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NextGen 9-1-1 Public Education: Engaging Kids Today with Tools They Understand

By Special Guest Writer Christine Giglio, BS, ENP Computer Aided Dispatch Administrator

With April being "9-1-1 Education Month'', it is important to be able to educate the public about 9-1-1. The real trick is to do so in a contemporary fashion without falling into the “fellow kids” category. In an emergency, every second matters and being prepared with 9-1-1 education will help provide the public safety telecommunicator with all the information necessary to provide a quick response.

Emergency Communication Centers across the nation participate in 9-1-1 public education. We are driven by a need to educate because we hear little kids calling 9-1-1 when their mom or dad is sick, and we don’t want to lose anyone because those children didn’t know how to dial emergency services. In the past, my center provided public education but as staffing got leaner everyone was busy working. But one day in May of 2019 my center was offered a chance to participate in the National Night Out event that our local police department was organizing. We were so short-staffed, and I wasn’t sure anyone would even want to do it with me. I went to some people and asked if they’d be interested in doing the event and from there it exploded!

When Bedford County Emergency Communications Center does something, we go big or we go home! One of our talented public safety dispatchers made us all t-shirts to wear. Another got a tent and tables for us to have and transported them for us. We all pitched in and purchased, out of our own pockets, sidewalk chalk, raffle prizes, and props for a photo booth. We had multiple people coming to the event and we were all very excited.

At that time, I started looking around the office for some 9-1-1 education materials for our table. All I found were coloring books. While we all love a good coloring book, I flipped through it, and it was very old-fashioned. So I started looking around online for materials to purchase. I couldn’t find anything I felt that would engage a child in 2019. I had a 5-year-old at home and if it didn’t involve a game on a phone or Pokémon, he was not interested.

The first thing I thought of was to make cards with a phone drawn on them and tips for teaching your kids about dialing 9-1-1 on the back of the card. These were cards people could take home with them and have their kids press the numbers on the card. I designed the cards and paid out of pocket for them to be printed. When they came in, I stared at them and thought, “I bet I could make an Android app that could do the same thing”. And that is where the idea for Practice 9-1-1 for Kids came about.

I had some time to get started so I contacted my niece, who is an exceptional artist, and told her what I wanted. Meanwhile, I sat down at the computer and had the overall design complete in a few days. While waiting on the artwork to be completed, I added the phone buttons and the touch-tone audio. Once I had everything working and artwork incorporated, I bundled it up and side-loaded it onto my husband’s old phone.

National Night Out was an absolute blast and very successful! We took every opportunity to engage citizens in our booth. We had tons of people sign up for our raffle prizes. It felt great to get out and speak to the people that we help every day. We promised each other that next year we would participate and already started planning the next year’s activities.

When COVID hit, my app sat on the old phone and was brought out only for minor bug fixes and testing them.… until one day when someone called the center and asked if we had any resources to teach their autistic child how to dial 9-1-1. They passed them along to me and I gave the citizen some advice and offered the cards for him to come to pick up. At that moment I thought, “Why don’t I put this thing on Google Play”. Twenty-five dollars and 4 hours later I submitted my app for the Google Play store. A week later it was approved.

Before working in an Emergency Communications Center as a CAD Administrator I worked in Information Technology. I did that for 18 years doing Windows and Linux administration before I moved into the CAD Administrator position. I think they partially chose me due to my technical experience. I have spent the better part of my career trying to incorporate technology into analog workflows to help make people work "smarter, not harder". It is a fun puzzle for me. Taking this approach does get in the way sometimes, especially when I start tossing technology at everything. These days, I evaluate the circumstances more carefully before adapting technology to the challenge.

I started getting into modifying scripts because I had to compile some drivers for the hardware in Linux. Later I started modifying scripts to automate several administration tasks. I have written simple batch files, bash files, and PHP stuff for a website but I had never written anything like a phone app before in my life. I am not a programmer. I do not even play one on TV. But I found this neat application called MIT App Inventor and decided to play around with it to make Practice 9-1-1 for Kids.

The app is incredibly simple by design. Once loaded, the user either dials 9-1-1 or other numbers and hits the call button. The next screen will either tell you “Great Job” if you dialed 9-1-1 or “Phew! Try again” if any other combination of numbers is entered. I specifically designed it to not be a game because I didn’t want to encourage children to actually call 9-1-1 for points or achievements. We already get tons of those calls without me adding to them, right?

My intention is for the parent to be there with the child and go over calling 9-1-1 with their child. Included in the app are simple tips–the same ones I put on the educational cards I created–that help teach the child their home address and phone number. Once the parent feels like the child has grasped the concept, they can uninstall the app if they wish. In fact, I encourage it because I don’t want any child to open my app to dial 9-1-1 during an emergency. For additional safety, I put warnings that the application is only a simulator and not a real dialer.

For me, the app was designed to assist my center in public education. It would be amazing if other centers picked up and used it. It would be fantastic if parents used it to teach their children how to dial 9-1-1. Actually, if I get more than the two downloads that came from my brother and myself then I will be happy.

About the Author:

Christine Giglio, BS, ENP, has been the CAD Administrator for Bedford County Emergency Communications Center (VA) for the last four years. The 10 years prior, she was the Public Safety LAN Administrator for Bedford County. When she is not learning something new in the technology or 9-1-1 industry she is with her family and co-owning a family-run business. She likes cats, all cat-related things, and collecting vintage Pyrex and Mold-a-ramas.

Practice 9-1-1 for Kids: Google Play Store

Bedford County Emergency Communications: Website | Facebook

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