(TNS) - The Memphis Police Department is working to build up a short-staffed police force, and in the meantime, the department's director of emergency communications hopes that a new dispatch system will help police answer calls more quickly.
The new dispatch system, Intergraph Mobile for Public Safety, is being installed on laptop computers in police cars.
The system uses global positioning system technology to show dispatchers and police officers exactly where squad cars are located and what kind of calls they're handling.
The new system should make it easier for dispatchers to respond to calls by sending the police cars that are closest, said Emergency Communications Administrator Michael Spencer.
“I hope it makes this department a lot more efficient," Spencer said. "That’s what we’re striving for, is improved response and improved service with what we have today.”
Today it's not uncommon to hear dispatchers on police radio reeling off long lists of calls that have been holding for a long time. They're often low-priority calls, like citizens making reports of crimes, Spencer said.
As of this month, the police department has 1,981 sworn officers— well short of its full complement of 2,400.
The current Memphis police dispatch system is based on radio voice communication between dispatchers and officers in the field. The dispatch office can plot the locations of individual police cars on a computer screen, but the only way that a dispatcher knows the location of a police car is if the officer reports his or her location, as in "I'm at 201 Poplar," or "I'm at Hickory Hill and Winchester."
This has some drawbacks, Spencer said. When a call comes in, the dispatcher might not know which car or cars are closest.
And if a police officer runs into an emergency — say an ambush by a suspect — the officer can press a radio button that emits an emergency tone, but no other information, Spencer said. It could be exceedingly difficult for other officers to find the officer in trouble.
Under the new system, other officers can easily see where the emergency call is coming from, he said. "Really our big takeaway is officer safety and just knowing where our units are at if they need help."
The computer system can give officers turn-by-turn directions to the emergency call, and it can also show the officer the history of calls at that location, Spencer said.
The computerized system makes it much easier to share information, he said.
Take for instance a police officer who responds to a report of a missing child. The police officer can use a handheld device to copy a family photo of the child, upload it to the computer system, and quickly send it out to other officers across the city, he said.
The new Intergraph software is part of a $2.2 million upgrade paid for with state 911 funds, Spencer said. The software is being installed in the roughly 480 Memphis police cars that have laptops, he said, adding that the number of cars with laptops is expected to increase as older cars are rotated out of the fleet.
At least one other Memphis-area law enforcement agency uses similar software. Collierville uses a similar system from the company TriTech Software Systems, said department spokesman Lt. David Townsend.
The system is used to dispatch both police and fire vehicles, and lets dispatchers see through GPS which units are closest to a call. And the software also allows officers to submit reports from the field, rather than driving back to the station to complete paperwork. “It keeps officers in the field patrolling more,” Townsend said.
Earlier this month, Gwen Walker senior technical instructor with Hexagon, the company that sells the Intergraph product, was demonstrating the system at Crump Station in Downtown to officers who will in turn teach others.
She showed them how the officers in the cars can find the location of nearby police cars - and they can also find out which individual officers are in those cars, and send them messages. The officers can also use the system to check license plates.
The police department still has some glitches to work through. During the Intergraph training session, for instance, one officer's laptop computer repeatedly gave him global positioning system directions, even though he hadn't asked for them.
Many emergency departments around the country use Intergraph software, and it hasn't always worked smoothly. In Tacoma, Washington, for instance, hundreds of officers rushed to respond on Nov. 30, 2016 when Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez was shot, and the system froze, The News-Tribune newspaper reported. Some emergency workers there complained about chronic problems with the software, the newspaper reported.
Complaints have also been raised in other cities, including New York, where the fire department decided to drop Intergraph software and revamp its dispatch system on its own.
Efforts to reach a representative of Madison, Ala.-based Hexagon weren't immediately successful Tuesday.
Memphis has worked closely with Hexagon to make sure that it's using the software in a way that allows it to work well, Spencer said.
"We've just been really careful, crossing our T's and dotting our I's. Taking our time," Spencer said. The department intends to test the system extensively among officers with the Crump Station precinct before rolling it out to other precincts, he said.
"We're just baby-stepping into it." He also said the department still plans to do some communications by voice over the radio.
Reach reporter Daniel Connolly at 529-5296, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @danielconnolly.
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