The critical, on-the-spot decisions PSAP operators make can be the difference between life and death. There is no margin for error and the pressure is on. It takes presence of mind, professionalism, and a honed set of skills that come from learning and experience. Because of the absolute importance of 911 emergency communications and maintaining effective responses, most PSAPs employ some form of quality assurance (QA) or performance management system.
Things are rapidly changing in the PSAP environment with the onset of text-to-911 and even more so with NG911. And with these changes comes an even greater need for QA and performance management.
Until now, the primary form of communication between the public and PSAPs has been over the telephone and QA solutions were designed to address that type of communication. But with NG911, PSAPs will also be required to handle text, video, images, and other types of data. There will be a flood of information in various formats into the PSAP and operators will have to process all of it. While this new data will equip PSAPs with more information and insights to serve the public, it will also add a layer of complexity to operations and performance management.
As text-to-911 and NG911 implementations progress, QA will play a more important role in ensuring that PSAP operators perform to the standards the public expects. QA will be a critical tool for identifying and closing knowledge gaps. Additionally, it will help PSAPs ensure compliance with regulations such as CALEA, APCO P33, and NENA QA/QI standards.
How Broadband Changes the PSAP
Broadband availability has changed how we communicate in our daily lives and it is poised to change the public safety landscape as well.
Smartphones have reached a tipping point and are outselling standard mobile phones. They allow us to record and stream video, access the Internet, download apps, navigate to our destination, text our friends and family, and take high-quality photos. That’s a tremendous amount of information that we can share almost instantaneously.
Similarly, broadband LTE for public safety via FirstNet is going to open up a new dimension of multimedia data for first responders and other public safety stakeholders. Given the promise of this new data, it’s likely to be used in the incident management process. PSAP operators will be able to view video from an incident scene and sensor information from systems such as LPR, fire alarms, perimeter protection, chemical spills, access control, and many others. Because public safety broadband will also enable interoperability, PSAPs will be able to share this information with other agencies and first responders in the field. Accordingly, PSAP operators’ knowledge and skill sets will need to evolve. While the types of incidents the operator manages won’t change, the dynamics -- information flow, volume, and sources of data -- will change dramatically.
PSAP operators will need to learn new systems and procedures, process new media formats, and make good decisions based on those inputs. While this new data has the potential to provide better insights for effective call handling, it also has the power to disrupt and confuse PSAP operators. For that reason, QA is going to be even more crucial in the new era of NG911 and public safety broadband. In an environment where mistakes can mean the difference between life and death, PSAPs will need to identify knowledge gaps so they can be addressed immediately. Next generation QA solutions will help ensure that operators are on track in terms of acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in this environment.
The Evolution of QA
Even today, with the availability of automated QA solutions, many PSAPs conduct their QA manually. But manual QA has some drawbacks -- it’s time consuming and lacks the objectivity of an automated solution. Despite these downfalls, manual QA has historically been a viable option for PSAPs since telephone calls (and perhaps radio transmissions) were the only type of data under review.
However, as NG911 introduces various multimedia to the PSAP, manual QA will quickly become an insurmountable task.
Next generation QA solutions extend beyond voice communications to include video, text messages, and screen activity -- something manual QA or even traditional automated QA can’t do. Next generation QA enables PSAPs to review an event’s lifecycle and provides a complete view of the organization’s performance down to the individual level.
Manual, opportunistic QA can’t do this. By its nature, automation provides a defined methodology, which is consistently applied across the organization. An automated system increases the frequency of the QA processes, which enables fact-based trends to emerge and identifies pervasive issues that need to be addressed. Combined with the objectivity of the process, results are more accurate and informative. This engenders trust in the results and higher engagement in improvement initiatives.
Preparing Operators for NG911
PSAPs are, or will soon be, spending considerable time and resources to educate and train operators for NG911. But despite this preparation, the real learning will take place in situ. There’s simply no substitute for this experience. It’s analogous to understanding the theory behind riding a bike and actually getting on one and cycling.
The learning process will be continuous for PSAP operators. Ongoing training, assessment, refinement of procedures, and guidance will be crucial in helping operators become proficient with new systems, procedures, and regulations.
Some of the most effective learning will come by example. For instance, complete, synchronized incident timelines that include every aspect of how an incident was handled, even down to keystrokes, can identify both best practices and gaps in knowledge and skills. These reconstructions can be used for individual coaching and in a classroom environment. Next generation QA solutions provide this level of insight.
Another important element to NG911 performance management is reporting. Detailed reports generated by the new QA provide information on the efficacy of training programs, systems, best practices, and individual and overall performance. It also shows how training procedures are being utilized and implemented and if
they’re compliant with regulatory standards.
With good reason, almost every aspect of public safety is heavily regulated. NG911 will include a range of new standards with which PSAPs must comply, including CALEA accreditation, APCO 33, and NENA’s QA/QI standards. Part of these regulatory standards requires that QA evaluations be conducted regularly, both for call takers and dispatchers. Furthermore, PSAPs will be required to prove they are maintaining compliance.
To address these requirements, next generation QA solutions create reports that verify the frequency and type of evaluations, as well as subsequent steps taken to remedy any flagged situations. They can also serve as necessary proof of compliance. By automating these tasks, next generation QA solutions minimize the time and resources PSAPs must dedicate to the evaluation process.
Selecting a Next Generation QA System
In the transition to NG911, the systems and technology PSAPs deploy will be crucial to its smooth implementation. Ideally, the selected QA solution will be able to address the complete performance improvement lifecycle, including training, ongoing evaluations, and reporting.
It all starts with the ability to capture an incident in its totality, including all of the related actions, multimedia, and communications. This allows the PSAP to evaluate how operators interact with new systems -- if they’ve entered the right information, followed protocol, and correctly dispatched assistance, among many other tasks.
Once QA identifies knowledge gaps, filling them is the obvious next step. Next generation QA systems enable supervisors to take immediate action by providing need-based coaching and training to groups and specific call takers.
NG911 requires that operators and dispatchers develop a range of new skills and adhere to new procedures. PSAPs must be able to track this education to ensure service levels aren’t diminished as a result of the transition and to remain compliant. They should conduct regular performance assessments, and drill down and evaluate the quality of an operator’s responses as it relates to the various forms of data -- voice, text, video, radio, and GIS.
Reporting is also important. A QA solution has access to an enormous amount of data, and utilizing it to the fullest extent can help PSAPs improve operations. For example, organized and accurate data on call volume and radio communications can facilitate more efficient and cost-effective staffing and resource utilization decisions. Reporting should also be able to give management insight into the productivity, performance, and quality of service being provided at the organization and individual levels.
These advanced QA capabilities can have a substantial impact on a PSAP, from ensuring that everyone is performing as they should to improving operations and even reducing expenses.
The Expanded Role of QA
NG911 and public safety broadband will be two of the most substantial transformational trends to impact the emergency call center since its advent. At the same time, these developments will make PSAP operations more complex.
Next generation QA and performance management tools will provide the insight PSAPs need to make a smooth transition from traditional 911 protocols to the new standards associated with NG911.