The NG9-1-1 systems like VoIP and RoIP are credible solutions.
Consolidation of Communication Centers
By Susan Geoghegan
In the midst of today’s challenging economic climate, many states, counties, and municipalities are turning to consolidation of their emergency services to cut costs while increasing efficiency. Although the concept of 9-1-1 regionalization is not a new one, advances in communications technology in the past decade have provided the tools to broaden the scope of services from the local level to the state level, and beyond.
As the public’s first line of contact with public safety officials during an emergency, Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are frequently identified as a prime area for consolidation. While budget-minded governments tout consolidation as an effective way to cut costs, some local agencies are reluctant to cede jurisdiction, prompting them to conduct feasibility studies to weigh the pros and cons of consolidation.
The consolidation of public safety 9-1-1 dispatching centers is primarily viewed as a cost-saving measure that enhances operational efficiencies, increases safety for first responders, and provides improved public services. According to Chris Knight, Director of International Police Systems & Standards for the National/International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED), having all emergency calls go into one center is highly beneficial to both the public and first responders.
Knight points out that, traditionally, each public service agency has had its own communications center, requiring callers to repeatedly explain their need before being transferred to the agency that has jurisdiction. With consolidation, the calltaker can immediately send the information to the appropriate dispatcher, saving valuable time in cases of a true emergency.
Shawn Messinger, a police consultant and Emergency Police Dispatch instructor for Priority Dispatch Corp, said that with today’s Next Generation 9-1-1 technology capabilities, consolidated calltaking and dispatch services can be done locally, regionally, statewide, nationally, and internationally.
“With older technology (hard copper lines and physical phone switches), agencies were limited to a much more local scale of service. The 9-1-1 services using the new NG911 systems, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone systems and Radio over Internet Protocol (RoIP) radio networks, can now be provided from almost anywhere,” Messinger said.
For instance, if a state decided to consolidate all its PSAPs into one statewide 9-1-1 call center, the calls could be routed to that location, processed, and then dispatched to the appropriate local responders from the area where the call was received.
Call Taking Protocols
The National Academy of Emergency Dispatch (NAED) is a non-profit organization that promotes safe and effective emergency dispatch services worldwide, and the use of their protocols establishes a Standard of Service for the communication center. Compliant protocol usage enables prioritized responses that are established by local agency policy, and ensures that each call receives the same high level of service, regardless of which calltaker takes the call or what time of the day it is.
Protocols assist emergency dispatchers in quickly prioritizing calls based on complete and accurate information, allowing appropriate deployment of resources exactly where they are needed. With compliant protocol usage, local authority predetermined prioritized responses give calltakers the confidence they need to effectively handle all calls, allowing them to focus on the human side of calltaking.
The Police Priority Dispatch System (PPDS), developed by Priority Dispatch Corp™, is another important tool that allows calltakers to quickly relay more accurate information to responding law enforcement officers. PPDS-driven Quality Assurance monitors which calltakers are meeting or exceeding expectations, and which require additional education and training. Calltaker performance can be measured against the established Standard of Service, ensuring the standard is being followed and met. Protocol training and usage also provides the benefits of Certification and Accreditation, validating the skills of 9-1-1 calltakers, dispatchers, and the communications center to the general public.
According to Knight, liability risk reduction is a major concern for public safety agencies and, as such, compliance with protocol usage significantly reduces risk for both agencies and individual calltakers. “Having a standardized, pre-approved method for receiving and processing emergency calls ensures that every caller receives the same consistently high level of service.” In addition, use of the PPDS reduces the potential for error which, in turn, reduces the liability exposure of a center or an agency. “The combined benefits of well-developed and well-managed protocols provide the best possible shield against potential liability problems,” Knight said.
Although many states have passed legislation setting minimum training directives for 9-1-1 calltakers, the standard for this training minimum can vary widely. This leads to some agencies offering optimum services due to enhanced training and use of standardized protocols, while other, less efficient agencies provide a lower level of service, leaving them open to litigation. In addition, implementing consolidated dispatching in states that place responsibility for answering 9-1-1 calls on individual cities or counties can lead to jurisdictional issues from both a legal and tax revenue standpoint.
The benefit of consolidated centers over individual agencies is that most are overseen by a committee of participating agencies that encourages diversified opinions on how to increase efficiency. Single agencies frequently get bogged down with a “this is how we have always done it” attitude, which could possibly have a negative effect on operations. Knight said, “Overall, it’s practical to assume that legal issues involving consolidated dispatch centers would be minimized by increased emphasis on how the center operates through input from its multiple agency users.”
Dakota Communications Center
With a population of over 400,000 covering an area of approximately 562 square miles, Dakota County is the third most populous county in Minnesota. In 2004, the County partnered with 11 city councils to identify High Performance Partnerships that would provide enhanced emergency services while reducing costs. The result of this collaboration was the Dakota Communications Center (DCC), a joint dispatch center that opened in the fall of 2007, consolidating the work of five PSAPs and 12 law enforcement agencies into a single facility.
The DCC provides centralized, state-of-the-art 9-1-1 and emergency dispatch services (police, sheriff, fire, and emergency medical) effectively and efficiently at a lower cost to taxpayers in all Dakota County cities and townships. The DCC is committed to the highest standards of integrity and customer service, effective acquisition and dissemination of information, accountability for performance and conduct, and continuous improvement through professional development.
With projected savings of $8 million in operating costs over a five-year period, and an advanced 800 MHz communications system allowing seamless communication between agencies, the DCC serves as the paradigm for successful consolidation.
Challenges of Effective Consolidation
While successful consolidation of emergency services results in enhanced public safety at reduced taxpayer cost, the process requires extensive research and can be a daunting task. Many cities and counties are currently implementing feasibility studies to weigh the pros and cons of consolidation. In addition to determining if consolidation makes sense from a service level point of view, legal, political, technological, and financial perspectives have to be considered.
Consolidation vs. Centralization
For cities and counties where consolidation is not feasible, “centralization” may prove a viable alternative. Messinger pointed out consolidation refers to physically moving or combining two or more communication centers or entities into one location. With centralization, the individual communication centers remain intact – only the systems and hardware they use are “centralized” in one location. The other centers use a remote connection, usually Internet or network based, to access this centralized system.
“For example, we could have three communication centers running off of the same Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. While the server physically resides at only one of the centers, the others are linked to the server for all of their call processing and mapping functions.” The remotely linked centers only need a PC at the call station to display and access the CAD system, with all three agencies sharing the cost of the server, installation, battery back-up, and maintenance.
Messinger also cited an example of phone system centralization that was recently implemented in Washington State. The model for legacy phone systems (systems based on copper wire and physical phone switches) dictated that each PSAP in Washington State had a backroom system for processing the incoming 9-1-1 calls.
Expensive to purchase, install, and maintain, and with a stated lifecycle of about six years, these systems had to be regularly replaced among the state’s 39 counties. In response to the push for NG9-1-1 systems, Washington built out a secure statewide network, essentially a private Internet cloud called the ESInet that allows a 9-1-1 call to enter the “cloud” and be routed just about anywhere.
With this ability came “centralization” in which they could install one phone system and serve numerous other centers remotely through the secure Internet cloud. As with the CAD example, the individual centers only need a PC to access and receive the calls pushed out to them from that shared and centralized phone system.
“On top of the cost saving this type of system provides is the call routing diversity. With copper wire systems, once the wire is cut, the center is dead in the water, so to speak. With an Internet cloud, the system almost instantaneously re-routes around the affected area, restoring communications. I have seen this work in testing and it was impressive,” Messinger said.
As more municipalities nationwide are under pressure to cut costs while increasing efficiency and first responder safety, regional consolidation may well be the wave of the future. A recent FCC white paper reported that approximately 80 percent of dispatch centers have five seats or fewer, and suggested that PSAP consolidation will result in a 35 percent decrease in the number of PSAPs as networks migrate to NG9-1-1.
Regardless of local agency resistance, disparities in protocol usage, and potential legal issues, the concept of shared services and functional consolidation presents a viable option to government agencies seeking to improve the quality of services while reducing the cost of performance.
Key Issues for Success
A 2010 report issued by the Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) focused on the issues key to the successful consolidation of PSAPs. Findings of the report include the following:
· Identification of a well-respected champion is essential to support the effort and streamline the process.
· Participating agencies must overcome loss of control and shared responsibility.
· Legislation may be necessary to create sustainable funding.
· The arrangement should be formalized through a legal agreement defining responsibilities and expectations.
· Consideration of potential personnel issues should be addressed early in the process.
· Enhanced communication between stakeholders and governing bodies is critical to identify issues of concern.
· Long-term cost efficiencies may be realized by reducing operations and technology duplication.
· Consolidation results in uniform training and consistent SOPs (Standards of Operation).
· Increased interoperability of technology is key to successful consolidation.
The report also included recommendations encouraging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop new funding strategies to assist public agencies in their consolidation efforts. Other recommendations include providing a road map for public safety agencies as they migrate to Next-Generation (NG) solutions; collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security during the updating of the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP); and development of a repository of effective practices with regards to policies, practices, training, and technology.
Priority Dispatch ProQA Software
By Susan Geoghegan
Software quickly and accurately classifies calls.
Priority Dispatch Corp™ (PDC) is a unique research company that utilizes a comprehensive systems approach to develop innovative products and training for emergency calltaking centers. As the only dispatch system provider with an in-house research and development team, PDC has been approved by a recognized body of industry experts, the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED).
In addition to providing software products for law enforcement, fire departments, and 9-1-1 emergency centers, the company offers certification courses, product training for the software and protocols, basic telecommunicator instruction, and leadership seminars.
Integrating the power of the NAED protocols with today’s critical computer technologies, ProQA® Dispatch Software allows dispatchers to quickly and accurately classify each incoming call and assign it a specific determinant code.
ProQA then guides dispatchers in providing all relevant post-dispatch and pre-arrival instructions, as well as critical case completion information. Designed to integrate with most CAD and phone systems, ProQA is available in three versions: fire (EFD), medical (EMD), and police (EPD).
ProQA software consists of five tabs that assist calltakers in quickly and efficiently handling all emergency calls. In the Case Entry tab, all critical information, such as caller name, address, callback number, and Chief Complaint, is documented and displayed on the screen’s Status Bar and Tool Bar.
When the caller describes the emergency, the calltaker clicks on the appropriate link from the drop-down list of life-threatening situations located on the screen. Specific instructions for each of the three protocols (EFD, EMD, and EPD) are provided, and dispatch and pre-arrival instructions are immediately initiated.
The Key Questions tab provides quick and easy navigation with a drop-down menu that presents questions appropriate for the selected Chief Complaint. When descriptions of people or vehicles are required, Description Essential gathering tools allow calltakers to enter the descriptions into a standardized database format. Dispatchers can navigate through ProQA with the keyboard’s enter, tab, arrow, and hot keys; with a mouse; or a combination of both.
“ProQA has a very robust inference engine that borders on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and adjusts the key questions and instructions based on the answers to previous questions,” said Shawn Messinger, Police Consultant and Emergency Police Dispatch instructor for Priority Dispatch. “This assures that only the next appropriate question and instructions are prompted for each specific call.”
Post-Dispatch Instructions and Critical EFD Information appropriate for the Chief Complaint are presented on the PDI/CEI tab. The PDI Completed buttons give calltakers the ability to document the PDIs they provided to the caller, and this information is stored in the ProQA database for future reference.
Critical Dispatch Life Support instructions can be quickly accessed with the DLS Links button, while the DLS Tab provides the Case Exit and Pre-Arrival Instructions appropriate for the case. A complete recap of all the information collected during call processing can be accessed in the Summary Tab.
Numerous cities, counties, law enforcement agencies, and communications centers currently use EFD Fire, EMD Medical, and EPD Police ProQA software. The city of Danville, Va. began using the EMD version of ProQA for their emergency 9-1-1 services approximately 10 years ago. In 2010, as part of an effort to develop consistency across the board, the city purchased the system for the fire department and Sheriff’s Office.
According to Assistant Fire Chief Steve Dishman, the ProQA has been extremely effective in handling the pre-arrival information that is obtained and dispatched. Priority Dispatch Corp. also provided extensive hands-on technical training for the software, as well as certification courses designed to help emergency personnel better comprehend the system for safe and effective implementation.
Messinger pointed out “users of the protocols literally become part of the largest dispatch users group in the world. They join over 3,000 centers from 42 countries that are processing almost 80 million calls per year with the protocols. This allows them to access a cumulative knowledge base from all of these centers, as well as provide their own experiences for the betterment of the whole. This vast and constantly improving base of ‘industry best practices’ is a huge advantage for the users of the protocols, and is what provides them with a big liability shield.”
Summary: The concept of 9-1-1 regionalization is not a new one, but recent advances in communications technology have provided the tools to broaden the scope of services from the local level to the state level. Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are frequently identified as a prime area for consolidation.
Susan Geoghegan is a freelance writer living in Naples, Fla. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.