safety is on the threshold of its most transformative era. There are new CAD systems that leverage IoT, enhanced mobile location, AI, and cloud technologies to help emergency response organizations align with the new realities of our increasingly connected world. However, even with the most advanced technologies available, they won’t be effective without knowledgeable teams to leverage their capabilities.

Change Management is a Difficult Task

While technology offers tremendous benefits and improved emergency response, the professionals on the front lines need leadership and support to drive meaningful change. A recent Forbes Insights and PMI survey reported that “of more than 500 executives, 85 percent of respondents say change management is critical to their success in these times of disruption. No longer can workers simply react to change in a highly competitive marketplace. Rather, they must prepare for seismic shifts in the way they lead teams, manage projects, and address ambiguities.”

It's not an easy task. Those who lead emergency response organizations need to be engaged and passionately committed to moving the industry forward. Leaders need to envision the entire digital transformation process to drive their organization forward. They need to be engaged with their organization, vendors, stakeholders, and community, ready to illustrate specific examples, real savings, and the positive impact that technological- and people-based change can deliver.

Equally as important, leaders need to drive and manage the soft changes required to guide their organizations forward to address the ever-increasing complexity and frequency of calls for service, while at the same time addressing issues such as staffing, training, and funding.

Harvard professor and business and management thought leader John P. Kotter developed an award-winning eight-step process for leading change. It includes: create a sense of urgency; build a guiding coalition; form a strategic vision and initiatives; enlist a volunteer army; enable action by removing barriers; generate short-term wins; sustain acceleration; and institute change. 

While many organizations leverage Kotter’s approach, perhaps the biggest challenge for leaders is implementing the process on a consistent, continual basis. The world has changed since the process originated, and although still quite relevant today, change has become a constant need.

Steps to Overcoming Organizational Roadblocks

In embracing Kotter’s eight steps, it’s essential to build a coalition to drive change, including those who are on the front lines. The role of the professional dispatcher is critical to saving lives, and their talents shouldn’t be underestimated when working to improve results. Leaders need to work with their dispatch teams to keep them up to date on the latest technologies and techniques. For example, some dispatchers may view artificial intelligence (AI) as a threat to their role. However, AI benefits dispatchers through real-time assistance to help them be more effective in their role.

As emergency communications centers evolve to become the smart city nerve center —- upon which all other departments rely for situational data and insights — it will be necessary for dispatchers to improve their skills. Fortunately, there are several professional organizations like NENA which offer educational resources and training to help dispatchers maintain and elevate their expertise.

Organizational change is often a roadblock for municipalities seeking ways to leverage technology to improve access to the data and insights they need to combat threats to public safety. Hiring the right leadership that can take a holistic approach, while working collaboratively with emergency response teams, is imperative to making change real.

While this is a time of extreme change, it is also a time of possibility for the public safety community and 911 professionals. New technologies and tools will support significant improvements in the ability to meet the public safety needs of today, and tomorrow. But, meeting these possibilities will require everyone involved — from the dispatcher to the director and many others — to leverage skills like leadership and change management to ensure our shared future is as bright as possible for everyone. 

Chris Carver is an insightful public safety, government and community leader, writer, and speaker. He is the director of sales for Hexagon in the eastern U.S. where he helps provide the best possible public safety products and customer experience. He is a former PSAP/911 operations director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and continues to help support the evolution of the 911 industry into its next generation of technology and service. Chris also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of Scenic Ohio- America's oldest highway beautification and safety advocacy group, is an intermittent adjunct professor at John Jay College, and is the primary instructor for NENA’s leadership for 911 class.