There are no “Lone Rangers” in public safety. It is just as important for public safety answering points (PSAP) to collaborate with technology partners as it is for first responders to work together to rescue victims and protect property.
Your PSAP might be one of the envied Emergency Communications Centers (ECC) with your own dedicated information technology (IT) professional who supports only your center. Chances are very good that you do not.
You are not alone! Most 911 centers compete for the time, attention and expertise of IT colleagues who are stretched across multiple departments in municipal, county, or even state-level organizations. The struggle for resources is real. It can be difficult to get on the IT calendar when you need input on RFPs, advice on implementing new tools, or expertise while planning upgrades and deployments. All of this has a huge impact on both day-to-day operations and your ability to keep up with rapidly advancing technology solutions.
So, what do you do? We asked that question of two 911 professionals who have broad experience in navigating the reality of IT and PSAP Operations collaboration: Ashish (Yosh) Kakkad, CIO of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, in California, and Dan Koenig, Senior Manager of 911 Program Services for the Palm Beach County Department of Public Safety, in Florida. Here’s a summary of Kakkad and Koenig’s advice on how ops and IT can build a more productive working relationship, moderated by Robert Sergi, vice president of delivery operations at Intrado:
- Focus on the 3 Cs: connection, communication and collaboration. Let’s say your dispatch center needs to choose a new monitor for telecommunicators. That may seem like a pretty low-level decision. But for those who take dozens of 911 calls every day, that choice can be a lot more complex and impactful, notes Ashish Kakkad. “Addressing and focusing on the 3Cs is highly critical when making any decision that affects operations.” Adds Robert Sergi: “We cannot really achieve the end goal without that close communication and collaboration of multidisciplinary teams.”
- Focus on the “why” behind the technology. It’s easy to get caught up in the next new thing, the shiny state-of-the-art widget. The work of IT focuses on using the technology to accomplish something; in this case, a more efficient workflow, better staffing of PSAPs for cost savings, displaying the right information on the right interface as quickly as possible. “Technology folks need to remember that everything and anything we deploy has to benefit the end user,” Kakkad says. “At the end of the day, what we do has to introduce operational efficiencies, as well as help the people that are actually leveraging and utilizing these resources… Oftentimes, that’s where I’ve seen things go wrong, when we front-loaded a project with a lot of heavy technical requirements.”
- Work together on RFPs. When you’re putting together your next RFP ask yourself this, says Akkad: “How would you reimagine your processes? Let’s figure out a way to structure the RFP that balances that.” Having done just this at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Akkad’s team goes in a non-traditional direction. The RFP criteria they use isn’t necessarily driven by technology and requirements, but rather by functionality. Reaching that goal requires the input of call-takers and dispatchers. Dan Koenig talks to his call management team first when assembling an RFP. “We ask them, ‘what do you like about what’s going on? What do you not like?’” he says. “And we start from there. What’s going to make their life easier is a very big focus of ours.”
- Remember that there are no small problems. Ever had this happen? Your dispatch center’s system has a technical glitch that’s hard to replicate, but usually self-corrects after a few seconds. It’s tempting for IT to see this as a low-level priority. “But when it’s a call-taker having that same little minor issue hundreds of times a day, that becomes a big issue to us,” says Koenig, who adds that he makes clear to vendors, too, that the “little” stuff matters.
- Loop in IT from the beginning. If you’re on the ops side at your PSAP and starting to plan any kind of improvement or upgrade, whether it’s getting new furniture or transitioning to NG911, be sure that IT staff are there from the start, stresses Koenig. “You don’t want to get your expectations way too high and then hear, ‘that’s just not technically possible,’ or, ‘it’s possible, but way beyond our budget.’” Adds Kakkad: “Anytime anything new starts, [Operations’] first reaction should be to engage their IT staff… It has to be that partnership and that close collaboration that allows us to move things faster, easier, better for the end-user experience.”
- Work together in moments of crisis and frustration. Akkad likes to tell the story of when, a couple of years ago, their communications centers got new desks and furniture and some dispatchers began experiencing periods when one of their monitors would go blank. The IT team spent weeks trying to troubleshoot the problem, until an engineer finally figured out the signal wasn’t strong enough to travel through the cable to a few monitors, due to the new furniture configuration. “We were able to focus on a whole bunch of different solutions with input from dispatch, working with them very closely,” Akkad explains. “The patience that our communications center showed in working with us on was incredible… It was persistence on both our parts.”
- Encourage autonomy and creativity. If you want to optimize limited resources at your PSAP, you need to give all members of your teams the opportunity to make decisions, says Koenig. “Empower them to grow and learn, and support them in new ideas, because ultimately new ideas are going to come from them because they’re the ones that are actually on the ground focusing what their concerns and limitations are… We’ve found an environment where we’re constantly able to innovate and deploy new ideas and work very closely with our users.”
- Put staff in other people’s shoes. As soon as Koenig makes a new IT management hire in Palm Beach County, he ensures that the person spends a day in dispatch or in a patrol car. “They have a better idea at the end of the day of why they are here,” he says. “They’re here to use their knowledge and skills of technology to deliver a solution. They have to have that focus.” Kakkad echoes Koenig’s sentiment: “One of the first things we do with new technicians is have them put the headset on,” he says. “What may seem like a minor problem doesn’t seem like that when you’re tethered to a desk with a headset on all day and that have little minor inconvenience occur 100 times a day.”
- Keep the communication flowing, even after you launch. Once you’ve got an RFP and you’re ready to move ahead on a project, that’s no time to stop talking to one another. “Everybody needs to be on the same page with the plan as they’re moving through it,” Akkad says. And once you go live and things are working well? “Don’t forget to stop and look back and do a debrief of that project,” advises Koenig. “It’s critical to understand what you did right and what you could have done better, for next time.”
Never was the idiom, “It takes a village…” more meaningful than when it is applied to the public safety community. To optimize your information technology resources--wherever they are located--apply the 3 C’s - Connect, Communicate, Collaborate.
For additional information, click to view “911 Live 2020”, Session 2: “Meeting of the Minds: You and Your IT Team,” with Ashish Kakkad/San Diego County Sheriff's Dept, Dan Koenig/911 Program Services, Palm Beach, FL, and Robert Sergi/Intrado.