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."
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 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.
In a community with abandoned or otherwise dangerous buildings, prior knowledge about a location can mean the difference between life and death for fire crews.
According to Cindy Culp, battalion chief with the Independence Fire Dept. in Missouri, access to first-hand knowledge about structures helps fire fighters stay safer when responding to emergencies throughout the city.
Independence is located in the Kansas City metro area. Like many communities near large cities, there are areas with blighted structures and other buildings in disrepair. When fire crews are dispatched to these areas for a fire or other emergency, it's important for them to know what potential danger can be found on the scene.
"As soon as fire crews have boots on the ground, they're working toward keeping everyone safe on the scene, from the civilians involved to the crews themselves," Culp said. "But they also want to prevent or reduce any damage, especially during a fire call."
To ensure fire crews have all of the information they need while on the scene of a fire or other emergency, fire crews access data on the mobile data terminals (MDTs) located in their rescue vehicles.
This data comes directly from computer aided dispatch (CAD), and provides crews with information about the location including prior history, onsite known hazards or chemicals, hydrant locations, and anything else pertinent to staying safe.
"Anytime fire crews are in a building that has the potential to collapse due to damage from disrepair or fire, it's important that they know this before entering the structure," Culp said. "We're able to provide our fire crews with this information, so they know what they might encounter in a given situation."
As communication needs continue to change, it's important to have technology that stays ahead of trends and meets future requirements. With many public safety answering points (PSAPs) preparing for or implementing Next Generation 911, understanding what that initiative entails is critical.
With map-based computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems, dispatchers in public safety agencies ensure patrol effectively covers an entire area – not just criminal hotspots. The Greenbelt Police Dept. in Maryland uses this technology to keep their community safe.
When public safety agencies have predictive policing capabilities, law enforcement officials use data to predict, prevent, and reduce crime. The Everett Police Department, located in Snohomish County, Washington, used predictive policing capabilities to reduce thefts in the city.
Take a look back at this article to find out how the Kankakee County Sheriff's Office in Illinois, was able to use information sharing and data integration to bring a burglary ring to justice.
When cutbacks in 2015 resulted in a reduction of officers on patrol throughout Kankakee County, the county experienced a rash of burglaries.
For three weeks, burglars ransacked homes in search of guns, jewelry, electronics, cash and anything else of value.
"It got to the point where you were either a victim of the burglaries, neighbors with someone who had been a victim or afraid of becoming a victim," according to Becky Powell, Investigation's Officer Manager for the Kankakee County Sheriff's Office.
When it comes to the world of public safety, dispatchers and first responders are always ready to provide help when it’s needed most.
Take a look back at the work of public safety officials throughout the country by exploring these stories on The Call:
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