Call it a kind of occupational hazard. Computer-aided dispatchers are pushed daily to be flawless performers in a high-wire juggling act where there’s no room for error and no safety net. It’s almost an impossible mission given the huge convergence of phone calls, radio traffic and dispatching they must navigate. In fact, it’s more than just an occupational hazard. It’s their job.
When dispatchers’ efforts to multi-task are stymied due to their human limitations, that’s bad enough. But if it’s because their technology lags, it’s especially frustrating. Inaccurate or untimely information delivered to responding officers—who depend on precise, timely information—can even be deadly. If the officers don’t get the information quickly, the incident can quickly escalate out of control. Backup might then be called. Will these responding officers be able to rely on the information relayed to them? Or are they charging into a hornet’s nest?
Call Notification Hampered
Chief Ronnie Bowen of the Amory (Miss.) Police Department knows these challenges intimately. Before he became police chief in 1993, Bowen was himself a dispatcher for two years and a patrol officer for 11. He still sits in the dispatcher’s chair occasionally to help relieve other shifts and to keep his dispatching skills sharp.
Amory has 21 sworn officers who serve the city’s 7,600 residents. One of Bowen’s first actions as chief was to automate records and integrate the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management system (RMS) functions to strengthen incident response. He purchased the Crimestar CAD and RMS systems to accomplish this task because it is suited to the needs of small police departments.
Often, Amory had just one dispatcher answering all phone calls, radio traffic and walk-in traffic. Plus, this person had to monitor the police department’s two holding cells.
“We’re stretched thin, and when you have a major event happen, there’s a requirement that I be contacted, and perhaps a patrol captain and a criminal investigator, whatever resources are needed for that particular case,” says Bowen. But too often the dispatcher was so swamped, they didn’t have time to stop and phone each key police contact.
One recent incident proved to Bowen that he needed to get help for his dispatchers so that the right personnel could be instantly notified and mobilized, and incidents and officers were not jeopardized.
“We had one incident where I asked the dispatcher why she didn’t call me,” the chief recalls. “It was an hour and a half before I was contacted. The dispatcher said she just didn’t have time to call me any sooner.”
Group E-mail & Texting
Fearing this problem would only worsen, the chief asked Crimestar if there was a way that CAD could be used to notify people via e-mail or cell phone when a major incident occurs. Crimestar responded with a new e-mail/short message service (SMS) capability for its CAD system.
The new feature allows the dispatcher to quickly activate a pop-up e-mail and SMS form, which contains some basic CAD event data in the form of an SMS text message. The CAD event data message can be easily edited on the fly, and the distribution list of recipients can be determined by simply selecting them from a predefined list of contacts. Bottom line: The e-mail/SMS feature allows the busy dispatcher to simultaneously notify multiple people without having to call each person individually.
Bowen said that now his dispatchers simply enter CAD call information on the CAD system’s screen. Then the dispatcher opens up the SMS box containing names of key police personnel to be sent the call message, then sends it. The message identifies the call type, date, time, call number, location and any notes from the dispatcher.
“You choose the names and hit the send button,” the chief said. “The message not only goes to the recipient’s e-mail address, but also to the cell phone in the form of a text message.”
Short Message Notification
The e-mail/SMS also can be used just for dispatchers. For example, if a dispatcher is going to be off for a day or has called in sick, all other dispatchers can be notified via SMS to see who is available to cover that shift.
In addition, the e-mail/SMS capability can be used with commonly available mobile digital communications (MDC) systems. Bowen indicated that an alert message can be placed by dispatchers in the MDC and it will be displayed in the patrol unit.
“There is immediate notification,” Bowen says. “SMS is helpful for when you have a crime where you may need a criminal investigator to come out in the middle of the night. And it’s a great way to get a hold of police personnel when they’re off duty.”
Rick Jones, Operations Issues Director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), is concerned that public safety agencies—especially dispatch centers—are “way behind the curve on changes in the communications industry.” This is why he sees strong value in capabilities such as using e-mail and SMS.
Jones notes that texting has been around since the 1980s. Although many dispatch centers use texting as a communications tool with police, fire and other public safety entities, they’re not necessarily using SMS to accomplish it. Of course, there are pros and cons associated with SMS applications for public safety dispatching.
On one hand, Jones says, SMS could have optimal validity if it can be used on a broad geographic scale. He also argues that to provide long-term benefits, such a technology would need to reach all kinds of wireless devices.
On the other hand, Jones claims SMS transmission doesn’t always get through. Intermittent cell phone reception in certain geographic locales—from remote rural areas to urban parking garages—is one reason.
Better Communications Needed
Nevertheless, Bowen considers his dispatchers’ new-found freedom with the SMS feature the best possible solution for now. He also feels dispatchers at all police departments could benefit from the technology as an alternative to contacting several people manually.
NENA’s Jones agrees, although he feels strongly that the novel capability could work for a state or jointly among several states—even across entire countries. To that end, NENA is working to support a so-called Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) initiative, which would define the system architecture for and develop a plan to launch Internet-protocol-based emergency services and communications nationwide.
The upshot of NG 9-1-1 for public safety responders would be enhanced call delivery, multimedia data transmission and more streamlined call transferring.
“There’s a need for CAD operators not to just juggle calls, but to verify information for calls, which would give you flags of safety issues,” says Jones. Example: “You should be able to receive a call from someone in distress at a bank ATM somewhere in your region. And then not only are you, as a dispatcher, relaying to first responders what that distress is, but the first responder has the capability to start watching the video. You can start pulling in pieces of information.”
This is an ideal model for how public safety dispatching can reach new levels both technologically and geographically, and it is an important milestone ultimately to reach.
Meanwhile, back in Amory, Miss., Chief Bowen considers it a quantum leap just for his dispatchers to have the new e-mail/SMS module working within the CAD system. It’s the most practical and efficient solution, he says, particularly for smaller police departments. Any department that has limited people—civilian station staff and dispatchers, as well as the officers on the street whom they support—can benefit from this technology.
“The e-mail and short message service is a great way to notify everyone of major events faster than ever before,” says Bowen. After all, “If there’s an officer needing help, he’s going to be glad someone did get notified.”
The 4-1-1 on 9-1-1
For more information on the National Emergency Number Association, visit www.nena.org.