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.
A sudden influx of gang activity and drug trafficking in the town of Levelland, Texas has saddled the 28 officers at the local police department full caseloads. Not only are they partnering with state and federal agencies to stop the gangs, but they are also managing the secondary crimes associated with drug use.
"When you're talking about gang membership, you're also talking about robberies, thefts, burglaries – those kinds of things," said Levelland Police Chief Albert Garcia.
While the first crime committed when dealing with narcotics is often transportation of a banned substance, the people who purchase the final product often do so using money from stolen goods.
"When it comes to substance abuse, the compulsion to use may lead those struggling with addiction to do just about anything to get their hands on more drugs – including stealing," according to an article written by Mental Health Worker Marisa Crane.
The Levelland PD is actively managing those cases by helping the victims to recover lost property and pursue justice, but the only way to truly stop these types of crimes is to remove the offender's access to drugs.
"One of the most important things that we try to stop is the influx of narcotics being transported through our city," Garcia said. "The methamphetamines are very prevalent in our area, just as it is throughout the entire State of Texas, but most of these narcotics are being transported, delivered, and sold by gang members."
To combat the gangs and stop the transport of drugs, Levelland PD has teamed up with area police departments as well as state and federal agencies. By sharing information between agencies and across jurisdictions, the involved police departments have been able to follow suspects from one community to another and eventually make an arrest.
Data-driven intelligence goes a long way for first responders.
In Salina, KS dispatchers arm first responders with information that helps keep them safer on the scene of a call for service.
To do this, dispatchers have built-in capabilities in their computer aided dispatch (CAD) system that includes building contact information, known onsite hazards, entry points, notes about prior incidences with residents, and other details that could impact the safety of responders.
This information is especially useful when a call for service comes in regarding someone with any sort of medical condition, according to lead dispatcher Angela Fuller with the Salina Police Department.
In one instance, this medical information was used when first responders were headed to an incident involving a residence with numerous disabled residents.
"When we know in advance that there is a situation involving someone with any type of disability, we can let first responders know what they might be dealing with," Fuller said. "This is especially useful in case of a fire emergency so our fire crews know that there could be individuals inside who are unable to evacuate."
First responders view this information on their mobile data terminals, which help them see vital CAD information in real time. With the ability to relay details about a call for service on a mobile device, another layer of privacy is extended to those in need. This is especially beneficial for any call involving sexual assaults and protected medical information.
While medical information is always private and separate radio channels are used for relaying information from dispatch to first responders, mobile CAD provides this same information in real time.
"Without mobile CAD capabilities, first responders would need to call in to dispatch to receive certain information surrounding patient's privacy," Fuller said. "Mobile CAD allows us to keep this private information secure, while also allowing first responders to access the pertinent data immediately."
Located in the Texas panhandle, Levelland is made up of around 14,000 residents that welcome upwards of 9,000 students to attend its community college each year. While standard motor vehicle accidents, domestic disturbances and criminal mischief calls take up the majority of the police department's time, a larger threat is emerging in the tight-knit community.
"When I started with Levelland, we had a lot of homegrown-type gang memberships, and now its gone further out into more of a global-type," said Chief Albert Garcia of the Levelland Police Department. "A lot of these gangs might be affiliate gangs of the larger gangs, but no matter how you cut it, the larger gangs are who are operating the smaller affiliates in our city."
But, not for long.
Local law enforcement has worked tirelessly to prevent thist threat from evolving into a major problem. Specifically, by targeting the gangs' key business interest — drugs.
"These gangs have a lot of the resources needed to move and relocate large amounts of narcotics from one point of the United States to another," Garcia said.
To combat the rise in gangs and prevent the transport of drugs, Levelland PD has teamed up with other state and federal agencies.
By sharing information between agencies and across jurisdictions, the involved police departments have been able to follow suspects from one community to another and eventually make an arrest.
Working with the DEA and other drug and gang taskforces, the Levelland PD has been able to stop the transport of massive amounts of narcotics, Garcia said, including cases with methamphetamine packages ranging from 22 to 40 pounds.
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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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."
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