New technological developments are giving 911 dispatch centers more tools to help responders save lives.
One of these tools allows dispatchers to see what’s going on at the scene of a call, while another helps pinpoint a caller’s location even when that person has no idea. where she is.
In recent months, the Dickinson County Emergency Communications Center began using Prepared Live, software that allows dispatchers to see what’s going on at the scene by accessing the camera app on the cell phone. the caller – if the caller gives permission to use it.
“We ask the caller if they have a smartphone and if they do, we ask permission to send them a link,” said Emily Nichols, Dickinson County’s director of emergency communications. “When they get the link, they answer a few questions, and they have to tap on it to give permission and it asks if we can use the camera.”
Once the caller has given permission, 911 can see what the caller sees.
“We can flip the camera. We can block the screen. We can blur it. You can hide a screen. So if someone is in a domestic violence-type situation, we can hide it and the people they’re with won’t know because the screen is black,” Nichols said.
Once the screen is hidden, the caller is the only one who can display it.
The new tool provides situational awareness so first responders know what type of scene they are heading into.
While the new software has obvious benefits in emergency situations, it has actually been used more locally in non-emergency situations, including when residents call for a controlled burn.
“It allows us to inspect the fire without sending firefighters out to inspect the fire,” Nichols said. “We can see what’s being burned and make sure they’re following the county’s burning resolution so people aren’t burning what they shouldn’t be burning. Things like trash – which is illegal to burn in Kansas – or lumber, processed lumber, pallets, 2x4s.
“Most people are very compliant.”
The first time Nichols used the software was during a controlled burn.
“The gentleman was so excited. I told him it was my first time trying the software. He could see what I was seeing and he thought that was the most interesting thing,” recalls Nichols. “Most of our calls where we’ve used it so far have been for controlled burns. People have been very good at helping us.
Sometimes an address is not specific enough or, in rural areas, sometimes no address exists, which can make it difficult to get help to the right place in an emergency.
With Interstate 70 running through Dickinson County, travelers sometimes find themselves stranded and have no idea where to call for help. Another relatively new program called what3words helps the 911 Dispatch determine their exact location.
The program uses technology where each section of the Earth has been drawn in five-foot squares and three words have been assigned to describe each square. When a caller does not know where they are, 911 Dispatch can send a text message to the person, the caller clicks on it, the three words indicating their location appear, and they say the three words to the dispatcher.
“Then we plug it into our computers and it will tell us exactly where the person is within a few centimeters. Each section has its own little dot,” Nichols said.
Originally developed for mountain rescue, it was later decided that the app would work for 911 centers around the world.
“They released it for everyone and we integrated it into our phone system,” Nichols said.
Nichols said the program recently came in handy when a driver broke down on the Lincoln County Freeway.
“He didn’t speak English and the last outing he remembered seeing was in Dickinson County, so they sent him to us. Our system allows us to text in any language, so I sent him the link, he gave me his three words and we had his exact location,” Nichols said. “I informed the Kansas Highway Patrol, they got him the help he needed and he was on his way.”
Although almost everyone knows to call 911 in times of need, some don’t always understand how 911 calls work.
“People from out of state will call 911 and think they’ll get 911 in the state they live in. But that’s not the case,” Nichols said. “You get your location when your phone calls 911.
” This happens often. We’re constantly helping people find numbers in other areas,” she explained.
A recent call to the Dickinson County 911 dispatch came from a trucker driving on I-70. He had received a call from his wife in Texas telling him that someone was trying to break into their home. He then dialed 911, expecting to reach emergency dispatch in his home area in Texas, but instead reached Dickinson County, Kansas.
“He was furious until we explained to him that it didn’t work that way. We were able to get him the phone number he needed so he could call his wife and she would call him,” Nichols added.
On the other hand, sometimes people may call 911 – expecting to reach their local emergency communications center – and instead the phone is answered by a dispatcher in another city, county, state. jurisdiction or even a different state.
“If there’s a cell tower down, that phone call will bounce until it finds an open tower,” Nichols explained. “We already got calls from Utah because the call kept going until it hit a tower.”
When this happens, Dickinson County dispatchers go to Google or use other available resources to get the help the caller needs.
“It gives them some reassurance that someone cares enough to help them even when they’re cross-state,” Nichols said. “And of course we apologize and explain how they ended up calling Dickinson County, Kansas, when they’re in Utah or wherever.”
Working as a 911 dispatcher is hectic, stressful, rewarding and requires many hours of training.
“Our training lasts six months. There’s so much information piling up in a dispatcher’s head,” Nichols said.
“There is a lot of constant stress. I encourage them to talk about things,” she said. “They hear horrible, horrible things. I was on the phone listening to someone breathe their last. I had staff members do the same. It’s sad, but at least you’re there for them.
The service life of a splitter is 1.7 years. Nichols, who has worked for Dickinson County Emergency Communications for 20 years, is an exception. Currently, Nichols is president of Kansas APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials).
“I didn’t expect to stay here this long. I was working in a nursing home, but I got really burned out in the medical field. I wanted to do something in law enforcement, but I loved healthcare,” Nichols said, explaining how she ended up working in emergency communications.
“It takes a long time to build these walls to emotionally separate yourself from everything,” she added. “I encourage my staff to talk to a professional or talk to me. If you hold it back, you burn out.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, but you deal with it and move on to the next thing.”
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