By Ray Dussault | Contributing Editor

A 21st-century emergency call center is dramatically improving public safety in and around Chicago.

In every city in the country, there is one system that is at the heart of public safety: 911. When individuals get in their cars and drive, take a walk or go to work, there is a belief that if the worst should happen -- an accident, a crime, a fire -- highly trained emergency assistance is only a moment or two away. Regrettably, in todays densely populated cities, this is not always the case.

Chicago, like other metropolitan areas, saw rampant population growth in the 1980s and 1990s, putting strains on an already antiquated emergency call system. It was a system that included separate buildings for fire and law enforcement emergency communications and dispatching, and relied on dispatchers referring to three-by-five index cards to make life-and-death decisions.

The cards were the best source for relevant information about particular streets, buildings or precincts for 30 years. Still, precious seconds often ticked by as the dispatchers looked up the information emergency responders would need to find a location and, while it may have worked at one time in the citys history, its faults became more and more apparent as the population continued to rise.

A Dangerous Embarrassment

Chicagos faltering emergency-response system dates back to the beginning of 1990. Call response times -- the measurement of the success of any citys emergency services -- were on the rise, meaning it was taking longer and longer for police, paramedic or fire vehicles to reach the scene of a 911 emergency. There were also high-profile

incidents where victims calls dropped off the system and emergency vehicles were dispatched to erroneous locations. This problem was a dangerous embarrassment to Chicago. In a city that fields 15 million emergency calls each year -- up to 14,000 on an average day -- it was not an embarrassment anyone could live with. The time came for Chicago to change its tune. The result was the Emergency Communications Center (ECC), an emergency-response system managed by the Chicago Office of Emergency Communications.

"When Mayor Richard Daley was running for office five years ago, reducing first-response times became one of the cornerstones of his platform," explained Philip Nelson, former account manager of government sales at Compaq Computer Corp. Nelson was a key player on the project that supplied the software that anchors the ECC. "There are few places you can have a more immediate effect on peoples lives than in better emergency response."

At a time when most major cities were still trying to balance precarious budgets, Chicago spared no expense in achieving that effect, ultimately spending over $230 million.

"Our original idea to do this was prompted by just wanting to move out of the Stone Age of communications," said Jim Argiropolis of Chicagos Office of Emergency Communications. "We had no digital communications to speak of, the call stations were awkward and provided limited

information and, to top it off, we had police communications in one building and fire communications in two other buildings, all in different sections of the city. Something had to be done."

Housing an Empire

Something was done. It began with a building. The ECC is only three stories high, but architects and engineers gave it a foundation solid enough to support a 50-story building and windows strong enough to withstand 300 mph winds. All this was done before they even started on the technology that would become the buildings heart.

That heart includes a PRC Altaris computer aided dispatch (CAD) system housed on six Compaq ES40 Alpha servers running Unix. The servers are organized in clusters of two, with firewalls separating each node. It only takes three servers to manage