Emergency Call Center Systems

In place of the basic telephone, police or fire radio, and pencil-and-paper record systems Emergency Call Centers used in the early days of 9-1-1, many Emergency Call Centers now use computer-based systems which can dramatically improve First Responder response times and public safety in general.

Three common systems in a modern Emergency Call Center are Call Recording systems, and Computer Aided Dispatch (“CAD”) systems, and Emergency Notification Systems (“ENS”).

Call Recording Systems

A Call Recording system will make audio recordings of all calls to 9-1-1 handled by the Emergency Call Center. The most modern recording systems record the calls digitally on hard disk, indexing them by time, call taker position (extension) and to the CAD system, and automatically backing up the calls onto CDs/DVDs, tape or other archival media. Because the calls are recorded digitally on hard disk, they can be quickly accessed by First Responders for completion of reports or by others who need access to the call audio.

Computer Aided Dispatch Systems

A CAD system is the heart of a modern Emergency Communications Center (and may serve multiple Centers serving a County, for example). Early and basic CAD systems replaced note card systems for keeping track of available First Responders and units, and recording critical information from calls. CAD system are also typically connected with the Center’s 9-1-1 phone system so that they will display the caller location as provided by the 9-1-1 Network on the call taker’s data screen, and may also display the location on a map or aerial photo on the call takers map screen. (CAD Systems may include up to 4 monitors for each call taker, who will also have an additional monitor for the computer controlling the First Responder radio systems.) The CAD system will also display for the call taker or dispatcher 9-1-1 call history for the caller’s location, caution notes for the officers, information regarding hazardous chemicals stored at or in the vicinity of an incident location (particularly important for fire or certain public health incidents), and other useful information.

The most modern CAD systems integrate Automatic Vehicle Location (“AVL”) systems and “mobile CAD” running on portable computers (“Mobile Data Terminals” or “MDTs”) installed in First Responder Vehicles. The CAD system will track the availability and location of First Responder units, the training of the First Responders assigned to those units, and the equipment on those units. When a 9-1-1 call comes in the CAD system identifies existing calls to which the call may be related based upon location. After the call taker enters a code for the type of incident, the CAD system recommends the units to be dispatched (or automatically dispatches the units) based upon availability, location, call-type, training of the First Responders assigned to the unit and equipment on the unit. Where a police or fire department’s policy is to send two or more units or different types of units to a specific type of incident, the CAD system will recommend or automatically dispatch the number of units required.

In recommending units by location, some CAD systems will make their recommendations not by physical proximity, but by estimated drive-time taking into account road closures, train crossing schedules, and even current traffic volumes using real-time traffic volume monitors. The CAD systems will then display on the First Responder’s MDT the quickest route to the incident, as commercial GPS systems do.

First Responders may update their status, or obtain information which they used to have to wait for a dispatcher to provide. For example, a patrolman making a traffic stop can enter the license number on the MDT and have the CAD system automatically query the appropriate records and databases to determine if the car has been reported stolen or involved in recent incidents, and identify the registered owner of the vehicle and if the owner has warrants. Similarly, the officer can enter license or other information on the driver and other occupants on the MDT and have the various queries run on them, and receive the results on the MDT. The officer often gets this information sooner than if he had to wait for a dispatcher to be available to run the queries and relay the results to him. The information is provided silently rather than over the radio. The officer has the information sooner, without requiring the time of the dispatcher.

Fire units in route to a fire can access information on their MDTs, including hydrant locations, premises information including pre-plans for fighting fires at the location (which many fire departments develop for commercial buildings), and premises (and nearby premises) hazard information. Some Mobile CAD systems include utilities to help an incident commander coordinate the actions of multiple units responding to a major incident.

Modern CAD systems will also constantly monitor the status of fire and paramedic units, and when fire or paramedic units serving an area are on calls and the amount of time those calls may take (based upon type and level of incident as entered in the CAD system). When the number of units available to respond to an additional incident in an area falls below the department’s minimum standard, the CAD System will recommend units from other firehouses to “move up” or stage into an area to back-up the existing units, to provide a timely response in case there is an additional fire, accident or other call in the area. These recommendations will be made based upon the estimated time the currently assigned units will be on-scene based upon historical data, travel time, and similar factors.

Not only do CAD systems allow First Responders to respond more quickly to emergencies and be better prepared when they arrive on scene, the record keeping and analysis functions they provide are a valuable resource. They allow First Responders to complete reports more quickly and accurately based upon the real-time recording of incident data, and to be back in service sooner. In fact, when integrated with law enforcement and fire records systems, the CAD systems will not only query those systems for relevant information in response to an incident, but they can output data regarding the current incident to automatically populate basic fields of the report for the current incident.

CAD systems also facilitate the generation of reports, statistics and analyses which can be used to improve public safety services. Rudolph Guiliani credits the Comstat (Computer Statistics) used in New York City for reducing the level of crime during his term as Mayor. CAD systems retain data regarding the numbers, types and locations of calls, crimes, accidents, fires, incidents by date and time of day, etc. This data can be analyzed to identify patterns and develop strategies to more efficiently address, or even prevent, crime accidents and other incidents.

Radio Systems

Public safety radio systems, for dispatchers to communicate with First Responders, have historically been funded out of city and county general funds, rather than surcharges on telephone service. Only smaller counties were permitted to spend surcharge proceeds on radio systems.

Historically, vendors of radio systems developed proprietary systems for the market advantages. If adjacent jurisdictions or different agencies within a jurisdiction purchased radio systems from different vendors, they couldn’t commmunicate with one another. Eventually, the public safety community pushed for reservation of a limited number of common channels on which all manufacturers would provide for their systems to interconnect with other manufacturer’s systems, albeit with a limited set of features. Since 9/11, the Federal Government and its Department of Homeland Security have made interoperability between radio systems used by different agencies a priority, and made significant grants to fund system interoperability. Unfortunately, the portion of these grants allocated for Colorado leave much to be accomplished. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs have developed web-interfaces for translation between incompatible radio systems in a more feature-rich manner. Other entities are developing “software defined radio” which promises to use software to emulate different manufacturer’s radio systems and allow them to intercommunicate in a more feature-rich manner.

A feature included in public safety radios are the ability to be used in a traditional dispatch mode, where all users, or all users in a specific service area or with a specific duty assignment (such as patrol officers) can hear one another, have situational awareness, and quickly respond to provide required assistance. Yet units must be capable of being separated out into tactical groups such as for firefighters on the scene of a fire, or police officers in coordinated operation. In such tactical operations, First Responders not involved in the operation do not need to hear the details of those operations, and the First Responders involved in the operation do not need others interrupting their tactical communications. Units should also be capable of on-the-fly assignment for interoperability with a neighboring jurisdiction’s units.

Current radio systems are controlled with a computer interface, as with a computer monitor and mouse rather than a radio with switches and knobs. This makes implementing features and assigning users to groups much faster and easier.

The deployment of mobile data terminals (laptop computers in First Responder vehicles, or “MDTs”) which are interconnected with the CAD system by radio data links, provides significant efficiencies, particularly where Automatic Vehicle Location (“AVL”) is utilized. For example, such systems permit First Responders to efficiently update their status with dispatchers, and dispatchers to quickly dispatch First Responders without tying up voice channels.

First Responders can even be automatically dispatched by modern CAD systems as soon as the call-taker enters the call-type code into the CAD system (for example, a code identifying the call as a domestic dispute, traffic accident, or structure fire) The CAD system can recommend units for dispatch, or automatically dispatch units, based on the type of call, the location of the incident as reported by the 9-1-1 System, First Responder location, First Responder training, and equipment on the First Responder unit. Of course this feature may not be useful for a small jurisdiction which has only a relatively small number of First Responders on duty and available to respond to an incident at any one time. For those jurisdictions the funds required for such a feature-rich CAD system might be better spent on other public safety assets.

The deployment of interconnected MDTs also allows First Responders to retrieve information relating to their call or stop through the CAD system, again without having to wait for or tie up a dispatcher. Routine messages can also be transmitted by text message and held in queue on First Responder’s MDT’s for the First Responder to review when he or she becomes available, rather than interrupting current operation with a voice message.

Emergency Notification Systems

Emergency Notification Systems (“ENS”) are systems which allow an Emergency Call Center and public safety officials to warn people of impending dangers in their area, such as flash floods, wildfires, tornadoes, chemical spills or police actions such as a barricaded suspect situation or an active manhunt. These warnings can be planned in advance, for example in flood plains or other known hazard areas, or they can be provided dynamically in response to a currently occurring emergency.

The basic ENS “reverses” the 9-1-1 call process. Instead of identifying the location of a caller (the phone the caller is using), the ENS identifies all phones (traditional wireline phones) in a designated geographic area. The ENS service then places calls to those phones, and plays a recorded message. In most if not all current ENS systems, the person using the notification service can define the area to be called by specifying and address or intersection and a radius, by applying a geometric shape to a map displayed on a computer and adjusting the size of the shape designating the area to be called, or by using a mouse and drawing “freehand” the boundaries of the area to be called on the computer map display.

Some ENS systems allow residents to register additional numbers and addresses, such as wireless (cell phone) numbers, fax numbers, text message addresses, and e-mail addresses, to which ENS messages should be sent. The message may be recorded by the public safety officer activating the ENS System, and the recording will be replayed when each call is answered. With some systems, the public safety officer types the message, and the ENS system uses a text-to-voice computer program to read the message to those receiving the message by phone. This method is used where the ENS system will also send the message to fax machines, text message and e-mail addresses, and TTY numbers for the hearing impaired.

ENS systems or services generally use data centers to store the database of telephone numbers and locations, and to dial the calls. These data centers are typically redundant and located in diverse areas of the country, protected by backup power systems, and use redundant and diverse networks to send the outgoing messages. They have variable call rates to avoid overwhelming the capacity of local telephone switches. The purpose of the redundancy and diversity is to assure that the system remains available even in the event of a natural disaster or other event affecting an ENS data center.

Pursuant to Federal legislation, service providers and public safety officials have introduced a system that “broadcast” text messages to all wireless devices in range of the wireless antennas which are located in a hazard area. This system was initially named the “Commercial Mobile Alert System,” or “CMAS,” is now “Wireless Emergency Alerts” or “WEA.”

WEA supplements the ENS systems rather than replacing them, but does not replace it. While the WEA system sends text messages to all cellphones within range, the ENS system allows Authorities to define specific neighborhoods or areas to receive the alerts. This allows them to evacuate areas closest to a wildfire first, and avoid roads out of the hazard area becoming so congested that evacuation is delayed and movement of Firefighters is obstructed. It also allows agencies to put units in place to avoid people from moving back into an evacuation area and prevent looting as areas are evacuated. Specific telephone numbers can also be excluded from ENS, so that in the case of a barricaded suspects people in nearby buildings could be given instructions such as to evacuate or shelter in place, but the suspect prevented from receiving that information.

While ENS is typically available only to local public safety authorities, WEA is available to Federal and State agencies. Local agencies are just beginning to gain access to this system. A recent problem is that WEA (and some smartphone applications) will be used to transmit National Weather Service alerts to cellphones, which some people find inapplicable to their specific location and annoying. After people receive several such alerts through a night, they will delete their profile and phone numbers from the local ENS service believing the WEA calls are coming from the ENS service.

ENS is now available in the majority of Colorado Counties. Register your cellphone, Internet phone, pager, and text message and e-mail addresses to receive ENS messages.

Updating Emergency Call Centers Will Save Lives

We believe updating Emergency Call Centers will result in First Responders being dispatched and arriving on scene sooner and better prepared, and will save lives. ENS Systems which warn people to take shelter, evacuate or take other action when disaster threatens, have and will save lives. ENS can also allow more efficient use of First Responder resources to address the disaster rather than going door-to-door to tell people to evacuate.