Australia Privatizes Emergency Center

Victoria, Australia, and Intergraph Corp. teamed up to form a state-of-the-art emergency communications center that's attracting attention from all over the world.

by / February 29, 1996
Australia's beaches and unique wildlife are being challenged in their status as top tourist attractions from an unlikely source -- lately, it seems, people from all over the world are coming to tour a state-of-the-art emergency communications center.

In the state of Victoria, Australia, the government has consolidated the emergency dispatch operations of six separate agencies under one command -- the Bureau of Emergency Services Telecommunications (BEST). Even more striking than the mere consolidation though, is that the state chose to hand the whole operation over to a private United States-based corporation.

In January 1995, Intergraph Corp., a Huntsville, Ala.-based company specializing in public safety oriented computer software development, was awarded the $120 million contract. Under the contract -- final details of which were not ironed out until May of last year -- Intergraph agreed to build the communications centers, outfit them with Intergraph's geographic information system (GIS) and computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems, then hire, train and manage the dispatch employees.

"This has never been done before. No government in history has ever consolidated this much responsibility under one roof and handed the keys to a private organization," said Grant Griffiths, chief executive officer of Intergraph Public Safety Propriety Ltd., the subsidiary created to manage the Australian contract. "That is why it took until May to negotiate the actual contract -- there was just no precedent for this; we are the precedent."

The initial contract, which includes an intricately woven set of checks and balances designed to protect both the government and Intergraph, is good for seven years, at which time the state can step in and take over, hand the operation to a different operator or renew Intergraph's contract. As difficult a hurdle as the contract itself presented, the timeline Intergraph and BEST were expected to work under was equally daunting. Intergraph was asked to build and equip the two communications centers, staff them with trained employees and integrate the operations of the police and state emergency services in a nine-month period.

"We had no flexibility on the deadline date of September 5, 1995, not an inch of wiggle room. We had already sold the old police communications center and the new owners were taking over on that date," said Geoff Spring, chief executive officer for BEST.

"We spent $34 million (Australian) in seven months just building and outfitting the two centers, and we went from 11 to 270 employees between February and September. It was all amazingly fast," added Griffiths. "Most everyone we talked to told us this was a two-year job minimum, but the date had been set for Sept. 5 and that date never moved -- at 2 a.m. on Sept. 5, we turned the system on and went live with the first three agencies."

Today the system is handling 4,000 police and fire calls, and another 600 to 700 ambulance events a day. By the end of 1996, BEST will be dispatching for Victoria Police, Metropolitan Ambulance Service, Ambulance Service Victoria, Metropolitan Fire Brigade, County Fire Authority and Victoria State Emergency Services, and the system will be responding to 1.5 million calls annually for a population of 4.5 million people. Already, the project seems to have paid off.

With Intergraph employees stepping in to take over emergency dispatch operations, Victoria has been able to release 160 sworn officers back to field work. And those new Intergraph employees are paid about two-thirds the $65,000 (Australian) salary commanded by police personnel. Intergraph said that it has spent $1.7 million training the dispatch employees, and Spring pointed out that the new Intergraph system, which features the largest CAD map in the world, is capturing more data than ever before.

Putting the whole system in place involved an incredible amount of logistical planning, including the intricately woven contract and the establishment of BEST, a small executive unit within Victoria's Department of Justice.

BEST was created to solicit bids, select a corporation to take on the monumental task and oversee the construction of the communications centers and implementation of the civilian operations. Unique in its own right, the agency was structured to be able to make the most out of the public-private partnership.

BEST administers the contract and oversees all of Intergraph's operations, all from an office in one of the communications centers. Instead of reporting directly to its own government leaders, BEST reports directly to a board of directors consisting of three CEOs from the private telecommunications industry, the heads of each of the four major emergency agencies and three representatives from the government. The private chairperson of that board, in turn, reports directly to the state's minister for Police and Emergency Services.

Spring credits this tight connection between public and private concerns with the project's early success. For its future success, the BEST program depends on good faith and a tight contract to back it up.

Under the contract's terms, Intergraph has agreed to meet certain performance standards, based on response time to emergency calls, for a range of call activity levels on which the parties have agreed. If call activity rises out of the defined band, Intergraph can renegotiate its monthly fee, but if it fails to meet performance standards -- defined by the contract and evaluated by BEST -- the agency can take over immediately.

"That was the key to protecting the public -- if they are not doing the job, we can take over all the employees and equipment and run it ourselves. Intergraph has trained members of our staff in all levels of operation, so that if a takeover is necessary the transition will be smooth. And BEST is located right in one of the communications centers, so we are sitting right on top of this -- literally," said a confident Spring.

But setting a precedent has not necessarily come easy, either for Intergraph or the Victorian government. The groundbreaking move came on the heels of an upset in Victoria's government. In a vote similar to the one that sent Republicans to the U.S. Congress, conservatives took over the Australian parliament in 1992. They immediately declared war on what they considered the wasteful financial policies of their predecessors.

"We had a big-spending government here previously, and Victoria was on the verge of bankruptcy," said Griffiths. "This very aggressive, conservative government has come in and pushed changes like this, turned things around here."

Not surprisingly though, spending cuts at the expense of public employees have not set well with everyone. The state's emergency ambulance providers resisted the change, claiming that using non-ambulance employees as dispatchers will eventually cost lives. But at the same time Victoria's police and fire protection agencies, including their unions, have backed the project completely.

"With our police, from the department and the union, we have had nothing but support. From the fire protection agencies, again a positive, supportive relationship, but from the ambulance service we did encounter strong opposition," said Spring. "Mostly they said they were against using civilians in the call center," he explained, adding that the opposition had since declined.

BEST and Intergraph are both proud of bringing the whole project in on time and on budget, and point to the number of visitors the communication sites host as indicative of the importance of the project to governments around the world.

"We have only been online since September," said Griffiths, "yet we have already hosted visitors from New Zealand, Germany and Korea. We are getting
calls from all over the world from people who want to come and see if this can
really work."


Based on Windows NT and UNIX operating systems, the BEST centers are designed around two operations centers, each covering in excess of 1,000 square meters of floor space (approximately 3,000 yards). Intergraph Corp. currently employs over 270 people in its BEST communications centers. Each station contains seven dual-screen, 27-inch dispatch supervisor work stations; 31 dual-screen, 27-inch dispatch workstations; 36 single-screen, 19-inch Calltaker workstations; and InterServe 6805 and Symmetrical Multi-Processor (SMP) servers at the primary, secondary and tertiary locations for redundancy. The system is designed to interface with mobile data terminals, Global Positioning Systems, law enforcement databases, fire incident reporting systems and paging systems. The system includes a statewide radio network to communicate with involved agencies and interfaces with existing databases and electronic systems.