MCP in the News: How Much Tech is Too Much?

Technology may be distracting us from our most effective emergency response.

This article originally appeared in Public Safety Communciations' magazine, and can be found here.

An old Buddhist monk sat in the garden with one of his students. He held up an empty jar, and said, "Fill the jar."

The student gathered some rocks and placed them in the jar, filling it to the top. He handed it back to the master, who looked inside it and handed it back to the young monk.

"Fill the jar," said the master. The monk thought for a moment about what his mentor meant and then gathered up smaller pebbles and added them to the rocks in the jar, filling it to the top. Again, he handed it to his master.

"Fill the jar," replied the older monk. Beginning to get frustrated, the young monk gathered up some handfuls of sand, and emptied them into the jar. Surely this would make his master content that he had filled the jar!

Yet one more time, the jar was handed back to him, with the command to "fill the jar." The young monk noticed an old pitcher sitting on the edge of the nearby lotus pool. He scooped up some water in the pitcher, and poured it into the jar with the rocks, the pebbles and the sand. The water poured into the jar, and out over the edge of the jar, running down the side.

Taking the jar from the young student, the master said, "The jar was always filled."

The purpose of this story is to illustrate that the jar can be filled with whatever one wants to hold in it, but while it may seem there is always room for more, it is possible to overfill the jar.

Beginning in the mid-to-late 1980s, we began to fill the emergency communications center, the patrol car, the fire engine and the ambulance with technology that, it was assumed, would reduce response time and provide greater situational awareness and more accurate response.

In large part, this has been achieved. Response times are way down and the ability to quickly and accurately pinpoint a caller’s location and respond with exactly the correct response, has saved countless lives and property across the globe. Prudent use of technology is good for public safety response.

However, in recent times, signs have emerged that we may be filling a jar that is already full. Patrol vehicles, fire rigs and ambulances bristle with devices, screens, wires and antennas, all competing for the attention of first responders that ride in them. It is not uncommon for telecommunicators to have four to eight monitors on their desktop displaying multiple applications filled with flashing alerts and data, some of it relevant, some of it less so. And all of them have mobile devices (we used to call them phones, but they are really pocket-sized, constantly available portals into the realm of information and emotional fulfillment).

Have we over-filled these environments with too much stimulus? Are these systems, constantly competing for the attention of first responders and telecommunicators, promoting or preventing us from reaching our goal of improved emergency response? There are troubling signs that we are creating a situation in which our end-user’s ability to focus has reached its limit.

Unintended Consequences, Sensory Overload, Tunnel Vision and Addition

While there hasn’t been much scientific study focused specifically on the affect all this technology has on the ability of public safety end-users to stay focused on their primary tasks, it is fairly well understood in terms of how technology distracts all humans in general, and some corollaries can be drawn to how it affects public safety end-users in their environments.

What does it mean to be "distracted by technology?" For the purposes of this article, a technological distraction is defined as: Altered focus, lack of situational awareness or interrupted vigilance that arises from the use of technology — or a workflow associated with a technology — that prevents an individual or an organization from achieving real-world operational goals.

There are four main areas in which humans seem to be distracted by technology:

  • Unintended Consequences — This distraction is about getting results that differ from those originally expected through the introduction of a new system or process to an existing workflow. Despite the best intentions, sometimes it is just impossible to anticipate all the ways a new process will affect desired outcomes and even the outcomes of seemingly unrelated workflows. Examples in the public safety environment include officers using their personal mobile phones to capture photos of a crime scene or letting their guard down when approaching a crime scene which video seems to indicate is "clear." While there are many easy-to-identify operational examples, there are many deeper, systemic, less easy-to-spot unintended consequences. These may take years to notice or require deep investigation into reporting and analytics to uncover how they have negatively affected longer-term operational and funding decisions.
  • Sensory Overload — This distraction really has to do with the sheer number of systems, applications, screens and data that end-users are presented with. It is tempting to think that the best operators are genius multi-taskers, but the sad truth is that there are no true multi-taskers. The human brain can only manage tasks sequentially. So while many excellent operators can quickly go from task to task, and even hold information for many tasks in their short-term memory, compartmentalizing data for each incident separately, there is a limit to the amount of information that can be perceived, consumed and accurately held at one time. Examples are obvious from telecommunicators missing a short piece of crucial radio traffic to patrol officers not noticing a "wanted" or "armed and dangerous" alert in an NCIC return. This distraction is caused by too many places to focus one’s attention. As a result, a crucial piece of data goes unnoticed.
  • Tunnel Vision — This distraction is, in some ways, the opposite phenomenon to sensory overload and sneaks up on end-users without their knowledge. It is perhaps the most dangerous distraction for a public safety end-user and can have a direct effect on officer safety and situational awareness, the pillars of safe emergency response. Examples are not rare and include officers focused on mobile data computers rather than on armed suspects, telecommunicators focused on video monitors rather than CAD alerts and status monitors, and fire incident commanders focused for too long on fireground biomonitors rather than on real-world fire scene changes. The crux of tunnel vision is the time focused on one system or piece of data at the expense of other pieces of data and the larger, real-world event.
  • Addiction — This distraction is difficult to manage because of the proactive strategies of third-party vendors to build applications that capitalize on basic human needs — such as acceptance and the desire to be loved — to drive end-users to constantly seek the endorphin rush provided by feedback from their devices and the applications they run. Examples are officers and medics driving while texting and telecommunicators focused on mobile devices instead of computer monitors.
As newer, better, faster technologies have been introduced, it has been assumed that the industry can just keep "filling the jar" with very little hard data that tells us when we are nearing the overflow point or how to expand the jar.

Distracted by Tech in the ECC

Walk into any emergency communications center in the U.S. (or the globe, for that matter), from the smallest rural two-seat dispatch center to a 75-seat metropolitan command and control operation, and you will be confronted with an array of screens, radio traffic, phones ringing, and various beeps and flashing lights. It is an onslaught of audio-visual stimulus that is rivaled only by a large casino or video arcade.

As newer, better, faster technologies have been introduced, it has been assumed that the industry can just keep "filling the jar" with very little hard data that tells us when we are nearing the overflow point or how to expand the jar.

Admittedly, this is in part due to the "do the job" work ethic that all telecommunicators have developed to ensure that the goals of helping the citizen, maximum situational awareness and officer safety are upheld at all costs. Telecommunicators will do whatever it takes, work with whatever technology is presented to them, to achieve these goals.

A mentality develops within ECCs that operators who can process and respond to the most incoming stimulus without error achieve "hero" status. While this is certainly an admirable, and even a sought-after trait, little thought or training is provided to help individual telecommunicators identify their own levels of processing capability, either in terms of speed or volume, or trying to line up capabilities with job tasks. The pressure to "keep up" can itself be a distraction from achieving successful outcomes. APCO’s Aging in the PSAP Task Force revealed that this is especially true among older telecommunicators who may have developed excellent skills in other areas, but often find it difficult to keep up with rapidly changing technology.

Studies have shown that screen time on mobile devices and tablets for the average person has dramatically increased over the last five years, some say by as much as 50%.

There have been cases in which telecommunicators have missed ringing phones or left radio traffic unanswered due being distracted by text messaging or conversations on mobile phones.

Many telecommunicators experience withdrawal symptoms when management removes personal mobile phones from the operational environment. Some ECCs have provided a lockbox into which mobile devices must be placed at the beginning of shifts and can only be removed by a supervisor at breaks and the end of shift, due to the effect addictive behaviors relating to mobile devices can have on operations. Management must be careful to avoid the unintended consequence that removal of addictive devices may itself cause distraction and lack of focus.

It is difficult to balance external stimulus with telecommunicators’ ability to internalize and process that stimulus thereby achieving successful outcomes. Some distractions may not be immediately identifiable. Understanding and mitigating the distractions will take a proactive approach by ECC management, the agencies they serve, the vendors creating the systems and telecommunicators themselves.

Distracted by Tech in the Field

In the early 80’s, we began adding technology to patrol vehicles, fire rigs and ambulances to extend the reach of the ECC and data to the field. In those days, the number of technologies was small (perhaps a mobile data terminal and a mobile radio) and most vehicles were significantly larger than they are today. By the mid-2000’s vehicles had shrunk, and the number of systems in the vehicle increased dramatically; this trend has continued. Today, a patrol officer has many more in-vehicle and body-worn systems to which they must pay attention, including:

  • Mobile radio
  • Mobile data computer or tablet
  • Integrated lights and sirens technology
  • Non-departmental personal devices (GPS and phone)
  • Camera systems
  • Automatic license plate readers
  • Locking systems for weapons
  • Multiple body-worn systems, including cameras, radios, bio-devices, non-lethal weapons and others

The risk of technological distraction in all four areas is high in the field environment. Examples of officer deaths related to tunnel vision while focused on mobile data computers is rising, as is the risk to the public because of mobile device use while driving.

A false sense of security due to all this technology can also be a problem. Field officers must be trained to make use of their basic police training and follow departmental policy regarding entering the scene of any incident, despite what the video or other data may be telling them. In most cases, they should still always assume the worst until on-scene information has been confirmed.

Some field personnel have admitted to not knowing the route they took to an incident because of over-reliance on personal or integrated GPS systems. This can have a detrimental effect on situational awareness and understanding what is happening at the incident location, including potential escape routes and routes of extraction.

Lastly, there is increased risk to the organizational goals of the department when officers use personal mobile devices rather than department-issued devices to make incident-related phone calls, capture photos and record on-scene interviews. In most cases, this information cannot be integrated successfully into department systems such as CAD or records management systems, making it difficult to use in prosecuting an incident.

The Full Jar—Conclusions

As we have seen, distraction in the ECC and in the field can have a detrimental effect on the ability of end-users to fulfil their mission. However, almost all of this is anecdotal, at least in the public safety environment. There has been little in the way of formal scientific studies on this topic in the field or in the ECC, and thus almost no hard data that can help us define when the end-user’s "jar of attention" is filled.

Formal scientific studies are needed, and the data can be used to help define how technology should be deployed in ways that will result in better outcomes.

In the meantime, here are a few items to consider:

  • Organizations should constantly evaluate policies, procedures and workflows for signs of unintended consequences and undesirable outcomes.
  • Open communication and feedback loops between end-users and management should be encouraged to help uncover unintended consequences and other types of tech distractions, and work to reduce or prevent them.
  • Implement training for end-users regarding the fact that most people are not able to comprehend their own level of distraction, and how to spot the signs that this is happening, as well as how to avoid or reduce the occurrence of distraction.
  • Realize there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to managing technological distraction. Everyone processes information at different speeds and volumes, and it is important to develop and implement training around identifying these limits, so that individuals understand their own limits.
  • Industrywide engagement between vendors and practitioners is needed to develop solutions that provide the level of data necessary to complete tasks while reducing or eliminating the risk of distractions.
  • Discourage the use of personal devices for work-related tasks. Telecommunicators should put down personal devices at the start of their shift (preferably in a locker), and officers should not use personal devices to make phone calls, record photos, take statements or otherwise capture incident-related activity.

As with most problems, recognition is half the battle. The other half requires a plan and action. As we continue to "fill the jar" of the attention span of our first responders and telecommunicators, we need to consider that overfilling the jar will eventually result in overflow and potentially negative consequences, and we should work to ensure that the jar does not overflow.

Matt Schreiner has passionately worked for over 25 years to provide public safety with innovative technology solutions and tools to enable them to meet their life-safety mission, currently lending his talents to Mission Critical Partners.