APCO’s Steve Devine Talks Tech Trends in 9-1-1

By Jennifer McIntyre, Senior Public Safety Advisor, First Responder Network Authority

This article was originally posted by the First Responder Network Authority on FirstNet.gov.

I recently sat down with Steve Devine, who was named Chief Technology Officer for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International (APCO) this past December. APCO works to empower and educate public safety communications professionals.

Steve has witnessed firsthand the evolution of 9-1-1 communications in his almost 40 years of working in public safety communications. He shared his thoughts on the biggest trends in 9-1-1 technology, including the transition from analog to digital systems with Next Generation 9-1-1. Steve also discussed the role of public safety broadband in the emergency communications center (ECC) and the issues APCO is prioritizing to support telecommunicators.

Tell us about your new role at APCO and what you hope to achieve there.

I’ve taken a position at APCO as chief technology officer. I’m responsible for Next Gen 9-1-1, plus cybersecurity, spectrum management, APCO’s automated frequency coordination, and standards work. It’s exciting. It’s one of those jobs where you learn something new every day.

For decades, APCO has supported innovation for its members and those they serve. With the rollout of Next Gen 9-1-1, APCO is working to ensure the perspective of the emergency communications center is represented.

For me personally, I believe that interoperable Next Gen 9-1-1 systems are critical. My whole career has been based on improving public safety’s capabilities. We see that improvement with FirstNet today. We’re also going to see that with Next Gen 9-1-1 as it moves forward. We want a solution for Next Gen 9-1-1 that’s interoperable and allows for expansion, so we can leverage future technologies.

What are the biggest issues facing the 9-1-1 community today?

9-1-1 hasn’t kept pace with advancements in communications technologies. 9-1-1 systems are based on technology that is over 50 years old. Most ECCs are limited to voice-only communications and maybe some texting — which may not even be real-time texting. Some ECCs have taken initial steps toward Next Gen 9-1-1 — but no state in the country has yet achieved end-to-end Next Gen 9-1-1. That will happen when the ECC has the ability to receive multimedia like photos and video, to process and analyze that data, and then seamlessly share that data with other ECCs and responders in the field.

Another big issue is that ECCs sometimes have proprietary interfaces that are siloed. With every transferred 9-1-1 call, ECCs should receive the call’s location information, multimedia, and other data. We don’t see that today. So that lack of functional interoperability is problematic.

Most importantly, we can’t just create new technologies without being mindful of 9-1-1 professionals’ well-being. The profession is often overlooked because they work behind the scenes. At the federal level, public safety telecommunicators are categorized as an administrative or clerical profession. Instead, they should be categorized as a protective service in recognition of the work they do every day to save and protect lives. 9-1-1 professionals experience elevated rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Above everything, we must support the health and wellness of 9-1-1 professionals.

How is technology impacting the ECC and the communities they serve?

ECCs are receiving more 9-1-1 calls than ever, and the majority are from mobile devices. This causes information overload. If there’s an accident on the interstate, you can get 45 different calls reporting it. How do we manage those calls? How do we discern if one of those calls is about a second accident? We have to address information overload. Technology can help — whether it’s location tracking to pinpoint an accident or AI to interpret incoming videos and pictures. New ECC positions should be developed specifically to analyze the influx of information.

How have you seen public safety broadband incorporated into 9-1-1 operations?

Broadband solutions, such as FirstNet, provide support in real time, act as a redundant backup, and enable remote call handling.

One example is Iowa, where a statewide fiber network supports over 70 public safety answering points in the state. And they’re all using FirstNet to back up their connectivity in case the fiber network goes down. Public safety’s toolbox is expanded with the ability of FirstNet to back up PSAPs.

With remote call handling, FirstNet can provide a secure connection to the 9-1-1 center. And to take it one step further, you don’t have to worry about the remote dispatcher being out of the radio system’s coverage. While normally dispatchers (including in tactical dispatch situations) are accessing a radio system with coverage in that community, you could have somebody located outside the jurisdiction using a FirstNet push-to-talk solution to communicate remotely. The goal is to have the same functionality that you would at the console itself.

Public safety broadband can also enable the seamless exchange of data between the ECC and first responders in the field. It supports the transfer of information from the caller — like text, video, and images — through the ECC and to the first responder in real time. To do this with FirstNet’s priority and preemption is an extremely valuable solution.

What do you think future tech in the ECC will look like? And how will it impact 9-1-1 operations?

I see future tech helping to better manage resources so telecommunicators can support the most critical incidents in real time. Information management will probably be a new job in the future ECC, because it’s so important to make sure the right information goes to the right people at the right time.

Telecommunicators are our most precious resource, and we want to leverage technology to support them. In Alexandria, Virginia, they found that remote dispatch work was a benefit that promoted interest in the job. Anything that helps us retain and attract people to work in our field is something we have to grab and try to leverage for the future of 9-1-1.

To learn more about how the FirstNet Authority is helping public safety and the 9-1-1 community to leverage innovative public safety communications, sign up for the 9-1-1 Take with Jennifer McIntyre.