Dana Rasmussen is a senior marketing communications specialist for Tyler Technologies. She began her career working with public safety officials as a reporter covering the police beat. She has written about the work of dispatchers, law enforcement officers, fire fighters and the communities they serve.
Dispatchers everywhere know that emergency situations can change rapidly.
For instance, when the fire crews in Shawnee County, Kansas were on the scene of a grass fire and a tornado touched down, dispatchers alerted the fire crews to take cover.
"At that time, two things were happening with the situation and back at the dispatch center," Melanie Mills-Bergers, interim director for Shawnee County Emergency Communications Center (SCECC) said. "On one hand we had the fire and the tornado happening. We also had to switch our CAD system from our normal mode of operation into storm mode, which helps us to better facilitate calls for service."
Taking the CAD system into storm mode helps reduce the response of fire personnel due the plethora of calls during a severe storm. It assists with ensuring enough resources are spread throughout the covered area in order to handle the extreme number of calls for service.
Storm mode does not prioritize or relate calls nor assist with duplicate calls.
"When we had fire crews out at the grass fire and that tornado came, we knew they had to get out of there and take shelter," Mills-Bergers said. "We also knew we needed to handle that call for service correctly as it entailed two major events."
To ensure the fire crews were kept safe, they left the scene of the fire and took shelter. By staying in contact with dispatch using their mobile device terminals (MDTs), the fire crew was alerted to when it was safe to return to the area.
"Even with a small tornado, call volumes increase," Mills-Berger said. "Facilitating those calls in storm mode in CAD helps us streamline responses and keep processes flowing. What's important is that we have a system that keeps up with the calls, so that citizens get the help they need when they need it and our first responders have access to as much information as possible through all aspects of a response."
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Each week, questions will center around stories told that represent the way public safety personnel has helped save lives, increase efficiency, and make communities safer.
Dispatchers deal with life and death situations every day on the job. They're used to the pressure that comes with an intense call for service and being relied on to send the appropriate response to an emergency. That's why it takes quite a bit to get a dispatcher to refer to one particular day as worse than any of the others.
But according to Denise McKinney, Chief of Communications for the Ouachita Parish Fire Department in Louisiana, there's one day that stands out to her as the worst in her history on the job.
When Ouachita Parish including the cities of West Monroe and Monroe was hit by an EF2 tornado in December 2013, long after tornado season had ended, first responders worked diligently to aid those in need. According to the Enhanced Fujita scale, which is used to rank the severity of tornadoes, an EF2 indicates a storm with wind speeds of up to 135 mph.
"The storm started in the southwest end of the parish and continued to move throughout the community," McKinney said. "We were getting a lot of calls, but no one was using the word 'tornado' in the calls. What we were hearing was that there was a lot of wind and a lot of trees were coming down."
As the storm continued to move through the area, Ouachita Parish 911 received an onslaught of calls from residents who were trapped in their homes or unable to get home due to trees in the roadways. In addition, lightning from the storm caused many house fires, and rescuers needed clear pathways to get to those in need.
"The storm really tore up the area," McKinney said. "We had a lot of off-duty firemen come out with their chainsaws to clear pathways on the roadways so residents and emergency vehicles could get around. We were also getting calls from our public works personnel who let us know which roads had been closed, which was beneficial as it allowed us to enter that information into our computer aided dispatch (CAD) system."
By entering this information into CAD, dispatchers created roadblocks on CAD maps, which helped ensure all first responders avoided certain areas that were impassable.
"Every entry into our CAD system map was globally applied so that all users could see the changes in their mobile units within their patrol or rescue vehicles," McKinney said. "Being able to see those changes immediately enabled us to get help to where it was needed most despite the amount of debris on the roads."
Every year, the Great Plains region of the US experiences severe thunderstorms throughout the summer months.
The summer of 2017 was no different for Independence, Missouri.
In mid-July, heavy storms hit this Kansas City metro area town causing damage to vehicles, homes, and businesses. High winds of more than 85 mph also caused downed trees and power lines, which led to power outages for several residents.
In addition, the rain and hail accompanying these storms resulted in flash flooding as it dumped more than three inches onto the town. Numerous roadways were impassable due to the trees and flooding, which caused routing issues for motorists and first responders.
In this type of situation, dispatchers and first responders are tasked with routing emergency personnel to those in need, which can be difficult when roads are impassable.
During that storm, the local 9-1-1 dispatch center in Independence fielded such a high call volume that they were running a modified response on emergency calls.
According to Independence Fire Dept. Battalion Chief Cindy Culp, a modified response helps ensure an effective level of coverage continues throughout the community despite emergency conditions that could absorb numerous resources.
"Any time the big storms hit, we're out there with police responding to weather-related calls for service and your every-day emergencies," Culp said. "It's important for dispatch to make sure there's enough coverage throughout the city to account for any emergency situation that arises as well as for of the events attributed to weather activity."
While the modified response prevented the city from running out of first responders to meet the needs of the community, first responders also had to deal with how to get to those in need.
"We had to be re-routed to several calls for service due to the condition of the roads," Culp said. "Dispatch helped with routing us to these incidents so that we could get help to where it was needed most."
Like many emergency responses, communication with other agencies and departments played a large role in effectively meeting the needs of the community during the storm.
According to Joanna Whitt, Records Administrator for the Independence Police Dept., the police and fire departments work together quite often in emergencies.
"In critical situations, we work closely with the fire department," Whitt said. "Anytime the police and fire departments are on the scene together, we share information with each other that pertains to safety for first responders and the public."
When a medical emergency happens in the middle of the woods, it's beneficial for the individual and first responders involved to have navigation tools that can get help to where it's needed most.
According to Denise McKinney, Chief of Communications with Ouachita Parish Fire Department in Louisiana, there are some calls where solid mapping capabilities in the communication center's computer aided dispatch (CAD) system are vital.
"Getting first responders to the scene of a crime or medical emergency is always a priority," McKinney said. "We know that speed is of the essence and dispatchers really work hard to send the right response."
When a call came in regarding an elderly man having chest pains in the woods, the dispatcher who took the call knew that the situation could become fatal without an immediate response.
According to McKinney, the man was with his son and they were more than two miles off the road in the woods where they were duck hunting. Using cell phone location coordinates, the dispatcher was able to identify where the call was coming from and send a response.
"When the call came in, we were able to locate the individuals and identify which section of the woods they were in," McKinney said.
With the cellphone coordinates providing a location and the verbal instructions from the 911 caller, dispatchers used satellite views of the CAD maps to view the first responders en route to the scene. This view helped with navigation so that first responders would get to the precise location where help was needed. Within 20 minutes, first responders were on scene providing help to the elderly man.
"We had the tools necessary to show us where this man was located and we got there quickly," McKinney said. "Thankfully, we have the technological capabilities to get help to where it's needed most as quickly as possible. Without this CAD system, that response would have taken much longer."
Located just around 30 miles off the coast of Texas, between Houston and the Louisiana border, the neighboring communities of Nederland and Port Neches are so close together that it is often difficult to tell where one city ends and the other begins. The proximity between the two communities along with a third nearby city allowed for a unique partnership to form between local law enforcement. In these communities, local agencies rely on each other for basic services, including police dispatch.
Because all three municipalities are all utilizing the same computer aided dispatch (CAD) software, information flows seamlessly between each of the jurisdictions, according to Nederland Police Chief Darrell Bush.
This connection became a critical component of the police departments' response during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
In just five days, the Nederland broke national records after 64.58 inches of rain drenched the community — 31.38 inches of which came down in a single day. Port Neches wasn't too far behind, receiving 64.51 inches of rainfall during the same time frame.
Despite the historic rainfall and unprecedented flooding, officers were able to reach the people in need of rescue — regardless of jurisdiction.
"I'll tell you that in a situation like that, you have manuals to go by and you have protocol, but the bottom line is that the actual situation is going to be different, and there is really no way to be proactive except to make sure that the software you're using and any equipment you are going to depend on is good and reliable," Bush said.
Operators in a centralized location were able to coordinate rescue efforts between police departments and dispatch the closest officer to the person in need. While physical barriers blocking roads generally kept officers in their respective jurisdictions, the intercommunity partnership prevented duplicated search and rescue efforts so that nearly 200 lives were saved in a timely manner.
A missing child is one of the most critical calls for service first responders ever respond to.
When dispatchers with Ouachita Parish 911 in Louisiana received a call regarding a missing child, first responders were immediately sent to the location where the child was last seen.
"It had been two hours since the child was reported missing and there were dozens of first responders in the area searching," Denise McKinney, Chief of Communications with Ouachita Parish Fire Department, said.
When the call for service was made, the caller stated that the child had wandered off from home in a rural location and could not be located by family members. Within minutes, first responders were on the scene performing a search.
After two hours had passed and the child had yet to be located, law enforcement officers worked with those involved in the case and relayed location information back to dispatch. With this extra information, dispatch determined that the child's possible location was a half-mile east of the area rescuers were canvassing.
The dispatcher involved in the call for service updated the possible location in her computer aided dispatch (CAD) system and the change was immediately reflected in the CAD narrative shown on the mobile data terminals (MDTs) used by first responders.
"The search area wasn't as precise as it could have been in the beginning," McKinney said. "Once the changes were made, that information was available to everyone, which helped locate the missing child."
With updated information, a district chief responding to the incident discovered he was in the center of the search area.
"The CAD map was so accurate that the child literally could have crossed the street first responders were traveling on," McKinney said. "As soon as the district chief saw on his mobile device that he was in the updated search area, he decreased his speed as to not injure the child. A short time later, the child was located. At that moment, I was so proud to have the CAD system that we have."
When an officer issues a citation, it's a routine procedure in most instances. The officer checks the driver's license, fills out appropriate information and then provides the driver with the citation. The officer leaves and, in many cases, the ticketed driver pays the citation fee and life goes on.
But sometimes, the citation is issued to the wrong individual.
According to court services director Steven Cherry of the Grand Prairie Municipal Court in Texas, there are individuals who dispute citations regularly saying they were victims of an identity thief.
In these instances, a citation was issued to an individual who was not even in the vehicle at the time of the traffic stop.
"We used to get individuals coming in and saying that they were issued a citation that they should not have received," Cherry said. "Now when that happens, we can look through our system at the photo taken by our ticket reader device used by the officer and determine if the claim is true or not. When they are telling the truth, the photos help prove that they really weren't the ones on the hook for the ticket."
According to Cherry, in these instances, friends or family – and in some instances, strangers – are using a stolen driver's license, so the citation is issued to an undeserving individual. Luckily, police officers with the Grand Prairie PD use ticket readers with cameras, so photos of drivers and any other pertinent evidence or information can be taken when a citation is issued.
"Before we had a device capable of taking a photo of the individual receiving a ticket, we had no way of proving the claim," Cherry said. "But now, we can look right at the evidence and say, 'wow, you are correct.'"
With photos accompanying electronic citations, tickets issued in Grand Prairie are given to the appropriate individuals. That means if a ticket initially went to the wrong person due to driver's license theft, photos taken during the citation process ensure that the appropriate individual receives the citation.
"Prosecutors always praise us for taking the extra steps necessary to collect evidence," Cherry said.
When a gunman was on the loose in the Kansas City metro area, law enforcement officials worked quickly to protect the community.
In the late summer of 2017, residents of an apartment complex called 9-1-1 to report gunshots being fired. Immediately, dispatchers sent first responders from the Independence Police Dept. and Independence Fire Dept. to assist those in need.
The dispatcher handling the call for service worked quickly to include all details in the computer aided dispatch (CAD) narrative, which allowed first responders to have instant, real-time updates on their mobile device terminals (MDTs).
"In a situation like this, information is vital," Independence FD's Battalion Chief Cindy Culp said. "Being able to share information back and forth with the police department from dispatch is helpful so that we can all work together on incidences that are criminal, medical or otherwise require a response from fire and police."
In this case, shots were fired at around 11 a.m. in the apartment complex. Witnesses who called 9-1-1 reported an individual saying she had been shot and that an individual was seen fleeing from the scene. Passersby attempted to run after the suspect, who then fired shots again and fled from the scene.
"Anytime you have a suspected shooter flee from a scene, it creates a potentially dangerous situation for everyone in the community," Culp said.
To protect the community, schools in the area were locked down and citizens were urged to stay indoors.
The suspect was captured quickly thereafter and arrested by authorities.
"This shooting highlighted one of the many incidences where the police and fire departments work together," Independence PD records administrator Joanna Whitt said. "We're lucky we had the ability to share information back and forth, so that all first responders were equipped with information that they needed as it pertained to their roles in the field."
On a typical day in the neighboring communities of Nederland, Port Neches, and Groves, Texas, three dispatch operators are responsible for answering and routing all 911 calls in the area – around 60 to 70 calls each day.
That all changed in the fall of 2017.
By August 30, 2017, Hurricane Harvey had shifted course in the Gulf of Mexico and unexpectedly poured 64.51 inches of rain on the communities, most of which came down in one day.
Fighting heavy rains and historic flooding, two additional operators were brought in to manage the call volume. Working night and day for five days, the dispatchers managed the more than 3,200 calls from residents in their communities and around the region.
This storm was Chief Paul Lemoine's fourth hurricane with the Port Neches Police Department, and, in his experience, communication has always been key to a successful operation.
His department faced the challenges of technology that couldn't keep up during previous storms. With no way to take outside calls because of failed communication systems, officers had previously been forced to rely on word-of-mouth communication, he said. In the past, flooding neighborhoods with volunteers and officers going door-to-door was necessary to ensure everyone got the help they needed.
But, not this time.
Throughout the weather event, dispatchers continually relayed pertinent information about people in need and physical road blocks to officers in the field using walkie talkies and cell phones.
"We all had houses that had flooded, and we were all actively doing water rescues for several hours at a time, and we were being inundated with rescue requests," Lemoine said. "We really relied on our dispatchers to relay that information to keep us from wasting time and continually moving forward. It was the middle of the night. We were up to our necks in water, getting in and out of boats, so it was really a lifesaver for us."
When the rain stopped, the sun finally reappeared, and the flooding started to recede, dispatchers helped direct officers to find and rescue more than 180 people. Empowered with timely, accurate information and a connection that lasted through the storm, no lives were lost and no officer was injured in the field.
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