NW Minn. county first in state to use video chat for 911 calls

Later this month, emergency dispatchers in northwestern Minnesota will be able to get a closer glimpse of what’s happening on the other side of the cellphone during a 911 call.

The Pennington County Sheriff’s Office is in the process of installing technology that will allow cellphone callers to stream live video and audio to dispatchers when they call 911 for help.

Here’s how it works: A caller on a cellphone dials 911 within the Pennington County service area. If the dispatcher who answers the call thinks it would be helpful to be able to see and hear what the caller is seeing and hearing, they can send a text message to the caller’s cellphone, asking to take over the camera. It’s up to the caller to accept or decline.

"They have to agree to open up their camera so it can be activated," explained Sheriff Ray Kuznia.

An example of a citizen outreach page of Carbyne's video 911 software.
An example of a citizen outreach page of Carbyne's video 911 software.
Courtesy of Carbyne

From there, the emergency dispatcher will be able to see whatever the caller points their camera toward. The new system records the video and audio calls, just as the current system records the audio from 911 calls.

Kuznia said he believes the video chat technology will help Pennington County dispatchers make better decisions while on the phone with callers experiencing an emergency — and will allow them to better prepare first responders for what they might find when they arrive. He cited car crashes and domestic incidents as two situations in which the video chats could be useful to first responders.

"There's so many different things that can happen — from officer safety to the victim safety,” he said. “It's endless, the list that I think [this] could help.”

Kuznia said his office will be the first in the state to implement the technology when it rolls out later this month.

Pennington County, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

State officials who oversee emergency communications say they are watching the rollout closely. Dana Wahlberg, who runs the Emergency Communication Networks out of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said her agency “is open to learning about the experience Pennington County has during this pilot project.”

Pennington County is among about 15 locations across the United States — including Fayette County, Ga.; Ocean County, N.J.; and Logan County, Va. — that have been implementing the technology, which was developed by Israel-based Carbyne, over the last year.

Wahlberg said she is not aware of any similar technology being used in Minnesota, and said the state public safety department so far “does not know how this product will operate within the state’s Next Generation 911 network.”

About five years ago, Minnesota deployed the Next Generation network to allow future expansion of 911 technology. Two years ago, the state implemented a system that allows cellphone users anywhere in the state to call or text 911 in an emergency. That technology is aimed particularly at individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech-disabled.

But to expand that service to include video chat technology statewide, Wahlberg said, would require approval from the state Emergency Communications Board.

The new video 911 technology holds promise for making dispatch work more efficient, but also raises privacy concerns, said Carman Neustaedter, a human-computer interaction researcher at Simon Fraser University in Canada. He is among a small group of researchers who have studied the relatively new 911 video technology. He analyzed its potential problems and benefits in a paper published last year.

"What we found was that the idea of actually showing somebody what's happening could potentially make it faster to communicate the information to the call-taker,” said Neustaedter. “They can just see the situation, they know the kinds of things that they're looking for and that they need to assess, and they can do that if they can just take a look themselves at what's going on."

But whether a dispatcher can clearly see what’s going on will depend on a 911 caller — who's in a stressful, possibly dangerous situation — shooting steady, properly framed video.

“I think one of the biggest challenges relates to what we call camera work," said Neustaedter. "Call-takers don't want to see a lot of sky, [or] a lot of ground. They need to quickly, in a few seconds, get the best sort of picture that they can."

Neustaedter said dispatchers will need training on how to guide 911 callers’ camera use. The Carbyne company provides training for dispatchers and supervisors on how to use the system, and offers public information materials the sheriff’s office will use to let local residents know about the new 911 option.

In addition to the question of video quality, law enforcement officials in Neustaedter’s study also raised the question of the impacts that potentially disturbing or graphic live video might have on dispatchers.

"Now they may actually start to see the gruesome things that they hear about, and so there's questions about whether or not this is going to make it worse for their stress, and if there may in fact be more cases of PTSD,” said Neustaedter.

But that question, Neustaedter said, needs more research. He said it's also possible that seeing live video of an emergency unfolding will be less stressful for dispatchers than hearing the emergency on the other side of the phone, and imagining how it looks.

The recorded video and audio from the new system will become public data under Minnesota law, in the same way that the audio from 911 calls now is public data, Kuznia said.

The addition of that video to public data, Neustaedter said, raises a variety of privacy questions: “What’s being captured? Who’s going to use it? Who’s going to see it? How it might be used after the fact?” Each of those questions will need to be answered with both technological and public policy decisions, he said.

"There could be bystanders in the video, for example, and it's not clear that one has their consent to be video recorded and then made part of a public record,” said Neustaedter. "Video has this ability to easily capture more than you might expect or even realize."

Neustaedter said he expects to see at least some public concern about the technology when it first launches, but based on historical experience with new technology, such as cellphones or video connections like Skype, he expects that most opposition will likely fade. He said he anticipates video 911 will eventually become commonplace.

Sheriff Kuznia agrees.

"Five years from now, I can see the majority of the counties are going to have this,” he said. "This is just the way the world's going. Everything's on video now.”

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