James Thalman

James Thalman

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By James Thalman

No matter how finely attuned PSAPs become to the brave new world of digital emergency communications, technology will never replace the most important point of contact in a 9-1-1 call—the human voice.

So say several first-generation dispatchers when asked their opinions of Next Generation 9-1-1. If and when the capacity to seamlessly handle the demands of broadband exists—even to the point that nascent voice command programs such as Siri become the norm—veteran dispatchers believe no app will ever replace the sense of security and contact in a crisis that comes exclusively with the human voice.

People are taking the move into all things digital as a kind of manifest destiny, Steve Proctor, executive director of the Utah Communications Agency Network (UCAN), told The Journal recently. “People might be overlooking how important the sound of a caring, calm voice is to anyone involved in a serious accident or any kind of emergency situation.”

Proctor said as his own agency observes the succeeding generation of 9-1-1, he often catches himself thinking about his first years as a state Department of Transportation dispatcher. He would handle snowplow deployment as well as man the public contact point for road condition updates.

“Several times, especially late night or early morning hours during bad storms, I’d start getting calls for road conditions by people who would keep calling every 20 minutes or so,” Proctor said. “It bothered me at first. But then I realized those folks weren’t weather nuts tracking a snowstorm, and they weren’t in any real danger, they just wanted to hear a voice on the other end telling them what was going on out there and that things were probably OK.”

They were minor points in the scheme of emergency dispatching over the years and the evolution of UCAN. “But I’ve thought about those folks a lot over the years, and especially these days I keep them in mind as we move ahead with NG9-1-1,” he said. “That kind of trust and public sense that we’ll be there no matter what needs to remain the centerpiece of whatever upgrades we implement. That’s what it’s all about and I suspect always will be, no matter how fast or how much data we can handle.”