Public could make video 911 calls under new systems

Published: Friday, Apr. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Saturday, Apr. 6, 2013 - 3:24 pm

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly included attribution from a Sacramento police spokesman. Dispatch supervisor Jena Swafford and Capt. Michael McCarthy were the only Sacramento police representatives quoted in this story.

Imagine making a video call with a 911 dispatcher.

That idea may soon be reality, as law enforcement agencies nationwide test technologies that will enable emergency operators to watch live video and receive text messages from the public via any communications device.

On Thursday, 35 dispatchers from across the state huddled in a conference room at the Sacramento Police Department's Communications Center for a training course on what to expect with the next wave of 911 technology.

"Before you were hearing it, now you're going to to be witnessing it," said course instructor Capt. Michael Goold of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department.

Though the technology for video calls and text messaging is already here, law enforcement officials note that integration into the 911 emergency system is still far from certain.

"What works for Sacramento may not work in a smaller community," said Jena Swafford, a dispatch supervisor with the Sacramento Police Department.

Swafford noted that incorporating text messaging and video conferencing – technologies collectively known as Next Generation 911 – would depend on many factors including legislation, community needs, staffing and money.

In Sacramento, there are no plans to implement Next Generation 911, but that could change five or 10 years from now.

"Text messaging will probably be the first technology," Swafford said. "It will help those who can't call like the hearing impaired."

Swafford said that text messaging also could help people in situations where they can't talk on the phone, such as someone being held captive in the trunk of a vehicle.

Among the positive benefits of video conferencing: Dispatchers will have a more accurate sense of the emergencies they're dealing with.

That's because 911 operators typically never see the images of what they hear over the phone, unlike police officers out in the field. The problem, Swafford said, involves dispatchers creating an image that is "1,000 times worse than reality."

"Actually seeing it might be a little lighter for us. Maybe there's a degree of closure," she told the group.

But some law enforcement officials are concerned that Next Generation 911 may increase the stress dispatchers face on a daily basis. The instantaneous nature of the technology means they will be firsthand witnesses to homicides, car accidents and suicides.

"Cops can drive faster, paramedics can push more drugs, but 911 folks will sit at a terminal and just be helpless," Goold said. "They are passive observers of violence."

In the past, Sacramento police had trouble retaining dispatchers, with an 80 percent turnover rate within five years, said Capt. Michael McCarthy, who heads the communications division. But over the years, through training and a careful vetting of recruits, that figure has turned into a 60 percent retention rate for five years.

Still, the stresses of the job are expected to increase with the new technology.

"If you're watching it live, it is imprinted. It's never going to go away," Goold said.

Already, agencies in California are testing the boundaries of virtual policing.

The Redwood City Police Department has an officer who takes video calls from the public, according to the department's website, though the venue isn't a place to report emergencies.

Call The Bee's Richard Chang, (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

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