The rookie officer had only recently downloaded the department-provided Rapid Assistance for People in Distress (RAPID) app on his smartphone, and his training officer asked him to open the app and leave it open as they patrolled the streets on a quiet Saturday morning. “It’s kinda like scanning other radio channels,” his trainer said. “We’ll just monitor, and if we hear any good 9-1-1 calls coming in, we’ll move that way. It’s cool, you’ll see,” she assured the rookie.
The first few 9-1-1 calls that came over the app that day were non-emergencies—a missing cat, a runaway 15-year-old, a transient urinating in public. The officers would first hear the phone ringing, followed by the call-taker in dispatch answering, “9-1-1, what is your emergency?” Then they would listen as the citizen described the emergency to a slightly annoyed and tired dispatcher. It was like listening in on a conference call, and often the tone of voice of the 9-1-1 caller revealed more about what was going on than anything else. The training officer had a clear instinct for these minor calls and would quickly tap the “bypass” button on the phone’s screen to silence it and make it ready for the next incoming call. Thankfully, they had the GPS settings on the app set at 1.5 miles, limiting the incoming calls to only those officers within that distance. The rookie couldn’t imagine having to listen and sift through every 9-1-1 call in the city.
Just over an hour into the shift, the rookie and his training officer once again heard the sound of a phone ringing and the call-taker in dispatch answering; “9-1-1, what is your emergency?” The caller screamed into the phone, “I was just robbed!” The training officer, who out of habit had moved her hand toward the bypass button, jerked it back and leaned in to listen. The rookie looked at the open app on his phone mounted magnetically to the dash. In addition to hearing the ongoing call, he could see a map of their section of the city. On the map was a small moving police vehicle representing their location, and a nearby blue dot labeled “9-1-1 call.” In addition to displaying their locations, the app automatically mapped the shortest route between their police car and the 9-1-1 caller. It also showed the position of all the other nearby police officers who had the app open at the time.
The call-taker in dispatch could be heard asking all the relevant questions as the victim explained in excited detail what happened. The incessant tapping in the background indicated that the call-taker was furiously typing the information into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, to be broadcast by another dispatcher to all officers over the police radio. The 9-1-1 caller continued, “The guy had a gun, he got into a red truck. It was lifted with stickers all over it. It just turned north on Third Avenue!” As the call-taker quickly typed in only the major elements of the information (“left in a red truck n/b 3rd”), the rookie and his trainer headed toward the call, on the lookout for the fleeing truck. The training officer knew it would be 30 seconds, at best, before the call of a robbery came out over the police radio. It would be another 30 seconds or so after that before the dispatcher could broadcast the (incomplete) description of the suspect’s vehicle and its direction of travel. A fast-moving vehicle could travel a mile or more in any direction from the crime scene by then.
The radio call of the robbery still hadn’t been broadcast over the police radio when the officers saw a lifted blue truck turning off Third Avenue into an alleyway. The truck wasn’t red as the caller described, but it was covered with stickers, and the hairs on the back of the officers’ necks confirmed they had the right vehicle. The rookie reached for the microphone to tell dispatch they were behind a possible suspect vehicle in the robbery (a crime they wouldn’t even know happened yet without the app). Just then the dispatcher interrupted; “Attention units, we are getting a call of an armed robbery that just occurred in sector one…stand by for further information.”
It would be the rookie’s first pursuit and felony arrest. The benefit of the RAPID app was immediately apparent, just as his training officer had promised.
Tomorrow Is Today
This scenario isn’t a pie-in-the-sky version of tomorrow; the technology exists today to make it possible. Anyone who owns a streaming device can envision what re-broadcasting voice and GPS data over the Internet to a mobile device would look like. Imagine a brick-sized device installed in a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) that grabs the voice and location data of incoming 9-1-1 calls and sends it back out over the Internet. The end user, with a secure app, would simply tap into that data via the map user-interface on a smartphone. In other words, picture a (secure) police scanner app that broadcasts live 9-1-1 calls rather than radio traffic.
As basic as this sounds, vigorous Google searches reveal that no products currently exist to provide this ability to municipal law enforcement. In fact, the specific concept of streaming live 9-1-1 audio to officers in the field appears to have escaped consideration or discussion anywhere. Security companies who serve large campuses or businesses with VOIP networks have services that are similar, but such technology in the hands of the public sector is nowhere to be found. Although it would require both product development and changes to police response protocols, it’s an idea whose time has come.
The Final Frontier
Most people might be surprised to learn that the vast majority of police chiefs and sheriffs working today are older than the United States’ 9-1-1 emergency notification system. In 1957, the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended the use of a single number for reporting fires. It wasn’t until 1967, when the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended that a “single number should be established” for reporting emergency situations, that a solution was sought. In 1968, AT&T announced that 9-1-1 would be the emergency code for the United States. This number was selected because it was short, easy to remember, and easy to dial, and it wasn’t already taken as an area code or service code. On February 16, 1968, U.S. Senator Rankin Fite made the first official 9-1-1 call in Haleyville, Alabama.1 The 9-1-1 system isn’t quite 50 years old yet—if it was a police officer, it couldn’t retire. So, although the system seems like it has been around forever, it’s relatively young and still evolving and improving.
Currently, PSAPs are laying the groundwork for the next generation of 9-1-1 services, known as NG9-1-1. This advanced system is the inevitable next step to create a faster, more flexible, resilient, and scalable system that allows 9-1-1 to keep up with communication technology used by the public.
Put simply, NG911 is an Internet Protocol (IP)-based system that allows digital information (e.g., voice, photos, videos, text messages) to flow seamlessly from the public, through the 911 network, and on to emergency responders.2
And yet, with all the progress that has been made, the 9-1-1 system of today and the NG9-1-1 system of tomorrow does little to bridge the final frontier of information transmission. The ultimate last time gap, the “9-1-1 Gap,” is the length of time between the moment the caller first utters their pleas for help to the moment the call-taker is able to hear, process, and redistribute the information through CAD to the police dispatcher and, ultimately, to officers in the field. Even the NG9-1-1 system envisions much of the information from the caller going first through the call-taker and through CAD before the message gets to officers in the field. The need for a human operator in dispatch to evaluate and vet information serves as a constant chokepoint in the communication process. That time between the citizen’s mouth, through the filter of a call-taker and then into CAD, is a yet unexploited gap that is begging to be explored. It is the last step toward the goal of instant and perfect transmission of information. It is the game of telephone with only two players.
The 9-1-1 Gap, represents a topic rarely discussed in the profession and not understood by many citizens or even law enforcement officers. The average citizen on the street might be surprised to know the information they give a 9-1-1 call-taker during an emergency might not reach officers in the field for several minutes—or longer. Even officers unfamiliar with PSAP operations don’t fully grasp the reasons for time delay and message decay. Listen to the radio traffic of a typical city police department, and it’s not uncommon to hear officers ask the primary dispatcher questions as if the dispatcher was talking directly to the 9-1-1 caller (e.g., “Can you ask the caller if he was wearing a red shirt?”). In reality, with the exception of some very small agencies where there is only one call-taker/dispatcher, the radio dispatcher is not hearing anything the caller says. They are simply reading words on a screen while the caller is talking to another dispatcher or, more likely, has already disconnected.
Closing the 9-1-1 Gap
The 9-1-1 Gap is a new term to describe an old problem. The dynamic it represents is inherent in all human communication. The earliest exposure to this type of delay for most is the childhood game of telephone, where one child whispers a phrase in the ear of another, who whispers it to yet another and so on down the line, until the message is so distorted and meaningless it becomes a laughing matter. Today’s 9-1-1 communication centers are playing a high-stakes game of telephone every day. Dispatchers are intimately familiar with this flaw and have commonly sought solutions—some as simple as yelling across the room at each other. While these stopgap efforts may help, as of yet, no technique or device has successfully bridged the ultimate gap and removed the middleman entirely. After all, much of the other things dispatchers do in a communication center are necessary and unavoidable. Therefore, the first efforts to close the 9-1-1 Gap shouldn’t seek to remove the PSAP from the equation, only to bypass the chokepoint during critical and time-sensitive moments.
Why Close the Gap
Closing the 9-1-1 Gap offers a distinct benefit: It can reduce response times while increasing the quality of service provided. Reducing response times is a constant priority for most city and county emergency services, and response times are often the most visible measure of customer service. As such, reducing that metric is viewed as a top political priority for community leaders.3 Admittedly, streaming live 9-1-1 audio may have a limited ability to significantly impact overall response times; however, reducing it on a few critical calls where a life is saved or a career criminal captured could serve as visible proof of success. Combine the reduction of response times on a few notable calls with the benefits of improved communication, and the RAPID app concept provides a city leader the unique answer to the question, “What can you do to improve emergency response services?”
There are unfortunate and notorious examples of what happens when agencies fail to respond quickly and effectively to 9-1-1 calls—such as the case of the 2008 murder of Denise Amber Lee. Lee was abducted by Michael King in Florida, and Lee herself and several witnesses called 9-1-1 for help, but due to a lack of communication, police arrived too late to save Lee’s life. King was sentenced to death for the brutal rape and murder of Lee, whose final pleas for mercy were heard by the jury on the 9-1-1 tape of the killing. The mistakes and missed opportunities gave the public more than just King to blame.4
Another tragic example of communication failure, and one that demonstrates the potential of streaming 9-1-1 audio, is the Tamir Rice shooting incident in Cleveland, Ohio. On November 22, 2014, at 3:22 p.m., a citizen in a neighborhood park called 9-1-1 to report “a guy in here with a pistol… pointing it at everybody.” He continued, in a rather unconcerned tone of voice, saying the gunman was “probably a juvenile,” and added the gun was “probably fake.” This description of the weapon and the caller’s instincts about it were never relayed to the responding officers, who ultimately shot and killed the juvenile. The gun was fake, but the community’s anger and distrust were all too real.5
Consider how this incident could have unfolded had the officers been able to hear the words “probably fake.” Consider what information they may have gathered by hearing for themselves the tone of voice and apparent nonchalance of the caller. None of this came through to the officers. They learned everything they knew about the incident from the radio dispatcher, who was simply relaying what the call-taker decided was important enough and brief enough to type into CAD. Of course, every critical situation is fluid, and there is no single solution to the unavoidable risks officers take each day. However, the RAPID app concept provides officers something they don’t have now—access to the actual words as spoken by the 9-1-1 caller in real time. This unique and transformative feature could save lives.
Even though there is little evidence of any research and development toward the RAPID app concept, some agencies are making infrastructure improvements now that will speed its adoption. As a Windows Central Article notes, NYPD began buying smartphones for all its officers in 2014. The intent was to provide immediate access to CAD data by officers via their smartphones. In one incident, highlighted to show the success of the program, two officers obtained the phone number of the 9-1-1 caller and used the smartphone to directly call the citizen themselves.7 The officers were able to take the suspect into custody because they had direct access to the best source of information available—the witness on scene. Their success was a result of side-stepping the existing system where information gets delayed and watered down as it filters through the dispatcher’s own personal prioritization system and into CAD. This example wasn’t a demonstration of actual streaming 9-1-1 audio, but these officers replicated some of the advantages of the concept.
The building blocks are in place to close the 9-1-1 Gap. Agencies, whether they know it or not, are demonstrating the demand and potential benefits that streaming live 9-1-1 audio offers. Officers, when responding to emergency calls, instinctively want to know what the 9-1-1 caller is saying, what the time delay is, how urgent the emergency is, and what small details are important but missing from the radio call. Streaming 9-1-1 audio answers all these questions, but it hasn’t been identified as a specific solution by agencies. Perhaps the existing dispatch system is so ingrained into law enforcement culture and experience that they don’t know to ask for it. After all, before the existence of the current GPS and wireless networks, and ubiquitous smartphone ownership, it was difficult to conceive of a way to make it possible and practical. What was once unimaginable is now easily envisioned. The only missing element is the small step, yet giant leap, of developing and implementing this technology.
Some will make the argument that the technology described here to close the 9-1-1 Gap isn’t broadly transformational. And, admittedly, this single feature of providing real-time streaming 9-1-1 audio to first responders in the field will not transform the entire discipline of dispatch or emergency response. It will not solve all the problems with communication, and can’t or won’t be used on every call that law enforcement responds to. However, this technology probably will be transformative during some critical calls for service. There may be several instances each year when officers will point specifically to this technology as the reason for success, and city leaders may publicly attribute streaming 9-1-1 audio as the reason a child was rescued from a burning house or a rapist was caught in the act. And in between these rare yet significant wins, there will be many daily instances when officers will be blocks or even miles closer to call locations before they are even dispatched.
Once the conversation on closing the 9-1-1 Gap begins, and the demand for the technology to do so is identified and articulated, stakeholders will begin to make it a reality. Private sector companies that currently make hardware for PSAPs will redirect resources to design and manufacture the hardware and software platforms necessary. Law enforcement agencies that seek to enhance their reputation as progressive and innovative will step forward to test and troubleshoot the technology while formulating training and policy. The identification of the 9-1-1 Gap and the potential solution to fill it is a call to action for those in leadership positions to start the conversation and to drive change. Let the conversation begin.
|William “Fritz” Reber is currently the Investigations Division Commander with the Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD). Fritz has been a police officer for over 25 years. He was the Communications Center manager for CVPD for about three years (2010–2013). He also has experience as the CVPD jail manager, patrol watch commander, Criminal Investigations Division lieutenant, and the Special Operations Division lieutenant.|
This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning & action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.
This journal article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it—creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes threats of relevance to the profession.
The views and conclusions expressed in the Command College Futures Project and journal article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the CA Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).
© Copyright 2016, California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training
1 National Emergency Number Association, “9-1-1 Origin and History,” https://www.nena.org/?page=911overviewfacts.
2 911.gov, “Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1),” http://www.9-1-1.gov/9-1-1-issues/standards.html.
3 William K. Rashbaum, “Response Time to Police Calls is 29% Faster,” New York Times, September 26, 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/26/nyregion/response-time-to-police-calls-is-29-faster.html.
4 Ann O’Neill, “Jury: Death for Man Who Murdered Cop’s Daughter,” CNN, August 28, 2009, http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/09/04/florida.murder.kidnap.penalty/index.html?eref=rss_crime.
5 Jaeah Lee, “How Cleveland Police May Have Botched a 9-1-1 Call Just Before Killing Tamir Rice,” Mother Jones, June 24, 2015, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/06/tamir-rice-police-killing-9-1-1-call-investigation.
6 Morgan Brown et al., “Uber-What’s Fueling Uber’s Growth Engine?” GrowthHackers, 2014, https://growthhackers.com/growth-studies/uber.
7 Dan Thorp-Lancaster, “Windows Phones Are Helping the NYPD Fight Crime,” Windows Central, August 13, 2015, http://m.windowscentral.com/windows-phones-are-helping-nypd-fight-crime.