Information-Age Kevlar

When two officers knocked on the door, information saved their lives.

by / December 31, 1995
When Edmonton, Alberta, Constables Barry Harris and Joe Dosramos approached the door of a domestic disturbance call last January, they were armed with more than just the address. The door was ajar, and rather than just walking up and knocking, the two officers stood aside -- a move that probably saved their lives.

When the call came in to the Edmonton dispatch center, the enhanced system displayed an icon indicating prior calls to that address. The call history showed six previous calls, four for family violence and two for a missing juvenile. In addition, a male occupant had threatened the responding officers.

The call taker immediately relayed this information verbally to the two constables, and the data also appeared on the Mobile Data Terminal in their
patrol car.

The dispatcher then moved his cursor across the Windows NT interface and called up the incident address in Canada's firearms registry. He discovered there were weapons registered to the occupant, and relayed this information to Harris and Dosramos.

Armed with this information, the two officers were cautious. "We didn't stand in front of the door," said Harris, "which was quite nice, because -- ka boom! -- he shot at us with his rifle." The incident continued with a 16-hour standoff and ended with the suicide of the suspect. No one else was injured or killed. "I was pretty glad we had that extra information available," said Harris.

When an armored car was robbed in Toronto, a newly operational dispatch system provided another type of crucial information to pursuing officers. The robbery occurred near the boundary of several different police jurisdictions. When the suspects abandoned their vehicle and fled onto the grounds of a sprawling golf course, officers found themselves in unfamiliar territory.

Back at the dispatch station though, the entire incident was managed by personnel using a mapping feature of their automated dispatch system.

"Our people really didn't know the rolling topography of the golf course very well," said Richard Coulis, staff sergeant and acting inspector with the Metropolitan Toronto Police. "But the dispatcher could see all the roads, cart trails, creeks and even the water hazards right on her computer screen." Because of the mapping system, the dispatcher was able to place officers at possible escape routes and direct officers even as they pursued the suspects on foot.

"An officer would be running along and say to the dispatcher, 'I'm going to turn and head west up this hill,' and she'd answer, 'No, don't do that. There is a creek up there and you won't be able to get across,'" said Coulis, who added that the majority of the suspects were apprehended right on the golf course. "The information we had was so thorough that our officers returning to the station asked, 'Where were the video cameras?' With an old-fashioned paper map this kind of incident management would be impossible."

The systems in use in Edmonton and Toronto were designed and installed by Intergraph Corp., based in Huntsville, Ala. Information is accessed through a user-friendly Windows NT interface, and can be customized by each department to keep track of call history for varying periods of time.

"Many departments have similar systems, but most are tied to only one database at a time," said Sergeant Keith Whitton, communications support supervisor with the Edmonton Police Service. "We can access information from the Canadian Police Information Center (CPIC), which gives us information on wants, warrants and stolen vehicles, the Operational Support Communications and Records System, an incident database linked to other national, provincial and municipal databases, and the Computer Aided Dispatch system (CAD), which handles call history. We also have direct links to the city utilities database and the Edmonton Telephone Company."

In Edmonton, each type of call has its own code which cues how long information is kept active on the system. For a loud party disturbance call, the information will come up automatically for seven days, but for violent incidents the information is available from several months to a year. In Toronto, though, the department opted for a more manual use of the system.

"We found that if the information is automatically available for too long, someone may move. Then when a call comes in, a violent call history might prompt officers to enter by kicking the door down, only to find that for the current residents there was no previous call history and no reason to approach with such aggression," said Coulis. "Our system does not provide the information automatically for longer than four days unless an officer makes a point of filing a report to keep it available longer."

The I/CAD intelligent map used in Toronto and Edmonton can show building footprints, hazardous materials locations, fire hydrants, power lines, rivers, lakes, railroad lines and closed streets. Even as a dispatcher may close off a street to cut off an escaping suspect, the mapping system is automatically updated in real time and recommends routes around the closure for future emergency dispatches. The map can show the entire province or city, or zoom in to a specific location with just a touch of a button.

In an era of citizen distrust of government -- though this attitude is less prevalent in Canada than in the United States -- such a large amount of information available to officers at the touch of a button has raised the concern of some civil libertarians in Edmonton and Toronto. Still, both departments said that most citizens had little problem with the department's access to information as long as there was a demonstrated need for the access.

"Some privacy questions have been raised by civil rights lawyers and activists, but what we have found so far is that if there is no abuse of the availability of information by officers, and the access is necessary, the citizens don't have a problem," said Toronto's Coulis.

In Edmonton, the families of Constable Harris and Dosramos are satisfied that the information is necessary indeed.

For more information, contact Sergeant Keith Whitton at (403) 421-3518; or Sergeant Richard Coulis at (416) 808-7275.


The Edmonton system utilizes an InterServe 6805 Computer Aided Dispatch system, seventeen single-screen Calltaker workstations, eight dual-screen workstations, two InterServe 6405 communication servers, four servers for the Operational Support Communications and Records System, two DEC Alpha 3000 Axp processors for Oracle Forms and one InterServe processor for the Probe records management system.

Toronto utilizes seven InterServe 6705-series processors, InterServe Computer Aided Dispatch system, 52 Calltaker and 36 Dispatch Workstations, including eight Dispatch Supervisor Workstations.
A Unisys mainframe supports dispatch operations.