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Hendon Publishing

Orchestrating the Future of Mission Critical Dispatch

When an emergency 9-1-1 call comes in, it is critical for all first responders to be prepared. Typically, when one thinks of “emergency response,” police, firefighters and EMTs immediately come to mind. While each is certainly a hero, there is a very important and often unrecognized public servant who directs these first responders where they need to be: the emergency dispatcher. The emergency dispatcher interfaces with a variety of departments including towing, hazmat, utility, law enforcement, fire and EMS.

As the first point of contact to receive and respond to an emergency 9-1-1 call, dispatchers must be able to act quickly and transmit instructions efficiently while communicating with individuals who might be involved in any number of stress-inducing or potentially life-threatening situations. When receiving incoming calls for help, dispatchers must ascertain the nature, location and extent of the emergency in order to effectively prioritize and direct response.

An experienced, well-trained dispatcher is able to gather a lot of high quality, vitally important information that will help form an early understanding of what first responders will be facing upon arrival at the scene. It takes extreme focus and high levels of coordination for dispatchers to relay messages to emergency personnel to get resources sent to the emergency location.

On average, dispatchers receive up to 250 calls per hour, which means they must operate at a breakneck pace if they hope to correctly deliver the deluge of critical information to first responders. For example, the emergency dispatch facility in Chicago handles, on average, 300,000 radio calls per day. Clearly, it is essential that they have the most advanced, innovative and streamlined dispatcher console and equipment available.

As populations continue to grow, the job of the emergency dispatcher becomes increasingly important, and as technology marches forward, the job becomes more and more complex. Dispatchers monitor all of the emergency communications within a specific geographic area, and all communications that occur within the jurisdiction of their departments.

The primary tool of the dispatcher—the dispatch console—is a system that interfaces to a private or public radio system, allowing the dispatcher to communicate directly with all first responders to coordinate their emergency response activities. Using direct input and research aimed at meeting the extreme demands of modern emergency dispatchers, companies serving the public safety industry are making significant investments in advancing and improving their technology to meet the ever-evolving needs of dispatchers.

To meet the demanding and fluid needs of emergency dispatchers and to create the next-generation dispatch console, companies, researchers and engineers are going right to the source – the call centers. For example, we commissioned a research and design company called PixelMEDIA to reach out and work with key stakeholders in order to explore and analyze the dispatcher experience. For this study, PixelMEDIA identified more than 30 managers from different jurisdictions and agencies across the United States who worked with police, fire, EMS and military personal to set up a dispatcher shadow program.

The program conducted workflow studies on-site by looking at the personal and professional challenges facing emergency dispatchers in everyday, real-world scenarios, and researchers tested and assessed how new technology could help streamline the dispatcher’s typical responsibilities. In addition, the dispatchers evaluated console prototypes and offered feedback and ideas on how to improve the technology in a way that best met their unique needs.

One of the most consistent, resounding complaints heard from emergency dispatchers during the study was that they need to have a cleaner, more workflow-conscience workspace. Dispatchers use between three and seven large screens on their desk and up to eight speakers to monitor and manage multiple communication channels, Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) maps, text chats, shift change data, e-mail, internal documents, and situational awareness. The dispatchers shared that when they did get a new piece of technology, it was simply added to their existing console or work station.

While these new technologies and functionalities serve a purpose, over time all the bolt-ons simply added up to clutter. The numerous monitors, keyboards, speakers and computer mice made work stations difficult for the dispatcher to navigate, often leading to higher stress levels, slower response times, and ultimately increased risk for the public.

The bottom line is that dispatchers need the most cutting-edge and intuitive technology in the most streamlined package possible. They need solutions that further simplify their console by displacing monitors and supporting single mouse and keyboard operations for both CAD, broadband and narrowband radio operation.

A well-developed console that supports remote radio call playback directly on the CAD screen, and ensures priority emergencies are displayed directly in line of sight increases efficiency even further. These functionalities allow the console to support quick prioritization and even quicker reactions by simplifying the entire process and putting the most important information where it needs to be, when it needs to be there.

Another area of improvement uncovered during the study was that the dispatchers need to have all necessary tools and features within immediate reach. Dispatchers need to be able to customize their work stations, and change labels and talk groups on screens to organize and make the functions with which they frequently interact easily accessible. In the everyday world of the consumer, this would be a favorites menu or the way one organizes applications on a phone based on priority and regularity of use.

Through this study, researchers found that data brought through a console must be organized to streamline workflow and response. Console technology should be deployed that can help to eliminate the complexity of managing a cluttered legacy dispatch console configuration. A single organized screen on the console allows dispatchers to complete multiple tasks at once while eliminating the need for multiple screens.

So we developed prototypes. Once these prototypes were tested, improved and retested, dispatchers were able to receive and document incoming calls, transmit messages to appropriate personnel, and keep logs of the daily activities of personnel using a single screen with much greater efficacy and efficiency. 

By working directly with dispatch professionals in real-life scenarios, engineers and researchers from PixelMEDIA learned what was needed in order to develop the tools response coordinators need in order to perform their job at their peak.

A dispatcher’s contribution to incident situational awareness is key during emergency response. Situational awareness can be achieved by integrating a combination of technologies to provide dispatchers with access to information based on the first responder’s circumstances—allowing dispatchers to understand, react and make better decisions. To improve response time and provide public safety personnel with enhanced situational awareness, leading manufacturers are developing and testing third-party applications that can transmit dynamic data and imagery to help dispatchers make better, more informed decisions.

The most advanced LTE applications are enabling the convergence of traditional Push-to-Talk (PTT) communications along with real-time location and presence information between team members and dispatchers—all from a first responder’s smartphone or tablet. These capabilities, coupled with a sleek and modern dispatch console, truly empower the team of the dispatchers and first responders and give them exactly the tools they need to significantly improve emergency response efforts.

When considering a dispatch console, it makes sense to take a page from some of the finest design minds of the modern era, and focus on one that is streamlined, minimalist and ergonomic, with highly intuitive user interfaces and software. When emergencies occur and a call is placed to 9-1-1, it is up to an ordinary and dedicated person—the dispatcher—to react under extraordinary circumstances and get the right resources to the right location at the right time. The dispatcher truly is the conductor of emergency response teams, and the console is a crucial component to ensure public safety through harmonious coordination and streamlined response.


Mark Cranmore is the Product Manager at Harris RF Communications.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2014

Rating : 8.0

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