As sheriff of New Hanover County, N.C., Joseph McQueen Jr. has seen his share of hurricanes. Commenting on the devastation from last fall's storms, McQueen said, philosophically, "we're known as 'Hurricane Alley.'" But this year was particularly rough; Hurricanes Bertha and Fran, scarcely a month apart, bowled through the county, sending tens of thousands of residents and vacationers fleeing inland. Winds gusting up to 115 miles per hour ripped boats from their moorings and washed them ashore, mangled telephone and power lines, tore away roofs, drove uprooted trees into houses, and sent ashcans flying through the streets like shrapnel.

It was a time when the Command and Control Center in Wilmington needed a dispatch management system to expedite the flood of 911 calls with maximum speed and accuracy. Fortunately, the center had recently installed a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system that instantly mapped caller locations and automated much of the time-consuming detail involved in calltaking and dispatching. As a result, calltakers were able to direct appropriate agencies to addresses and scenes throughout the county with greater efficiency than the county's enhanced 911 system allowed.

HURRICANE ALLEY

New Hanover County is situated between Cape Hatteras and Cape Fear, a region of the Atlantic coast that lies directly in the path of hurricanes. One would think with the number of storms plowing through annually, the area would be sparsely populated. Not so. The county's 185 square miles, which include two heavily developed barrier islands, has a population of 141,000.

Under normal conditions, the center handles 1,100 to 1,200 calls a day for the County Sheriff, the Wilmington Police, emergency medical services (EMS) and the Fire Department. During the recent hurricanes, 911 calls flooded into the center at the rate of about 2,000 a day -- a load communications personnel would have been hard-pressed to handle in previous years, not only because of power failures, but because the existing 911 system lacked mapping capabilities and many of the automated features found in advanced CAD systems.

NEW CAD SYSTEM

The Intergraph I/CAD system, installed shortly before Hurricane Bertha hit in July, is configured for seven dispatchers, one supervisor, and three calltakers, with a 21-inch monitor at each workstation. Redundancy on the network is provided by two servers.

When a 911 call comes into the center, the calltaker's monitor displays a split-screen of an event window and a map with an arrow at the caller's location. The operator confirms the name, address and telephone number of the caller appearing in the event window, and enters the pertinent information and remarks. After determining the nature of the emergency, the operator -- if he or she is a dispatcher -- radios the appropriate response agency in the county where the call originated.

The I/CAD system can be configured to generate color-coded windows, enabling operators to see at a glance the status of an event. For example, default colors are gray for incoming calls until they are answered, at which time the event window shifts to blue, indicating a new call. A red window indicates a unit responding to that event. When the responding unit arrives, the window shifts to green. In addition, events are prioritized by number, beginning with "0" as the highest priority. If three new events are on the screen, the windows will be blue, with the stack position of each determined by its priority number.

SPECIAL FEATURES

If a caller has a previous event history -- domestic violence, unlawful use of a weapon, or a medical condition -- a Location of Interest (LOI) feature indicates the presence of that information by lighting a special button on the screen. The dispatcher clicks on the button, brings up all the recorded incidents associated with that caller, and advises the responding agency accordingly.

Special Situation is a feature associated with LOI that allows the operator to