Key Takeaways from 2023 APCO – Part 1
Posted on August 8, 2023 by Glenn Bischoff
MCP subject-matter experts are blanketing the annual Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference in Nashville this week to gain an insight into the short- and long-term future of emergency response. The following are a few of the key takeaways so far:
New approaches to training telecommunicators are sorely needed – It’s common knowledge that the public-safety sector, particularly the 911 community, is suffering from an acute staffing shortage. What to do about it is less known – but the good news is that emergency communications officials are starting to get creative. Training is an important factor in retaining telecommunicators and some agencies are rethinking their regimen, which was explored in an educational session.
Some are expanding timelines to give new candidates a better chance to absorb the material – the thinking is that agencies often give up on candidates too quickly. Others are thinking about how they are training, recognizing that everyone learns differently. Some people learn by reading manuals or viewing slide shows. Others learn by watching videos, listening to lectures, or through hands-on experiences. The point is that training regimens going forward should incorporate as many of these approaches as possible – the days of lecture, lecture, lecture, are in the past.
A mistake that small agencies make concerns what happens when the sole training officer is unavailable on a training day – typically, the solution is to park candidates on a console and let them observe for the day. The trouble is, that depending on where they are in the training cycle, they might not understand what they are observing, which not only would slow their progress but also might confuse them more. Another, arguably better, approach was discussed whereby training officer backups are designated, and clear lesson plans are created for each training day that the backups easily could follow – not unlike a substitute teacher in an elementary or high school.
In an interview, Jennifer Kirkland, who became the State of Colorado’s 911 program manager two months ago, after a long career in emergency communications centers (ECCs), agreed with all this thinking. But her focus right now is on implementing statewide minimum training standards for Colorado’s telecommunicators. Kirkland has some valuable insight in this area because she was part of the group that identified recommended minimum training guidelines for telecommunicators a few years ago during a project facilitated by the National 911 Program and supported by MCP.
“We then used those guidelines and a collaborative process to build a successful training program for telecommunicators in Colorado,” Kirkland said. “It was so successful that NENA (the National Emergency Number Association) took that curriculum and used it to build its 40-hour TCC (telecommunicator core competencies) program.”
The effort was driven by a two-part desire to make telecommunicators better at their jobs so that they can better serve the state’s citizens and the emergency responders who are risking their lives to protect them. “We want to ensure that anyone in Colorado who calls 911 receives the same basic level of care that anybody anywhere else receives – rural, urban, anywhere,” she said.
Kirkland added that when telecommunicators receive the training they need, they are more likely to stay with the agency longer, which is vitally important given the acute staffing shortage. “If you give them the tools they need, that’s going to reduce their stress level, and that in turn will improve retention,” she said. “This is good for them, it’s good for the 911 center, it’s good for the citizens, and it’s good for emergency responders in the field – it’s a win for everybody. We just have to figure out how to get there – and this has to be done nationally, not just in Colorado. Everyone needs to get on the same page regarding what a telecommunicator does and how to train them to do it.”
Satellite constellations are growing, and that’s a good thing for emergency response – The impact that low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites are beginning to have on emergency response and their potential to be a game-changer long term was explored in another session led by Adan Pope, Intrado’s chief technology officer. A great many places exist that cannot receive terrestrial wireless signals due to terrain and topology issues as well as simple economics – many communities don’t have the population density needed to justify the cost of deploying cellular tower sites and related infrastructure. LEO satellites are seen as a way of filling in the dead zones that exist.
LEO satellites are positioned no higher than about 600 miles above the Earth’s surface, which means that signals are strong and travel at very high speeds compared with medium-earth orbit (MEO) and geostationary-orbit (GEO) satellites, which are used for navigation and broadcasting, respectively. The limitation – and it’s a big one – is that such satellites travel very quickly, roughly five miles per second, which means they’re overhead for a very short amount of time – about 10 minutes – and, despite their extremely fast orbit speeds, won’t return for about 90 minutes. But when you’ve suffered a serious injury in the wilderness, in a desert, or at sea, the connection between a satellite phone and an LEO satellite, however fleeting, could be your only chance of survival.
There are a few other kinks to be worked out. An emergency call made from a satellite phone would arrive at an ECC as a text, so the center must have a text-to-911 capability. The GSM Association is working on adding a voice component to the standard, but that reportedly is at least a couple of years away.
The good news is that several satellite constellations exist, and they are growing very quickly. For example, SpaceX’s Starlink constellation has about 5,500 satellites in the sky but is expected to have 58,000 by 2030 – and that’s just one constellation. Denser constellations increase the likelihood that a LEO satellite will be overhead at any given moment.
The capability already has arrived. Last year, SpaceX and T-Mobile announced a service for smartphones dubbed “Above and Beyond,” and the SOS feature offered by the iPhone 14 leverages LEO satellites.
ECC leaders need to embrace modern leadership principles – Tracy Eldridge, a certified emergency number professional (ENP) who hosts the “On Scene First” podcast on Apple Podcasts, discussed the integration of principles such as people-driven leadership, transparency, and the significance of presence. Specifically, she explained how the DISC (drive, influence, support, clarity) personality assessment model could be applied to ECC directors. She gave great examples of how different personalities will not mesh without an understanding of their differences and a mutual effort to make the relationship work.
ECCs applying these leadership principles in tandem with the DISC framework can lead to more cohesive, efficient, and responsive teams during critical situations, she said. This holistic approach not only enhances team dynamics but also optimizes emergency responses, ensuring the safety and well-being of communities.
LMR-LTE/5G interworking represents a pioneering step in communications – Andrew Hernandez of L3Harris discussed the need to merge the reliability and push-to-talk capabilities of traditional land mobile radio (LMR) systems with the high-speed data and multimedia capacities of modern long-term evolution (LTE)/5G networks. He said that this advancement would ensure enhanced interoperability, allowing seamless communication between users on different networks, which is vital for multiagency coordination during emergencies. He cited the real-world implementation in Parma, Ohio, as tangible proof of this approach’s effectiveness and a promising future for integrated public-safety communications.
LMR-LTE/5G interworking also would ensure that the public-safety community has the most effective and efficient communication tools at their disposal. In times of emergency or crisis, seamless communication can be the difference between life and death. By integrating the reliability of LMR systems with the advanced capabilities of LTE/5G networks, emergency responders can share real-time data, videos, and images, leading to better situational awareness, faster decision-making, and more coordinated response efforts. (Continued migration to cloud-based services will increase this need, he said.) Enhanced interoperability ensures that disparate agencies can collaborate effortlessly, ensuring a unified and more effective response to emergency incidents.
Solving the unverified alarm notification puzzle gets closer – In an educational session, Bob Finney, director of communications technology for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, discussed the TMA-AVS-01 alarm-verification standard, which he described as a “modern solution” to the issue of unverified notifications generated by alarm systems – a big problem that continues to plague the emergency-response community. By utilizing the trove of data that alarm systems generate, TMA-AVS-01 is a revolutionary shift in standardizing how alarms are classified by monitoring centers and improving how they are classified and transmitted to ECCs, according to Finney. Responders will have the data needed to make better-informed decisions pertaining to resource allocation, field responder safety, and the safety of the public.
Creative solutions to resolving supply-chain issues – We heard about the supply-chain issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic ad nauseam, and while they seem to have subsided in the world at large, they continue to persist in the public-safety community. This was explored in a presentation by Nick Falgiatore, an MCP senior technology specialist, on how inflation and supply-chain issues can impact an LMR project. Falgiatore suggested that agencies ensure that they appropriately size their radio infrastructure to help alleviate unnecessary equipment, which would ease the burden on the supply chain, resulting in more equipment being available in the pipeline.
Creative approaches to the supply-chain dilemma are being pursued. For example, some agencies are buying used shelters that were discarded by other agencies for various reasons, usually because the selling agency needed a new shelter that was larger or smaller than the one that they have, and not because of any deficiencies. The result is that the buying agency can procure a still-usable shelter that it needs more easily and at a lower cost than buying new.
Upcoming blogs will reveal more key takeaways, so stay tuned!