Some 911 Emergency Response Centers Dispatching Drones to Help First Responders



In the late 1950’s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs made a push to have all emergency calls streamed through a single number rather than individuals having to look up their local police, fire, or hospital phone numbers. This idea mimicked a protocol already in place throughout the United Kingdom in which people could call 999 from any location and be connected to the appropriate emergency responders. The 911 call system was established and is now the recognized method of reporting any type of an emergency in North America. Today 911 call centers are located all over the continent so that when an emergency is called it it will automatically be sent to the caller’s correlating 911 center based on area code. The dispatcher will then connect the caller with either the police, fire, or EMS. The dispatcher will often remain on the line with the caller and give instructions if need be.

The primary concern for these 911 call centers is to make sure that if there is an emergency the right responders can get to the correct location as quick as possible, which is why the first thing a 911 dispatcher says when answering a call is, “9-1-1, where is your emergency?” And, as pointed out in an article by Christy Williams, Director of North Central Texas Emergency Communications District (NCT9-1-1), “Unfortunately, medical conditions, stress, domestic violence and active shooters are just a few examples where the caller cannot provide his or her location.” She goes on to point out that not all wireless phones have supplemental location software that will allow a dispatcher to pinpoint where a cell call is coming from. Further, with the continued growth of communities, finding a caller’s location can sometimes be difficult. This is why the North Central Texas Emergency Communications District has begun using drones to help dispatchers relay critical information rapidly and accurately. As stated on the call center’s website, “NCT9-1-1 is engaged in the planning, implementation, and maintenance of an emergency 9-1-1 system for more than 40 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) in 13 counties surrounding the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex. NCT9-1-1 serves a population of 1.6 million and 10,800+ square miles.”

By using drones, NCT9-1-1 is able to create maps of the areas they serve so as to relay the best information possible in an emergency situation. If a call is coming from someone in a newly built area, a dispatcher needs to have the correct geographic information to send an officer there. When NCT9-1-1 began this program in 2018 they Tweeted “Drone technology can be used to address new subdivisions in hours, a process that can take months. This allows addressing info to be uploaded into 911 call centers faster, so call takers have a more accurate idea of your location.” Beyond being able to provide officers with better location directions, the drones are allowing NCT9-1-1 to create 3D models of areas that would otherwise prove to be difficult to navigate like a school campus.

Rodger Mann is the geographic information systems manager at NCT9-1-1 and has been leading the implementation of the drone program. “By providing better data, our stakeholders can find callers in emergency situations quicker,” Mann said. “Schools are considered ‘critical-infrastructure,’ and we see the need for creating a situational awareness common operating picture for first responders. In critical situations, 3D models can greatly assist first responders in planning and strategy — identifying roof access and exit points in active shooter incidents.” If an emergency situation were to occur in a school campus, a dispatcher can give the responding officers exact details from the caller in correlation to the 3D map created by the drone.

Mann said they began the drone program by first training two employees to meet the FAA Part 107 requirements. As an organization that services the public it was very important to NCT9-1-1 that they operate fully within the laws and regulations of drone use. They wanted to assure the public that the drone footage being collected was to better serve and protect the communities, while being acutely aware of the privacy and safety concerns of everyone. Once NCT9-1-1’s pilots were fully licensed it was time to begin using the drone to collect data for their supplemental location maps.

Mann said that he reached out to several district and the first to respond was Rio Vista in Johnson County. Tony Martin, Superintendent of the Rio Vista school district thought this would be an excellent opportunity for the safety of the community. Concerns for student safety within school campuses have become a major issue recently. He said, “It provides 911 staff members a three dimensional picture of our campus facilities that would aid first responders in the event of a crisis situation. For example, a 911 call from the high school would provide high degree specific details regarding the location of the facility, any obstacles or alternative avenues of approach. This subject could be discussed for hours.”

The fact is, that in any emergency situation every second is critical. If an emergency dispatcher is lacking information on a caller’s location, the response time is thrown off. As communities grow, GPS locations are not always up to date. Locations within buildings like schools and urban areas can also be misleading. By using a drone, 911 call centers can compile complete data sets to guide emergency responders to better serve communities. As Roger Mann said, “NCT911 is proactive, and we want to save lives. Supplying current data and advanced technology such as 3D modelling is going to give our first responders better information in responding to mission-critical situations.”



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