Challenges for Rural 911 and EMS Communication Hubs

Written by KOVA Corp

As anyone who has ever driven to meet a friend that lives on a farm knows, there are often special directions needed, vast distances to cover, and some stretches with no Starbucks, reception, or population.  One gets a similar picture when imagining the challenges of responding effectively to 911 emergencies in rural areas.  Rural (and many tribal) areas are often also a little behind on technological developments and the infrastructure that might accommodate changes in telecommunications trends.

Despite a history of being underfunded and under-resourced, it is critical that these areas be given the attention they need, not only to meet the goals of the next generation 911 movement, but to carry out a promise to help those in crisis indiscriminately, whether they live in the city or the country.  Supporting them is also an important piece in the struggle to prepare in advance for natural disasters and large scale public threats, which do operate indiscriminately.  Finally, as rural households tend to be a little more isolated, it may be that much more urgent to have rescue available when there is a flood or a crime spree as it may be more difficult, despite the strong communal bonds that exist, to find a crowd of good Samaritans at hand.

For the call takers at public safety answering points (PSAPs), there are a different set of logistics in handling rural areas.  The first responders may have a greater distance to travel and the call-taker might have to stay on the phone longer and or provide more extensive advice.  Because hospitals are farther apart as well, ambulances may have to alter how they prepare, what equipment they take, and how to divide their time between different calls.  These unique challenges can set up a dangerous situation, one in which a contact center can be too easily overwhelmed if there are simultaneous sources of trouble or a major public health hazard.

Specifically in the case of EMS, or emergency medical services, crews may have to wear multiple hats while managing with a small staff.  Medical personnel may have to remain in contact with the crew of an air ambulance, a dispatch center, and the patient’s primary care providers.  With longer wait times and a larger area to encompass, the crew will have to be more skilled in terms of life support services and pre-hospital care.  With time being of the essence, there must be an effortless and interoperating exchange of information between the different hubs and teams.  Local authorities can make such a network a reality through raising funds and investing together in systems that they then can share.  This is as much a matter of acquiring the necessary technology as it is embracing collaboration and sharing a vision with related agencies.

Responding to these concerns, in September 2011, the White House announced changes in federal regulations specifically designed to make emergency care and communication more accessible to rural communities.  The United States Department of Agriculture published eligibility requirements for a loan program that would cover the cost of creating well integrated public safety communication networks; the loan program would allow the USDA to draw on public and private resources to quicken the development of wireless networks, border security, and more sophisticated tracking tools for 911 call centers.  Anticipated benefits include a better geographic information system (GIS) and the ability to contact 911 via text and to send in pertinent images and videos.

It’s easy to either overly romanticize rural America, or to ignore it; however, if we are to address its needs and include its vast landscape into the innovations that are at the forefront of urban life, we must be prepared to work, with sharp observation and smart planning, with a different set of variables.

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