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 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."
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.
In the world of emergency situations, every second counts. That's why it is important for dispatchers to never have to worry about their computer aided dispatch (CAD) system going down.
Although rare, CAD systems can go down for a variety of reasons. One reason some are taken down deliberately is to update geographic information system (GIS) data imperative to routing.
Keeping GIS information current is a crucial component to maintaining faster and smarter response times. While there is a plethora of GIS data about a community that does not change, certain elements need to be updated from time to time, such as a new development being built, road closures and construction.
This updated information provides greater accuracy and helps dispatchers and first responders continuously provide a high-level of service to the community.
Some CAD software still requires going offline in order to update GIS data because their systems are unable to update in real time and stay online. It's Important to have a system that allows for the updating of GIS data without having to take that system down, as this lets dispatchers and first responders have constant access to data.
When a CAD system is taken offline, calls for service are still handled, but dispatchers are required to use radio communication. Deliberately taking a CAD system offline to update GIS data meant that calls for service suffer from not having important information available at all times.
In almost every town in the United States, there are areas that the locals know to avoid if they want to get someplace quickly.
These areas could involve one-way bridges, dirt roads that always wash out after a storm, shorter-than-average overpasses and other potential traffic hazards.
But people can’t always know every backroad in each community. This is especially true when it comes to emergency dispatching services.
Since no community is the same, it is important for computer aided dispatching (CAD) software and emergency 9-1-1 dispatchers using that software to also have solid geographic information system (GIS) data to support real-world scenarios that can impact routing.
Imagine leveraging GIS routing data such as one-ways, speed limits, travel time, max height and weight, and anything else specific to a community right within the CAD software. This would ensure a faster, data-driven response and avoid potential traffic hazards that could delay a response.
For instance, CAD software with the ability to take a community’s unique GIS data into consideration would prevent a ladder truck from being routed over a town’s old wooden bridge with a weight restriction or low overhang.
Using this data, dispatchers would be able to route vehicles to a call for service without ever having to worry about the emergency vehicle encountering a scenario that could delay service.
A community’s unique GIS data helps dispatchers to always send the fastest, smartest response.
There are a few ways to dispatch emergency services when a call for service comes in to a call center.
Without computer aided dispatch (CAD) software, dispatchers send transmissions via radio to first responders. These first responders use pen and paper to record the information or commit the details to memory. To get to the scene, they might use their own mobile phone’s routing features, or rely on their own knowledge of the area.
Then there are dispatchers who utilize CAD software and send a response, but are unaware of the unit’s estimated time of arrival (ETA). Once the unit is dispatched to a call for service, dispatchers calculate the ETA based on the unit’s location, speed and route.
What dispatchers and law enforcement officers have learned is that a much more efficient way to get to the scene is through proximity dispatching. With this method, dispatchers see where police, fire and EMS units are on a digital map in CAD software in real-time along with their continuously adjusting ETAs.
The continuously updated ETAs that proximity dispatching relies on are provided through the use of automatic vehicle location (AVL) functionality. This provides the most accurate information possible, so that dispatchers and first responders can see where all units are by looking at their digital maps either in the CAD mapping system or mobile data terminals in patrol cars, fire engines, or other emergency vehicles. Using this information, dispatchers determine which unit should be dispatched to ensure the quickest response.
AVL works by having each emergency vehicle equipped with global positioning system (GPS) functionality. By pre-programming GPS data into an agency’s mobile server, the mobile software located in police, fire and EMS vehicles communicates seamlessly back and forth to dispatch.
This same signal is sent to other units within the agency, all of which are able to view this information using the maps on their mobile devices.
AVL technology continuously sends latitude and longitude coordinates back to the CAD system so that dispatchers always know the location of a unit.
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