Could video streaming in the PSAP aid dispatch?
The evolution of devices such as mobile phones and tablets, has brought about greater acceptance and use of video as a means to communicate. Whether it is via web conferencing services or products like Skype or FaceTime, we have all become familiar with the notion of being able to see as well as speak with distant colleagues, friends and family members. So why not when making a 911 call?
Video streaming has the potential to assist emergency call centers handle many life-saving scenarios, for example; evaluating a structure fire’s severity prior to arrival on scene, provide improved incident management, supplementing location descriptions or assist callers who are unable to speak, serving as eyes on the ground in an active shooter incident and assisting in injury triage.
Some might argue that call centers have historically been dealing with these types of emergencies quite well without video. So, could having visual access to the predicament the caller is reporting, aid and enhance public safety response?
Get the Picture?
Changes in infrastructure brought about by NG911 have made accessibility to multi-media material sent by the public, easier to receive and process. In addition, there has been a growing interest in services such as telemedicine to ease demands on limited resources and make public services more accessible. Many mobile phone users no longer view making voice calls as their primary means of staying in touch with contacts. The speed at which we see video or text messages arising from dramatic events enter the public domain via social media, demonstrate the public’s familiarity with and willingness to use these technologies.
When the concept of call handling protocols was first introduced in 911 call centers, many expressed concerned their use would slow down call handling times, and they would devalue the standing of dispatchers within the industry. The passage of time has shown these fears to be unfounded, and the beneficial merits of protocol tools are universally accepted. That said, we all recognize that to be effective, use of these products has to be balanced with the specific needs each call presents. Not every pre-dispatch question needs to be asked, not every caller needs to be offered pre-arrival instructions after dispatch has been initiated. The same premise applies to incorporating the receipt of multi-media into 911. The handling and response to many calls can and will, still be effectively managed without access to images or video material. But, it is a responsibility of every 911 Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), to adapt and evolve their operations to meet changing environments and public expectations. In doing so, they should also be proactively engaged in deploying measures to ensure responder safety.
The receipt and handling of live video from 911 callers has the potential to support these goals. Provided its introduction is carefully considered, the ability to view and share live images from a scene could open opportunities not previously available. This paper (presentation) aims to set out some of the factors that may need to be address for the potential to be realized.
Knowing When to Connect
Existing technology makes the capability to deliver multi-media into the PSAP already possible. It would be easy to solely focus in this article on the logistics of how to implement it. But, the impact of exposing operators traditionally trained to function in an auditory environment should not be overlooked. Attention should be given to the core training for telecommunicators within PSAPs which have traditionally focused on developing listening and verbal skills. These people are often described as first responders, a term intended to elevate and recognize their contribution to the response chain because of their ability to advise and support callers or victims before the field responders arrive on scene. They need to be schooled to know not only when to deploy multi-media tools, but also how to make effective use of material as it is being collected. They need to be able to continue functioning effectively despite the sight of unpleasant images, and at all times, maintain professionalism during the interaction.
Knowing when to not invoke procedures to capture video, will be as important as recognizing situations when it will be of benefit. Training and procedural guidelines have to ensure the primary goals of determining priority and initiating dispatch are not compromised. The use of multi-media should not allow deviation from this. Rather it should be used as a tool to enhance response, scene management and possible retrospective investigation. In doing so, it has to be seen as a useful resource, where the establishment of a video session is achieved with minimal steps, be adaptive to factors such as connection bandwidth and the mobile device being used. But, perhaps more importantly, captured in a manner that ensures the media can be viewed easily in context with the scenario that initiated its use. Call handling protocols are a commonly used tool in the PSAP and despite being intended to improve the consistency of information gathered from the caller, establishing clear and concise details is not always possible. A recommendation to utilize video could as easily be embedded within protocol output as it is to recommend dispatch or to invoke a pre-arrival procedure.
Making a Connection
The sheer range of phones and tablets on the market, will require that the method to initiate and manage a video stream has to be responsive to a range of capabilities. These may not just relate to the physical device but also the bandwidth of the network being used to connect to the web. To ensure context in relation to known events, the process to initiate video collection must rest with the telecommunicator, who should be as equally able to set up the stream as discontinue it. Their control over the session should extend to the ability to activate or mute sound and to receive GPS coordinates from the streaming device. Knowing the coordinates will aid location verification and reveal the track if the sender is moving.
When establishing a video session, there needs to be a balance between ease of use, timeliness, security and compatibility across device types and operating systems. Should the process be handled via a link sent to the caller that launches their browser, or should it be managed via an app? Accepting the need for the telecommunicator to initiate a streaming session, the caller needs to be provided with a unique digital key to ensure an accurate secure, contextual relationship is maintained between the media being sent and the call record it relates to. The key has to be received without interrupting the original voice call, while at the same time allow the caller to be aware of its receipt. Once received, the caller has to then be able to invoke the key, initiate and begin the streaming session, but there are different approaches as to how this can occur. Bearing in mind that this communication is initiating a one-way media stream from the caller to the PSAP and that the telecommunicator has sole control as to whether the invitation to start a session is sent, as well as when it will end, the video stream still needs to be shareable in real-time and recorded for later review. Establishing the session through a browser link may appear to be a quick and simple method to achieve this. However, in the event the phone user inadvertently rejects or blocks access to the HTTPS site, resetting the phone to reverse that step may take time during which streaming cannot occur. A browser link may also limit the ability to support controls over sending the device’s services such as audio and pause/resume. Plus, there are risks of the stream session competing with other internal resource such as other web pages, cookies and cache memory.
Managed via an app installed on the device is not only feasible but has advantages over a browser-based approach. During its development, an app has to pass scrutiny requirements imposed by the primary OS providers Android and OSI. Being recognized as a ‘trusted source’ there is less likelihood of the stream being blocked when the session is being established. There is less chance of the connection across the web being hijacked by malware in the mobile browser, and an app is more easily able to interact with the device’s services such as audio and video optimization parameters. Downloading an app via an SMS link can take just a few seconds and be comparable with launching a browser and loading a web-based service.
Once a video stream is established, the telecommunicator must still be able to handle and manage the call as they would normally be expected to do. The difference now is that they have sight of the scene to verify their that instructions are being understood, to clarify scene details that might be of significance or even reveal circumstances they had not previously considered. More importantly, they should be able to securely share this view with colleagues in the PSAP, incident commanders and responders in the field or even a triage center preparing to receive casualties. To prevent indiscriminate sharing of a live stream, video streaming services are capable of allowing the generation of one-time limited use links targeted to a specific user ID or email address. It is possible to ensure that a link cannot be shared or subsumed by entities such as media outlets without appropriate authorization.
During a live session, the caller should be able to stop and restart the transmission of a live video feed without having to repeat the steps taken to install / launch an app or browser within their device. If the caller needs to stop transmission, the telecommunicator should be aware of the interruption and be able to refresh their view once it resumes. While the stream is active, a recording should be occurring in the background. The recording should stitch together any breaks in the transmission to allow a continuous playback that clearly reveals to the viewer elapsed time verses actual time when it was recorded. Sharing access to these recordings should be protected by similar controls as used to share live streaming. These recording could be used for evidential purposes, so the manner in which they are stored has to demonstrate the integrity of the recorded material in relation to the original live stream.
Looking to the Future
Could video streaming in the PSAP aid dispatch? The answer has to be a qualified yes. The receipt of visual images from the scene of a 911 call could benefit those caught up in the events being reported and those sent to help them. But careful consideration needs to be given to the manner in which the technology is introduced, and the impact of its exposure on telecommunicators who traditionally interact sight unseen with callers. Video streaming with 911 callers will offer an adjunct to communication skills that form the bedrock of the telecommunicator’s role. In many instances, a short voice call may be all that is necessary to process many requests for 911 assistance, but when circumstances occur where the additional dimension of seeing events unfold would help, a quick solution to opening a view on what is going on will benefit all concerned. The technological means to do this does exists, but to capitalize on its potential, PSAPs will have to grasp the procedural and training needs to make it a truly effect tool.
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