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The future of 9-1-1 call processing is here

Written by Annemarie Mannion

When a fatal shooting in a bar occurred not long ago in Chicago Heights, IL more than a dozen units from the police department and several neighboring towns responded to the scene.

Using INTERMap, an integrated function with INTERCad, the department’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, police were able to view a map of the area surrounding the tavern, keep track of the numerous units that responded to the crime scene, and direct those resources to where they were most needed. “It enables you to visually see where all your assets are,” said George Sintic, director of the department’s 9-1-1 center. “You’re able to monitor the [crime] scene from afar without having eyes on the ground.”

EmergiTech Inc.

INTERCad is not new to Chicago Heights. The police department has been using the product since 1997. It is made by EmergiTech Inc.™, based in Columbus, OH, which develops, designs and implements Microsoft Windows-based software. But new evolutions and add-ons to the software such as INTERMap have made it more functional and valuable as a crime-fighting tool.

EmergiTech’s INTER911™ E911 Call Taker Software is designed to act as the primary interface for calltakers at public safety answering points (PSAPs) that have EmergiTech’s Proctor or Tone Commander based 9-1-1 ANI controllers. INTER911™’s intuitive interface works as a freestanding application or may be integrated with the INTERCad™ system and is wireless 9-1-1 phase II compliant.

At the bar shooting in Chicago Heights, the police department had a watch commander on the scene. Sintic said it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the commander to have a broad, visual overview of the positioning of all the units and to direct them to where they were most needed. INTERMap solved that problem. “When you have your units stationed at the scene, you’re able to communicate with them,” Sintic said. “If someone has a problem on one side of the building, you can direct another unit to the other side of the building to help them.”

The mapping and communication function, according to Michael Warren, director of sales at EmergiTech, is one of INTERCad’s valuable add-on functions, which is particularly useful in situations such as the shooting in Chicago Heights where multiple units respond and make it harder to keep track and allocate them appropriately. It is also valuable for another issue many police departments are confronting—the dramatic increase in cell phone use. “What’s changed with the CAD technology is the integration of mapping,” Warren said. “And with more folks using wireless, it’s valuable because a dispatcher can see exactly on a map where the caller is calling from.”

INTERMap displays a high-level snapshot of information such as the location and nature of a call, as well as the units responding and unit status. Lainie Disney, training coordinator for the Chicago Heights Police Department’s 9-1-1 Center, likes the mapping software and INTERCad’s records management software, INTERBADge. “It holds a lot of information—vehicle information, call history and whether it is related to a specific address or person,” Disney said. “It will flag a person who is wanted on a warrant.”

Warren said INTERBADge also provides officers with the ability to report and analyze incident and investigational data. It allows them to track complaints, criminal charges, citations, traffic reports and case investigations, personnel and equipment. Disney described the software as “very user friendly. You can look up a certain Social Security number or an address, and all kinds of information comes up.”

In addition to giving more comprehensive information, INTERBADge enables police to dedicate personnel and resources based on the history of data that shows them where crimes or a particular need is occurring in their communities. “You can look at activity,” Warren said. “Maybe there are parts of a city that need to be better controlled.”

An intersection with a high number of accidents is an example of a problem INTERBADge could help solve. Warren said police can analyze accident data to try to find a solution, whether it is dedicating more traffic enforcement to the area, installing red light cameras, or working with a city to improve the timing of lights or the physical layout of the intersection.

Disney also praised EmergiTech’s INTERShare, which allows multiple users in different departments in a city or across communities to access the same information. “It spans our fire department, EMS and records management,” she said. “They’re all interfacing together.” Sintic said other police departments near Chicago Heights are looking at using INTERShare. “Each town would have to purchase on its own. But it would give towns a lot of the information we may have on a suspect.”

Another benefit of INTERCad, according to Warren, is that it allows dispatchers to follow protocols that help them better manage responses to calls. If a domestic abuse situation is occurring or they receive a call of a medical emergency, they can follow protocols to respond appropriately. Those protocols can be customized to a department’s own rules and requirements. “Instead of having to pull a book off a shelf and say, ‘OK, how do we handle this?’ they can refer to the protocols on the computer screen,” he said.

Priority Dispatch Corp.

Priority Dispatch Corp.™ in Salt Lake City, UT, is also providing law enforcement with high-tech tools to improve the processing of 9-1-1 calls, whether those calls require dispatchers to provide responding units with the criminal history and maps at a particular address or to give protocol-based instructions to a frantic caller on how to respond to a medical emergency until help can arrive. Protocols are key to the products Priority Dispatch provides its customers. The company’s ProQA Dispatch Software integrates protocols for police, fire and medical emergency calls with computer technologies such as CAD.

Priority Dispatch’s founder, Dr. Jeff Clawson, issued his first medical protocol for use in telephone triage in 1978. The system provided protocols for prioritizing responses of emergency vehicles and personnel. Today, ProQA has been adapted for use by police and fire departments. The Medical ProQA has been used since 1997 by the police department in Lake Zurich, IL, outside of Chicago. “It’s used for any call where EMS is involved,” explained Lea Kelly, 9-1-1 director. “It interfaces with our CAD system and facilitates medical advice. It’s not our advice. We follow the protocols.”

“It’s a universal standard,” said Greg Scott, medical consultant for Priority Dispatch. “We stand by that concept. It includes core standards that are always the same.” According to Scott, call centers follow the protocols for gathering information from callers, but they determine the appropriate allocation of their resources. “The response to any call is dictated by the local agencies,” he noted.

Though the system comes loaded with universal protocols, Kelly said some customization options are offered. The department works with a project medical director from a local hospital who periodically reviews the protocols and oversees any customization of the product. According to Kelly, ProQA has helped dispatchers provide instructions to deliver babies over the phone, given advice on clearing a patient’s airways until paramedics can arrive, and provided instructions to callers for doing pediatric CPR.

Eric Parry, police consultant for Priority Dispatch, said the software “consists of a system of interrogations that you have to answer or fill in the blanks. It is a highly structured system that doesn’t let you forget anything.” As the dispatcher begins to question the caller, “the system creates a pathway to the correct protocol,” Parry said.

While the Lake Zurich PD uses only the medical ProQA, Scott said there are departments that use all three adaptations. Whether a call is a police, fire or medical emergency, he said it is easy for dispatchers to move from one protocol to the other. “We set it up so they can launch one protocol from the existing protocol and do more than one protocol in sequence,” he explained.

Priority Dispatch’s fire ProQA helps emergency dispatchers move from case entry to questioning. It assists them in quickly determining the appropriate determinant code for each case and displays the response configuration specifically assigned to the code by local agency authorities. ProQA then guides dispatchers in providing post-dispatch and pre-arrival instructions, as well as important case completion information.

Following a protocol of interrogation with such basics as the caller’s address, call back number, name, asking the caller to describe exactly what happened, and whether there are weapons involved, can save lives, Parry said. As information is collected, it goes immediately into the department’s CAD system. It allows dispatchers to quickly provide more useful pre-arrival instructions to responders.

Whether justified or not, Parry said fingers are often pointed at 9-1-1 call centers when a call goes badly.

“When a call goes horribly wrong, the first place they look to assign blame is communications,” he stated. ProQA includes a quality assurance tool that allows supervisors to determine whether protocols are being followed correctly. “The closer you follow the protocol, the smoother the call goes,” he said.

Priority Dispatch often asks its users how the system can be improved. “There is no central authority for police departments giving directions on answering calls,” he said. “We’re always tweaking it and fine-tuning it.” The company asks its clients to provide examples of calls that do not fit in with the protocols they provide. Parry said it is rare, if ever, that a client has told them of a call that fell outside the protocols.

The medical ProQA is updated about every 18 months to include the most up-to-date medical information. For instance, when the American Heart Association changed its recommendations on the ratio of chest compressions to breaths given to heart attack victims, Scott said that information was included in the medical ProQA. “The protocol has to go through a scientific process that then goes through an updating process everyone follows,” he said.

Training

When it comes to making a product work well for users, representatives of both EmergiTech and Priority Dispatch agreed that training and customer service are important. “Training is a huge part of the success of our system,” Warren stated. “We show departments how to set up the system. And we set it up specifically for their department. We put in their own policies, their units and personnel names.” The initial user training lasts two to three days.

Sintic added that ongoing, on-site training provided by EmergiTech is important particularly as police departments have personnel changes: “Because of turnover rates and when people retire, you lose that expertise.” His department also periodically invites EmergiTech to review on-site how the department’s dispatchers are using the INTERCad system. Sintic said he has been satisfied with the training EmergiTech provides when it introduces upgraded features.

“With any system that runs 24/7, you need to have a company with good service and maintenance,” Warren said. “[Police departments] can’t afford the systems to go down.” On the rare occasion when there is a power outage that affects his community, Sintic said the department goes back to using paper.

The occasional power outage aside, it’s obvious that computer technologies such as mapping, protocol-based information gathering and critical pre-arrival instructions for responders are what the future holds for many call centers. Representatives of EmergiTech and Priority Dispatch said their computer-based products improve 9-1-1 call processing and help dispatchers perform to their best. “The protocols never have a bad day,” Parry said. 

Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer based in Chicago who also writes in the fields of business and health.

Published in Public Safety IT, May/Jun 2009

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