Dispatchers take thousands of calls per year, so it should come as no surprise that some of those calls are stranger than others.
In December of 2014, a dispatcher with the Armstrong County Dept. of Public Safety received a 9-1-1 call from a man asking to have a SWAT team come to his house. Dispatcher Brandon Dague knew immediately that this call was going to be different than most.
However, he proceeded to take down the man's information so he could send the appropriate help.
When the caller's address and number were entered into the county's computer aided dispatch (CAD) system, an alert was generated showing premise history information. This information indicated that this individual made frequent calls to 9-1-1 and was known to be violent toward first responders, especially law enforcement officers.
"We knew that this was a potentially dangerous situation, and we knew we had to keep all first responders safe when they went out there," Dague said. "Luckily the premise history information helps us know what we're dealing with so no one is blindsided when they arrive on the scene."
In this case, when the man claimed that his kitchen was on fire and he needed assistance, law enforcement officers were dispatched to his address. Because dispatch knew from premise history information that first responders could be in danger if they responded, Dague sent a police response first to secure the scene.
When police arrived on the scene, they discovered the man who called had a gun and there was no fire. The individual threatened the police officers with the gun and he was arrested.
"In cases like this, having information in our CAD system that we can relay to first responders helps keep everyone safer," Dague said. "When we have calls from individuals who are looking to make trouble, CAD helps us to have a quick way of knowing the backstory of the situation we're dealing with. It's an important tool to have in instances where individuals are putting their lives on the line."
When a bridge goes out in a community, dispatchers work even harder to route first responders to the scene of an emergency. But imagine what happens when numerous bridges are impassable throughout an entire county.
Pennsylvania has approximately 4,500 structurally deficient bridges, which will be repaired or replaced though the Rapid Bridge Replacement Project. While this is necessary, it does present a problem for dispatchers and first responders.
According to Ron Wolbert, the director of 911 operations for the Clarion County Office of Emergency Services, numerous bridges in Clarion County are in the process of being repaired or replaced.
"The bridge project has created new and interesting challenges for dispatch procedures," Wolbert said.
In one area of the county, primary responding agencies have been cut off from access to the areas they serve. To ensure the residents in this area still receive proper emergency services, response plans in the county's CAD system were reconfigured.
Now, the county's CAD system reassigns response areas and temporary alarm assignments for all responders in the impacted location. To do this, response times, access from adjoining townships and boroughs, and the availability of resources had to be factored in. These areas were then assigned roadblock areas on the county's CAD map and labeled and highlighted on screen for easy recognition by dispatchers.
"Dispatchers not only see the highlighted areas on their digital maps, but a labeled description advising of the exact procedures that need to be followed for a timely response," Wolbert said. "I can say the ease of use of the system, coupled with the many features we can utilize, has made the construction that comes with the bridge projects more manageable and not allowed it to become a disaster in our 911 center."
In the past decade, mapping has come a long way for public safety agencies and helps first responders get to the scene faster and safer.
When the Douglas County Sheriff's Office in Colorado upgraded to digital maps and did away with their paper maps, it helped improve routing and response times while also reducing crime and increasing officer safety.
According to Capt. Brad Heyden, Douglas County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state of Colorado. With that growth, it is important for the sheriff's office to maintain accurate geospatial information systems (GIS) data.
This GIS data helps dispatchers maintain up-to-date information regarding the county, which helps them send fast and accurate responses to calls for service. The Douglas County's Sheriff's Office utilizes the different map layers offered by the GIS capabilities in their computer aided dispatch (CAD) system to identify parcels and jurisdictions as well as retrieve premise history information and set up perimeters.
"Our GIS is so powerful and robust that even before a new construction project is complete, dispatchers have the building's address in our system," Heyden said. "In the past, having that information in our CAD system would have been impossible."
With these mapping capabilities, the sheriff's office is better able to make use of the data pulled from its public safety software system, specifically in terms of identifying areas in need of more patrol and detailing premise history.
Heyden explained that mapping areas with high calls for service helps CAD administrators and law enforcement officers increase patrol in specific locations, which helps to reduce calls for service in the area due to the presence of law enforcement.
The enhanced premise history capabilities are beneficial for first responders as they are aware of more information while on the scene. This information includes anything from prior contact with the individuals to known associates, specifics about the location including any hazards, drug history, and other details that could be dangerous for responders.
"Detailed premise history really helps make situations safer for first responders," Heyden said.
In March of 2017, just as spring was on the horizon, winter storm Stella dumped more than a foot of snow in parts of Pennsylvania.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) categorized the storm as a level three on the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS). This score is comprised of the area affected by the snowstorm, the amount of snowfall, and the number of people living in the path of the storm.
However, for the more than 430,000 people living in the county, storm names and categories don't matter that much when roads are impassable, power is out, and motorists are stranded.
According to Melony Kearns, computer aided dispatch (CAD) administrator for the York County Dept. of Emergency Services (YCDES), the storm caused an increase in the call volume at the communication center.
"Anytime we get a major weather event, the call volume increases," Kearns said. "But our dispatchers and CAD system handle it well."
To accommodate this increased call volume, Kearns said filters were applied within the CAD system to prioritize weather-related calls. This provided dispatchers with the ability to designate storm calls from other emergencies, which helped streamline responses.
This flexibility in CAD helped dispatchers and first responders meet the needs of the community members impacted by the storm. Prioritizing storm calls also helped dispatchers handle other calls for service coming into the communication center thereby maintaining the level of service expected by the community.
Luckily, Stella dropped most of the snowfall in the middle of the day, which helped with visibility issues for motorists and responders.
"These big storms can cause a lot of problems," Kearns said. "Luckily we have the tools necessary to keep things running smoothly in the community."
Spending more time on the road means law enforcement officers keep more criminals off the streets.
When officers have tools to use on the road, such as mobile data terminals (MDTs) – which are mobile computer aided dispatch terminals that allow first responders to communicate with dispatchers and each other from their vehicles - they can accomplish this goal more effectively.
In September 2015, a deputy with the Garfield County Sheriff's Office in Colorado caught two shooting suspects from a neighboring county. The deputy had received a "be on the lookout" (BOLO) alert for the suspects' vehicle through his MDT, so he was aware of the situation. Later that day, when the deputy was on the side of the road completing a report on a previous arrest, saw the suspects' vehicle drive by. He immediately entered the license plate number into his MDT and saw that the plate was expired, which gave the deputy cause to stop the vehicle.
Without the ability to run the plate from the road, the deputy would have had to communicate back and forth via radio with dispatchers to get the same information. While this practice is something all law enforcement officers have done in the past, technology helps to eliminate this step so that officers can access mission-critical information on the road without relying on radio transmissions with dispatch.
Similarly, without the ability to complete an arrest report or traffic citation on the road, law enforcement officers have to return to the office or station, which takes them off the road. In this particular instance, had the deputy been at the station and not on the road, it is possible the suspects would have gotten away.
The individuals in this case were subsequently prosecuted on the shooting charges and one is already serving time in prison for his involvement (the other individual is still in the court process).
Another deputy with the Garfield County Sheriff's Office used his MDT in a case involving a robbery. In this situation, a possible suspect was detained, but the suspect was not carrying any form of identification. The deputy who detained the suspect used his MDT to access an image from the suspect's prior mugshot for a positive identification.
Before using MDTs, deputies had to travel back to the station to receive mug shots or other images necessary for identification purposes. With MDTs, they are able to query with the software to search for and view images almost instantly. This helps deputies save time obtaining a positive identification while out on the field.
"Mobile capabilities greatly increase the overall effectiveness and efficiency of our deputies in the field" Garfield County Sheriff Office's Chief of Communications Andy Haffele said.
Officer safety is a vital element in an emergency response.
When dispatchers use a computer aided dispatch system with mobile capabilities, this functionality helps keep first responders safer.
The Douglas County Sheriff's Office in Colorado has this functionality, which means they're able to send alerts to mobile data terminals (MDTs) in first responders' vehicles.
Mobile functionality helps first responders see all calls for service, employ self-dispatching tactics and update the status of the call. It also sends alerts, which helps first responders be aware of premise history information and prior interactions with subjects or previous location history.
This information sharing helps dispatchers and first responders stay better connected, which bolsters officer safety as they have more information at their fingertips.
"With this additional information, our dispatchers give first responders the information they need to respond safely and effectively to those in need," Capt. Brad Heyden of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office said.
For instance, imagine a first responder heading out to a call for service regarding a domestic violence situation. If that first responder receives an alert from CAD regarding prior incident at the address of the call for service, he or she is better equipped with vital information. From there, the first responder could call for back up or make other decisions to keep all parties as safe as possible.
This capability is especially helpful for fire and EMS responders who may need to wait until law enforcement arrives on the scene. This is beneficial in situations where a call for service involves an individual being aggressive or in possession of a firearm.
"With this additional information, our dispatchers give first responders the information they need to know, which ultimately keeps officers and our communities safer," Heyden said.
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There is a significant amount of work required behind-the-scenes in every emergency response, and it all starts with computer-aided dispatch (CAD).
When a call for service comes in to a 9-1-1 communication center, dispatchers immediately get to work sending a response. From there, first responders head out to provide assistance in whatever manner they are needed. But that doesn't mean the dispatchers' role in the response ends.
For instance, when officers respond to a call for service, they stay in contact with dispatchers at the communication center using their mobile data terminals (MDTs) located in their vehicles.
By staying in contact, dispatchers are able to route first responders to the scene and attach real-time updates about the call for service that first responders can see using their MDTs as they travel to the incident.
CAD systems with automatic vehicle location (AVL) functionality offer additional benefits as they provide dispatchers and first responders the ability to see where all first responders' vehicles are located on a digital map.
With AVL, a global positioning system (GPS) is set up on an agency's mobile server and configured so GPS data is sent to the mobile software located in an officer's vehicle. This signal is also sent to other units within the agency and to dispatch. To do this, AVL technology constantly sends latitude and longitude coordinates back to the CAD system so that the unit's location is always known by the agency's dispatchers.
AVL functionality helps dispatchers with routing as it helps direct patrol officers to the location of a call for service and provides continuous estimated time of arrival (ETA) data. By knowing where all first responders are on the map, CAD managers are able to help ensure communities have a robust level of patrol in all areas.
While the work of dispatchers happens outside of the public eye, they play a vital role in emergency responses and providing public safety to communities everywhere.
Next Generation 911 (NG 9-1-1) is a hot topic for public safety agencies across the United States.
This initiative, which was set forth by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), is aimed at updating 9-1-1 services to accommodate a growing wireless society. It consists of numerous stages, all of which should be completed by 2020.
Until that time, public safety answering points (PSAPs) across the country will be preparing to adhere to guidelines set forth by NENA so they will have the ability to handle modern, mixed media messages from the public.
Text-to-911 is one of the first steps many PSAPs are undertaking along the NG 9-1-1 journey. As TTY (text telephone) services are phased out, the deaf and hearing impaired community will need a way to communicate with emergency services. Text-to-911 will replace TTY services, so it is imperative all PSAPs throughout the country are able to receive, handle and respond to these messages.
As of late 2016, less than 15 percent of PSAPs in the U.S. have the ability to accept text messages.
However, many PSAPs throughout the country are readying themselves for NG 9-1-1 and its various phases so they are prepared when all guidelines are established.
Once all guidelines are in place, PSAPs will have the direction to receive voice, text and data sent over IP networks from various communication devices.
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