MCP Insights

Key Takeaways from 2023 APCO – Part 2

Posted on August 11, 2023 by Glenn Bischoff

MCP subject-matter experts blanketed the annual Association of Public Safety Officials conference in Nashville this week to gain insights into emergency response's short- and long-term future. A blog posted on Tuesday identified a few of the key takeaways from the first two days. This blog covers days three and four.

A way to ease the burdens on telecommunicators, at least a little — Next Generation 911 (NG911) service is being heralded for its ability to generate unprecedented amounts and types of data that will enhance situational awareness for first responders in the field and in the emergency communications center (ECC). While a very positive development, concern exists regarding whether the anticipated tsunami of data generated in the NG911 environment will overwhelm telecommunicators who already are under a tremendous amount of stress.

The answer, according to APCO panelists, can be found, at least to some degree, in team awareness kits, or TAK, a situational-awareness application that leverages geospatial data. TAK has been developed for Apple, Android, and Windows smartphones and some agencies already have provided personnel with TAK-equipped smartphones — in fact, things have gone well enough that a statewide TAK server was implemented in Colorado with the intention of helping even small agencies leverage the capability.

During an incident, for example, a TAK-equipped agency could launch a drone to enable incident commanders to view the situation from overhead, which is a great perspective for developing situational awareness. When the drone arrives on the scene, TAK would provide the ability to locate responders on a map in real-time and communicate with them directly to provide instructions or other useful information, all while bypassing the ECC. The Marshall wildfire that devastated Boulder County, Colorado, in December 2021 — which claimed two lives and destroyed more than 1,000 structures — is an excellent example of TAK’s capabilities. Resources arrived to fight the wildfire from all over the county and across the state, and TAK made it much faster and easier to track all apparatus and firefighters that had been deployed.

A corollary benefit is that telecommunicators working in the NG911 environment will begin to see things they haven’t seen before, and some of those things will be disturbing — think a multivehicle crash on a freeway involving loss of life. Such videos and images almost certainly will take a toll on some telecommunicators. TAK is a way of avoiding that scenario.

TAK software is available free of charge, though an agency will incur some setup costs. Also, a few integration and policy issues would need to be worked out — with the latter focused on data sharing and privacy — and not every agency has the financial and information technology (IT) resources to stand up a drones program. Nevertheless, TAK seems to be an application worth exploring. Some believe that TAK applications eventually might deliver biometrics data on field responders to incident commanders, primarily firefighters, via connected wearable devices. Others think the TAK concept might evolve into something like the LINUX open-source operating system, and developers will create customized applications for it.

Consider retention bonuses to address staffing shortages — The acute staffing shortage that is widespread across the public sector — particularly the 911 community, is causing quite a bit of heartburn, and agencies are scrambling to figure out ways to alleviate it. During a think-tank session, a conversation with an APCO attendee yielded this gem: her agency has started to hand out retention bonuses to any new hire who stays at least a year. This is a great idea — signing bonuses are common, but retention bonuses are far less so; in fact, they’re rare. But why stop at a year? It would behoove agencies to consider 5-year and 10-year bonuses as well to keep a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge from walking out the door. Another great idea is to conduct “stay” interviews, which often are more revealing than exit interviews, which also are too late to retain the employee.

Another conversation with a client revealed another interesting strategy, which is to offer candidates conditional job offers — the agency commits to hiring the candidate but defers the start day to weeks and sometimes months into the future. Agencies often find candidates they want to hire, but circumstances prevent them from doing so. In addition, the hiring process can be lengthy, as long as six months. This combination of factors usually means the candidate ultimately will find employment elsewhere. The idea behind the conditional-job-offer approach is that the agency, in the current environment, will need new personnel for the foreseeable future — and the conditional offer might be enough to entice the candidate to be patient. If the candidate fails the background check, the offer can be rescinded.

Finally, some agencies are leveraging video-interviewing platforms to screen candidates. Here’s how it works: the agency director creates a recording whereby they ask their interview questions; then the candidate logs into the platform at their convenience, which is very convenient because many, if not most, already will have day jobs. Another benefit to the candidate is having more time to contemplate their answers, which helps them avoid becoming flummoxed during the interview. This approach eliminates the headache of trying to schedule interviews and is thought to shorten the hiring process considerably, placing the agency in a better position to land the candidate.

FirstNet: Public-private partnerships needed to address health and well-being of ECC personnel — The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) announced during the conference that it plans to publish a whitepaper next month that addresses how the health and well-being telecommunicators and supervisors can be enhanced via public-private partnerships. FirstNet knows more than a little on this subject, as it has been engaged in one with AT&T for many years to build the nationwide public-safety broadband communications network. FirstNet is working to build a coalition consisting of itself, major public-safety associations — APCO and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) — ECCs, and private-sector entities to address this need, which is critical, by leveraging group think to develop a unified strategy for identifying and addressing health and well-being issues in 911 centers.

Traveling dispatchers are becoming a thing — Overheard during the conference was that some ECCs are temporarily embracing the concept of traveling dispatchers to alleviate staffing shortages. The traveling dispatchers previously worked in an ECC, so they can get up to speed quickly and are prepped with the agency’s training materials and protocols. Once onsite, they go through a one- or two-day orientation and then stay around for anywhere from a month to 18 months. The approach is like MCP’s staff-augmentation program, which provides ongoing onsite and virtual support to agencies, primarily for ECC management and information technology/cybersecurity.

Vendors are feeling the pinch, which is causing trouble for the public-safety sector — The first APCO blog earlier this week touched upon some of the things discussed by Nick Falgiatore — our wireless engineering team lead, who is focused primarily on large land mobile radio (LMR) projects — in his presentation on the supply-chain issues that are afflicting public-safety agencies.

Falgiatore adds that the issues, which started more than three years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, are putting vendors in a difficult position, which, in turn, is causing headaches for agencies. Specifically, vendors that entered into fixed-price contracts with agencies in the early stages of the pandemic encountered lengthy delays, largely because of the unavailability of parts and equipment but also due to resource issues with site acquisition and permitting. As a result, vendors are now facing significantly higher costs for third-party infrastructure like towers and shelters due to cost increases resulting from inflation and supply-chain issues — and now they’re paying a lot more than they would have earlier, which is creating acute financial pressures.

“Things always cost more when there’s less of it,” he says. “And it takes a lot longer to get stuff.”

As a result, some vendors are doing anything they can to get cost relief in their fixed-price contracts or are charging considerably more for change orders, which creates financial hardship for the agency. Falgiatore’s advice is to secure legal representation that will find a way to hold the vendor accountable to the contract and bring the project to completion. For new projects/contracts, he says that it is imperative that agencies know their risks and plan accordingly.

“You pay more for less risk and less for more risk,” Falgiatore says. “If there is risk that the agency is taking on, then it needs to budget for it so that it has the money needed if prices go up.”

For example, project schedules often get extended due to unforeseen circumstances — is there a clause in the contract that states the agency won’t be charged more no matter how long it takes to complete the project? According to Falgiatore, it is important that agencies contemplate the risks and ensure that they and the vendor both understand their responsibilities.

When that doesn’t happen, trouble ensues. “The biggest challenges occur when one party thinks that something is covered and the other party doesn’t — that’s when everything stops, and you get into legal disputes,” Falgiatore says. “That’s when you have attorneys talking more than you have project managers talking.”

Early next week, MCP Insights will post a wrap-up blog, so stay tuned!

Subscribe to Newsletter