Receiving alarm data digitally lets Richmond dispatch help in less than 15 seconds, say Bill Hobgood and Annette Flowers.
Dec 10 2009

IT to the Rescue

State-of-the-art emergency operations centers feature a multitude of video applications, integrated dispatch and super-fast networks.

In 1897, when the building that housed Beaver County's previous emergency operations center was constructed, state-of-the-art rescue technology had four legs, needed to be fed, and wore a saddle. What a difference 112 years makes.

The Pennsylvania county is putting the finishing touches on a shiny new 18,000-square-foot emergency operations center (EOC). When it opens in January, the $15 million EOC will feature a number of giant flat screens for video conferencing, monitoring security cameras and network TV, and the airing of its own closed-circuit TV broadcasts.

"The video system will bring theoutside world into the emergency operations center through the use of cameras at various locations throughout the county," says Kevin Joy, deputy director of Beaver County Emergency Services. Displays will scroll through a list of incidents occurring throughout the county and state, and also help personnel monitor the weather using radar and satellite imagery.

All over the country, emergency management agencies and Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are upgrading their EOC technology to improve public safety and aid in law enforcement. Most don't have the luxury of starting from the ground up like Beaver County but are steadily making improvements as funds become available. Video conferencing applications are coming on strong as emergency management agencies collaborate to solve crimes and cope with terrorist threats and weather-related disasters.

34 million: Number of alarms phoned in annually to 911 centers, according to the Security Industry Alarm Coalition. Follow-up calls boost that number to 60 million.

Agencies are also exploring integrated alarm management and piloting Next Generation E-911, which offers the ability to send 911 information via text message and e-mail (see sidebar).

Advanced Video

Video applications will feature prominently in Beaver County's new EOC. Each of the dispatch positions will have six computer screens; the dispatch supervisor will have 10. Of these screens, three will be for computer-aided dispatch (CAD), one for radio, one for phone and one for National Crime Information Center operations. The four additional screens at the supervisor's desk will monitor building security, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency notifications and the Federal Communications Commission's Emergency Alert System.

The walls of the 911 center will sport eight 65-inch screens to track weather and monitor the status of local, regional and state activities. The EOC will have one large 16-foot-by-16-foot display from an LCD projector, along with four 65-inch monitors. The entire building will have a closed-circuit TV system that will display various status screens, weather radar, security cameras and TV news stations, according to Joy.

The city of Seattle dedicated a $30 million emergency operations facility in 2008. Bill Schrier, CTO and director of the department of IT, says the facility houses a fire-alarm center, fire station and fire 911 center. "The EOC has lots of video -- traffic surveillance, footage from cameras in public areas, video conferencing," he says.

In 2004, the city invested $2 million in a fiber-optic network to connect five EOCs in Washington state. "In case of an emergency, the mayor can video conference with the governor," Schrier says. Beyond that, the network is used for video conferences among the EOCs.

Integrated Alarm Management

Virtually all of the advances in emergency management technology serve one underlying purpose: to speed emergency processes. After all, the more time that ticks by before emergency responders or investigators arrive at the scene, the greater the likelihood that someone will die or a crime will go unsolved. Bill Hobgood, public safety team manager for IT for the city of Richmond, Va., recently developed a standard, to be deployed to PSAPs nationally, for receiving alarm calls from outside alarm monitoring companies in the standard 911 format.

Previously, unless the call was local, a private alarm company would have to dial a seven- or 10-digit telephone number to reach the PSAP. Under the old system, this type of call -- a regular phone call, not a 911 call -- would take a backseat to any 911 calls that were placed at the same time.

Once the alarm company contacted the PSAP, the respective operators would attempt to relay and receive the relevant information (such as a fire alarm or a reported burglary). Many alarm company call centers are located offshore, and operator accents are often a hindrance to communicating the right information in a timely way. This was a common problem even with alarm companies located within the United States, according to Hobgood.

"If everything went well, it would take about a minute and a half to relay the information to the 911 dispatch," says Hobgood. "But there was great potential for mistakes to be made. It could really be a catastrophe when you send equipment to the wrong address and someone ends up dying due to a fire. It has happened."

Hobgood was a part of a committee that worked to develop a standard that would allow alarm monitoring companies to transmit information electronically to PSAPs, greatly reducing pre-dispatch times and eliminating mistakes due to operator accents.

"We have gone from an average of 1.5 to three minutes of processing time using the traditional method to now less than 15 seconds," says Hobgood. The incoming alarm is processed by the CAD system, and then pops up automatically in the radio dispatcher's queue for dispatch. "Equipment can be on the way in as little as 15 seconds. In the case of a true alarm situation, this will give a better opportunity for law enforcement to make an apprehension before the suspects get away."

Use of the system has surpassed expectations, notes Hobgood. Interim CIO Annette Flowers says, "Richmond's citizens and businesses are recognizing the benefits derived from the new standard as first responders arrive two to three minutes faster to an alarm."

If Richmond can convince the country's largest alarm company, ADT, to get onboard, that alone will reduce the number of calls into the call center by 4,000 per year. That would significantly reduce the possibility of miscommunications between call centers and PSAPs.

Next Generation 911

The national 911 system is getting a tune-up in the form of Next Generation E-911.

The current 911 system, Enhanced 911, was established in the 1980s and 1990s, according to Roger Hixson, technical issues director for the National Emergency Number Association.

"E-911 is a physical circuit-based and switch-based system with only enough bandwidth to support phone calls and a limited amount of control data," says Hixson. The current system can't handle text or video.

Now being piloted, NG-911 is IP-based and can be set up to accept emergency calls via text and e-mail. It will also accept video and photo input. There are several applications for the new system, including use by people who are voice- or hearing-impaired. "Or it would help in a case like the Virginia Tech situation, where people were hiding in closets not wanting the guy to know they were in there," says Hixson.

The city of Seattle is a pilot site for NG-911. Seattle CTO Bill Schrier is convinced NG-911 will be a major boon to solving crimes and preventing terrorist acts. "There are roughly 750,000 people working downtown during the day in Seattle. Every one of those workers probably has a cell phone," he says. "Every one of those cell phones is a potential way to document and solve crimes with camera/video evidence."

Keith Lanpher

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