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NICE and San Francisco's ECD

Written by Jimmy Lutz

The San Francisco Emergency Communications Department (ECD) isn’t your typical public safety operation. In fact, it’s anything but ordinary. The department—which serves as the primary public safety answering point for the city and county of San Francisco—is housed in a specially designed, seismic-safe 35,000 square foot building located in the Civic Center area of San Francisco.

Still, the true uniqueness of the ECD has much more to do with its internal operations than outward bricks and mortar. With a staff of 150 plus telecommunicators, all civilians who are fully trained to handle any type of emergency, the San Francisco ECD is a model 911 operation.

San Francisco ECD’s Carol Bernard, a 26-year public safety veteran, is quick to point out that while consolidated agencies are becoming more the norm, there are very few that are completely managed by civilians and fewer still where police, fire, and medical emergencies are processed from the first point of answer. “We’re a city and county department with enormous responsibility,” she said. “We do a lot of big work.”

The ECD takes more than a million police, fire and EMS calls a year. When it comes to handling those calls and coordinating emergency response, the center has no shortage of technology at its disposal, including a state-of-the-art 911 system, an 800 MHz trunked radio system, upgraded computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software, and mobile data terminals used by field responders. But it’s the newest arrival to this 911 center—a NICE recording system—that’s helping to make short order of all of “the big work” that’s done in the ECD’s Client Services Section, managed by Bernard.

“The Client Services Unit plays an important role in helping the department meet the expectations of all of its stakeholders,” she said. “That includes citizens and community groups, our allied and partner agencies, and the court system.”

As the ECD’s client services manager, Bernard oversees the ECD’S Quality Improvement team that is responsible for ensuring that quality standards are met in handling calls and overseeing the Custodian of Records office, which is responsible for ensuring the integrity of the 911 records and handling records requests.

Cutting the Backlog in Half

The recording system captures all of ECD’s 911 and non-emergency calls, as well as communications from the Department’s Motorola trunked radio system. Those communications can prove invaluable in reconstructing incidents for court use or internal reviews. The ECD’s Custodian of Records office receives requests for audio recordings from district attorneys, public defenders, public safety and other city agencies, and private citizens.

“It’s a very busy office,” said Bernard. “We process over 300 requests a month.” Using the department’s old digital audio tape-based system, the two-person office found itself knee deep in requests. Since installing the new system, the office has been able to cut its backlog in half.

Bernard credits a number of features of the recording solution, including the system’s online storage capabilities, with this productivity improvement. “In order to research requests before, we would have to first find the correct tape that covered the day we were searching, then load the tape, and rerecord onto another audio tape,” she explained. “Since most of the requests come in after the fact, it always came down to searching for the tape, pulling it and then searching for the information from that tape. So it was cumbersome.”

In contrast, the department’s new recording solution captures all of the ECD’s 911 and radio calls online on RAID arrays, which can store up to eighteen months’ worth of recordings. The system’s flexible search and replay features also aid in locating recordings and reconstructing incidents. For instance, the ECD’s record custodians can search for captured 911 calls from specific phone numbers or locations (via an ANI/ALI search), or by specific call-taking positions for other calls. Recorded radio transmissions can be retrieved by querying by radio dispatch positions, talk groups and time frames.

“Now when we’re trying to find a record, it takes about as long as it takes to enter the date and the time and the parameters we want,” Bernard said. “It’s pretty much instantaneous retrieval.” The system’s search and replay software is installed on workstations right in the Custodian of Records Office and Quality Improvement Office, so the teams can access calls without even leaving their desks.

Once the relevant radio and phone recordings are found, the system automatically pieces them together in a graphical timeline so they can be seamlessly replayed. If copies need to be made for an attorney or other requesting party, the recordings can be saved on a CD as a single .wav file, eliminating the need to rerecord to an audio cassette in real time.

The .wav file recordings are time-stamped with precise time captured from the atomic clock to which the recording system is synched. “This system is just head and shoulders above the other one we had as far as being able to search accurately for records and locate recordings faster,” Bernard said.

Bernard’s job also involves fielding an occasional resident complaint, and the system has proved its worth there, too. “It gives me a lot of confidence because it’s accurate and because it records every single thing,” she said. She cites one specific example where a citizen had claimed that he’d dialed 911 and experienced an excessively long wait time. Bernard felt that the claim was unfounded but investigated nevertheless.

The Emergency Communication Department’s recording system captures the caller’s phone number (also known as the Automatic Number Identification or ANI) and the caller’s location (also known as the Automatic Location Identification or ALI), and time and date stamps each call. She was able to use that information to search both the recording system and the CAD system for the call. She found no record of it in either system. “I had a hunch that the claim was unfounded, and I was able to confirm that through the NICE system,” she said.

Although Bernard and her staff took time to adapt to the new technology, she says they now, too, give the system high marks for its ease of use. “The learning curve seemed steep at first because the system was so different; it was a big change—way ahead of where we had been,” Bernard said. But, in the end she was pleased with her team’s rapid adoption of the system and with how fast they “picked it up, started using it, and making it their preference.”

Within a week’s time, any initial reservations on the part of her staff were replaced by rave reviews. “I shared their trepidation at the change, yet the primary users began saying, ‘This system is fantastic,’” Bernard exclaimed. “And when we talked, they said, ‘OK, now we see the value to it.’” Bernard also reported that her team benefited greatly from the help and expertise of the ECD information technology staff as the system was rolled out.

Improved “Customer Care”

The San Francisco ECD’s journey toward a fully consolidated and civilianized communications center began more than a decade ago with voter approval of Proposition B. That paved the path for the Emergency Communication Department to obtain capital funding for the consolidated center, which opened in 2000. Today, the ECD is in the fourth stage of its civilianization project.

Police, fire and EMS calls all come into and are dispatched from the consolidated center; and the ECD is well on its way toward ensuring that its telecommunicators are all universally (cross-functionally) trained and equipped to handle any type of call or dispatch—whether it requires a police, fire or EMS response.

The responsibility for ensuring quality call handling falls on the Quality Improvement Unit, and it’s a job they take very seriously. “Our clients are first and foremost the public,” Bernard affirmed, adding that “the public has high expectations when they dial 911.”

The Quality Improvement Unit routinely reviews calls for service to ensure standards are being met. “Generally, we are looking at the telecommunicators’ knowledge content and how they’re complying with the different protocols that we have in place,” she said. “We score the calls based on a set of stringent criteria that doesn’t vary.”

Under the old tape-based recording system, conducting quality reviews was a laborious process. In much the same way as the records custodians, the quality improvement team would have to physically get up from their desks and leave their offices to go load tapes and retrieve calls. “Before, the quality team would have to pull tapes to send to the supervisors,” said Bernard.

“Now, they can either quickly save the file to a CD or export it to a shared drive on our network. Supervisors are able to go to the drive, click on the recording they need, and listen to it.” Afterward, they are able to sit down and review the calls with individual telecommunicators to provide the one-on-one coaching and input needed.

Bernard says that the recording system has gone a long way toward improving the quality-assurance process. “Our quality improvement and operations teams are able to review more calls,” she said. “We can process a lot more work, more efficiently.”

Keeping a keen eye trained on quality improvement is especially important in a consolidated center such as San Francisco’s ECD because so much more is demanded of the telecommunicators. “Public safety telecommunications has changed radically since I entered into it 26 years ago,” Bernard said.

“There’s an increasing realization that dispatching is a true profession requiring very specialized skills, and there’s a very high expectation on the part of the public. It’s what the public expects that’s going to drive where we go. Our recording system is assisting us well toward that end in providing the most professional care for the community.”

Jimmy Lutz is marketing director for NICE Systems Inc. He has more than 13 years’ experience working for organizations in the government sector, and he is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at jimmy.lutz@nice.com.

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2006

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