Stone Age to Safe Age

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

by / November 8, 2000
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 the load at any time, so three of the servers provide back up to the critical systems. Above the servers, on the third floor, call takers perform their jobs at 111 call-taker and dispatch workstations, which are backed up by 15 identical spares. At each workstation, the index cards have been thrown out and replaced by three high-resolution screens.

Five years ago, a call taker would refer to one of the handwritten cards to establish an emergency vehicles location. Today they can simply glance at the first screen where the PRC CAD provides the location of every vehicle with a color-coded icon on a digital city map. The second screen provides them with the current active call screens, and the last with any minute-to-minute data being typed in by dispatchers.

As part of the ECC, the city also laid down one of the most extensive privately owned fiber-optic networks in the world: 176 miles of cable linking all police, fire and other city facilities in 480 separate buildings. The network supports instant transfer of everything from vital dispatch data to entire case reports, photographs and arrest records.

"We looked at what we had and what we needed to do to support our customers and then developed a vision," said Argiropolis. "Every system is redundant and secure. We have a backup generator in one building that could power a small city; manhole covers that allow access to cabling are alarmed; and the building can withstand an earthquake. We started by trying to move out of the Stone Age and managed to end up in the 21st century."

Other features will have an even more direct impact on saving lives. In 1987, a woman trapped by a fire in a downtown high rise called 911, but help was dispatched to the wrong address, leading to her tragic death. With the ECC, such a mistake would be close to impossible, even if information provided by the victim were inaccurate or they were cut off before they could complete the call. A detailed mapping system automatically pinpoints the location from which the call originated and instantly provides the call taker with accurate visual and address location information. Other features include a teletype device that allows the call takers to communicate with speech or hearing impaired individuals and an instant connection to an AT&T-supported foreign language bank to manage the 27 foreign languages and dialects spoken across the city.

Sweet Success

Despite the massive call volume dispatchers handle, the citys residents have the fastest 911 call connection time in the world: about 1.2 seconds. They have easily exceeded the Illinois state standard for answering 90 percent of all emergency calls within 10 seconds; Chicago does that for 98 percent of the calls coming into the new center.

Because of the vaunted system, Chicagoans have become the envy of people around the world. Leaders from China to Britain are looking to Chicago to see how to improve their emergency-response systems. "This is a huge success for us. We love what it does for the city, and we love that other cities can come and learn from our experience," said Argiropolis. "The real story here is vision and support.

"I preach one thing to my staff: We are a service provider and our customers are CAD and communications specialists. We cant forget that vision for a moment or we will fail. A lot of cities have found that big projects like this can be stymied and delayed by politics and budgetary problems, but we had the full support of the mayor and the council all the way through. We made sure we kept that support by building strong relationships with them. We were clear and honest about our goals, we executed the tasks we said we would and tried to go beyond what was expected. This was at the heart of our success."

It took nearly a decade to achieve, but in the end, no one can argue with the ECCs success.