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Live911 Software Helping Police in Oakland County, Mich.

The latest law enforcement technology is a computer software, called Live911, and it allows police to hear 911 callers in real time as they talk with emergency dispatchers.

The screen of a smartphone showing a 911 call in progress.
(TNS) — Jim Tignanelli recalls how police officers worried about being micromanaged when dashboard and body cameras were introduced 20 years ago. Over time, he said, cameras have proven officers "did nothing wrong" 95% of the time.

The latest law enforcement technology is computer software, called Live911, that allows police to hear 911 callers in real time as they talk with emergency dispatchers.

The company's website says the audio access gives officers a sense of the emotions at play, background noise and first-hand descriptions of an incident, adding that it "increases situational awareness like never before."

Tignanelli, executive director of the Police Officers Association of Michigan, was a Fraser police officer for 18 years before joining POAM.

He views Live911 with caution, even though the software was credited with alerting sheriff deputies to the splash pad shooting in Rochester Hills as 911 calls were coming in. According to Sheriff Michael Bouchard, a deputy monitoring the software self-deployed and was on the scene in less than two minutes. The software is tied to the mapped location where an incident is happening.

Among Tignanelli's concerns: Information overload. A steady stream of 911 calls may be disruptive to an officer who is listening to police radio chatter while attending to computer-aided dispatch messages on the in-car laptop, while watching for traffic offenders and other signs of crimes.

Live911 software is not available to the public. Departments that pay for it can use it. The current Live911 contract with Oakland County, which costs about $90,000 for 30 licenses, runs through the end of 2025. Bouchard said the number of licenses may be increased or decreased when the contract is renewed, based on how many deputies are using the software.

Ricardo Martinez II, a 13-year dispatcher in Allegan County and founder of the national #IAM911 movement to recognize dispatchers as first responders, said he has not experienced Live911 but could see the benefits and concerns. He hosts a podcast devoted to dispatchers.

"Right off the bat, there's the additional pressure of having others listening ... feeling like you're going to get critiqued or criticized — like someone is looking over your shoulder," he said. "But after you've gotten over the initial, 'They're going to hear everything I'm doing' and worrying about making a mistake, you move on. Dispatchers are professionals."

He said it seems like Live911 would be an added tool for officers to be more prepared for a call and other officers to know if they're close enough to assist.

Bouchard started looking into Live911 more than three years ago after learning it could shave seconds and possibly minutes off response times. Oakland deputies started using Live911 in December 2022.

Oakland County has the largest sheriff's office in the state and is one among 130 police agencies nationwide using Live911.

"A lot of agencies look for us to be the leader," Bouchard said. "We were the first to deploy tasers, (opioid overdose reversal drugs) Narcan and Opveee."

Live911 can also double the impact of drones used as first responders, he said, because drone operators can launch while listening to calls broadcast by Live911, before getting called by dispatchers.

"Typically a drone gets on scene up to a full minute or two before the car because they don't have to mess with traffic. They fly as the crow flies," he said.

Tignanelli praised Bouchard for exploring high-tech innovations, such as body cameras, back-seat cameras, and cameras on utility poles at intersections.

"These are all great things. But I don't have to listen to them," Tignanelli said. "They just record and see things. When I need to know, I can review recordings. Sheriff Bouchard is a good friend to us and a great guy. But the truth is most of the time those 911 calls — unless I'm really nosy — I don't need to know about."

"I'm not trying to discourage people from using it," he said.

According to Bouchard, Live911 allows deputies to filter out calls from beyond a specific area. It's called geofencing.

"The major reason is so they don't have sensory overload on things that aren't in their direct response requirements," he said. "They need to hear primarily what their mission set is for the day."

Deputies can still hear traditional police-radio broadcasts on portable scanners. In Oakland County, the sheriff's office uses close to 35 encrypted radio frequencies. Deputies are encouraged to listen to what's most relevant to their duties.

Beyond the potential for information overload, Tignanelli said listening to Live911 calls could cause police distress similar to what 911 dispatchers experience. His concerns are based on research through the Wayne State University-based Frontline Strong Together (FST5) program, a consortium of police, fire, EMT, corrections, dispatchers, their immediate families and mental-health professionals.

For example, dispatchers field 911 calls ranging from barking dogs or loud music complaints to life-and-death situations. Dispatchers may coach callers on how to administer emergency first aid, sometimes even delivering babies. Or they can get information from people trying to escape violent encounters or other crimes. More frequently dispatchers talk to callers having suicidal thoughts.

"(Dispatchers) send police on calls and know when officers clear a scene. But we really overlook the fact that the person who took the call and dispatched officers has no idea of what happened afterwards," Tignanelli said, adding that officers could experience a similar level of stress hearing calls in real time, especially if they aren't called to the scene.

Tignanellli's comments echoed a conversation among public safety workers on the social media website Reddit, where Live911 was both praised and called a distraction. Some commenters said hearing all the calls made them appreciate dispatchers' work more.

"We'll learn to live with (Live911)," Tignanelli said. Over time, officers' ears will filter out the unnecessary calls and only hear critical information, such as a familiar name or a street that has had repeated incidents, he said, adding "If (Bouchard) says it's a good deal, I'm with him. In time Live911 will probably be less of a distraction."

Mike Halliwell, vice president of sales for HigherGround, which created Live911, said there is the element of amplified trauma.

"That's why officers go through a lot of internal training. It takes a few weeks of listening to Live911 to become accustomed to this new source of information," he said.

Halliwell said none of the audio goes into the cloud. The software delivers the audio stream but does not record or store it. Bouchard said only command staff and on-duty deputies are listening to Live911.

Although deputies may be listening, they must abide by stringent privacy guidelines — they're not allowed to disclose anything they see, do or hear during an incident except to abide by the rule of law and sheriff's-office policies, Bouchard said.

"The people that are hearing (Live911 calls) are the same people who will be told about it, so there's no HIPPA issues," he said. "Let's say they go to your house and see you had a heart attack. That would be part of their job. They can't turn around and go tell your neighbor, 'Here's that I saw in their house.'"

Bouchard said he's always looking at new ways to use technology. For example, one software application that can be installed on department cell phones allows deputies to see, in real time, what the sheriff's helicopter cameras are recording while flying.

The department is also working to update the phone app used by deputies and the public that delivers alerts for weather and other emergencies.

Halliwell said HigherGround is working with more Michigan police agencies since the splash pad shooting. His company has a contract with West Bloomfield police to deploy Live911 there soon, he said.

© 2024 The Oakland Press, Sterling Heights, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.