Are Real-Time Centers Causing a Reshuffling of 911 Dispatcher Duties?

I've written elsewhere that police "real time crime centers" are disrupting 911 centers. When I used the term disruption, some readers thought it to be negative, as opposed to the neutrality I meant. But now, I'm leaning towards it being a positive term. Here's what I'm thinking...

In the late 1990s, I was a new cop. It wasn't uncommon for uniformed patrolmen or patrolwomen to cover 911 desks when dispatchers called in sick. We'd be call-takers and dispatcher for fire, police, and medics. It was somewhat overwhelming - with the 911 phones, jail surveillance cameras, alarm boards, radio consoles, TDD systems, dot-matrix printers, monochrome monitors...

And the technology stuffed into our dispatcher center seemed to grow every year - GPS systems, city pod cameras, databases, and plenty of other tools that I'd rather not name publicly. And with each new tool or tech, the complaints from dispatchers were as predictable as the sunrise: "We can't handle adding this to our responsibilities..."


Similarly, when I made Detective in 2002, my unit was still using typewriters for criminal complaints. I was the first detective in my police department who didn't have the Detective Secretary type out my warrants and charging documents. And to my surprise, her feelings were hurt the first time I refused her offer to help. 

"Thanks, but I'm not going to hand-write it, just so you can type it for me. I can just type it out myself..." 

Not only did I know how to use a typewriter, I knew how to use a computer.

As we cycled through secretaries and became accustomed with their growing familiarity with technology, we changed their titles and job descriptions. They began using computers to help investigators analyze bank records, phone records, and other data. When we got email and cellphones, "secretarial" duties were no longer needed.

It's been a perpetual reshuffling of duties and functions between various positions, roles, and desks. And "analysts" are a staple in contemporary police investigative units.


Real-Time Crime Centers (RTCC) aren't new. But they're not exactly commonplace yet either. These are rooms where officers, detectives, operators, or analysts live-monitor a variety of information sources: police radio, traffic cameras, GPS-enabled devices, active police/fire incidents, impending weather emergencies, and (you guessed it)...plenty of other tools that I'd rather not name publicly.

Let's pose the following tool: a gunshot detection system that triangulates and maps-out the sound of gunfire in a neighborhood. The tight accuracy of this tool is measured in feet and yards. It's incredibly fast. Faster and generally more accurate than information from 911 callers (if they call!). But who should be monitoring these systems?

  • 911 dispatch centers?
  • real-time crime centers?
  • officers in the field?
  • a combination of the above, and maybe all?

Who picks up the radio mic and broadcasts the gunfire alert to officers in the field, so that they respond? 

  • Maybe a police dispatcher used to broadcast those last year, before the RTCC was staffed and up-and-running... 
  • Maybe the dispatcher still wants to have access to that technology, out of being conditioned to having access...
  • Maybe the dispatcher never liked to be responsible for monitoring that system and is glad to have it reshuffled to the RTCC...

These alerts are often accompanied by 911 calls, which might have additional information about persons-down, getaway vehicles, or shooter descriptions. Someone's still gotta answer 911 when it rings.


But do we really think that 911, in its current form, is going to survive the next decade? 

I'm shocked that my iPhone 12 doesn't have some sort of emergency button. I imagine pressing a button, confirming it in some manner, and selecting EMS. My location is automatically uploaded to a computer-aided dispatch screen, initiating the dispatch of an ambulance directly to my mapped location, with maybe some followup phone call with a human for the details. 

Or how about some sort of traffic crash sensors in cars. (Yes, I know they already exist.) A signal could be generated (or cancelled/confirmed on a dashboard screen by a driver) and sent to dispatch to get police and other emergency services enroute to the GPS location of the crash.

And do you know what non-secret technology also already exists?

The ability for someone sitting in a police station to get immediate access to traffic cameras, pod cameras, or live drone footage at the exact locations of my EMS request or the traffic crash for "real-time" updates, based on map integrations between video systems and computer-aided dispatch systems. 


If you were to ask me about "police communications" in 1998 as a rookie cop...

I would have thought about 911 calls and police radios. That's about it. We didn't have cellphones. Even then, our squad car MDTs were something that looked like they belonged in an antique display case (and could hardly be called "computers"). It wasn't until the mid-2000s when I could be trusted with department email. ;) 

But now, we communicate in real-time through a variety of channels, mediums, messaging platforms, and technologies. When 25 years ago we relied solely on "voice" over the police radio, we now expect radio broadcasts to be supplemented with images, videos, maps, and data....and we expect it now!


Police officers are being dispatched to scenes of emergencies more often without the trigger being a 911 call. Cops are responding to alerts, alarms, sensors, triggers, and other technology at an exponentially growing pace. 

The work being done by a 911 center call-taker or dispatcher today is NOT going to be the same work being done in a decade. It's likely not going to be the same work next year! 


Every time public safety or law enforcement gets a new piece of technology, we need to figure out "where to put it." This requires that we perpetually reshuffle the functions, duties, and roles of our workforce. Not everyone is going to be ready. Not everyone wants the change. Not everyone has the skills to make the leap.

Change is difficult. I'm thinking of really sweet lady whose job it was to type up officers' handwritten reports...who no longer work with us. Either she didn't see the changes in technology as they snuck up on her, or she wasn't able to learn the technological skills necessary to advance into the next phase of work-as-done. She possessed skills for last year's job.

As I continue on an RTCC-building mission, it's important for me to include the 911 dispatch center function into the mix, above all other existing functions in public safety. I believe the existing RTCC and 911 duties to be reshuffled the most in the coming years. And frankly, I see a chunk of the technology to be shifted from 911 to RTCC, and not the other way around.

Regardless, these functions will be co-evolving. 

Wherever you are, do not get too comfy. 


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a detective supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. He's focused on multi-jurisdictional crime patterns & intelligence, through organic working groups compromised of investigators & analysts from a variety of agencies. With a passion for training, he studies human performance, decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, & adaptability. In 2021, he went back to college (remotely!), in hopes to finally finish his undergrad degree from the University of Illinois - Gies College of Business. Follow Lou on LinkedIn, & also the LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model***


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