Windy City Builds a Better 911

By improving the city's communication and emergency response infrastructure, Chicago's new sophisticated 911 system aims to cut valuable seconds from emergency response times.

by / February 29, 1996 0
PROBLEM/SITUATION: Chicago's 911 calls were
being handled by outdated
and obsolete communications equipment.
SOLUTION: A new Sophisticated 911 system
better handles calls and helps shave valuable seconds off response times.
VENDORS: Motorola, Digital Equipment Corp., Fluor Daniel Corp.
CONTACT: Gregory Bishop, 911 Project Implementation Office, 312/746-9116. Fax 312/746-9120.


Buck Rogers' futuristic technology is alive and well in present-day Chicago. It's embodied in the city's new Sophisticated 911 (S-911) system as a bold, high-tech emergency response system for the 21st century.

Begun in 1987, the S-911 public safety system was conceived as a long-range improvement to the city's communication and emergency response infrastructure. Built with an eye to the future, it was expressly designed for redundancy and in-place upgrading. The completed system and its new facilities now support both police and fire department services and rapidly dispatch the responding department
to the precise location of the emergency call. While a responding unit typically requires five to 10 minutes to arrive on the scene, the goal of the S-911 system is to shave off two minutes.

The problem faced by the city was the escalating number of emergency calls being handled by outdated and obsolete communications equipment. Although functional, this system could only support manual dispatching activities based upon cards, pencils and static maps.

"We had a police department communication system that was ineffective and almost 35 years old," said Greg Bishop, the first deputy project coordinator and a veteran of the Chicago Fire Department.

The fire department was using a turn of the century communication system with facilities more than 75 years old. "That was an even older system than the police were using," Bishop noted. The fire department system could process voice communications, but did not have sufficient capacity to process high volumes of data communications. Aging equipment poses another problem: scarcity of service parts. Both replacement parts and the technicians trained to service the old equipment eventually dwindle away.

During the 1960s, the 911 call volume averaged three million calls per year. Today, the annual call volume has increased to five million calls. The existing communications system was unable to handle this volume of calls within the desired response criteria. Bishop said, "Chicago had the first enhanced 911 system of any major city, but it was installed in 1976 and was nearly 20 years old."

The old system was analog instead of digital, and relied upon paper transactions to dispatch emergency calls.

To find a solution, a needs analysis was performed by all departments to define requirements for a comprehensive public safety system. City representatives attended many vendor presentations during the early design years, 1987 to 1989.

One design point was the requirement to support police, fire, and medical communications through the year 2005. In 1990, an expert project team was assembled from members of the police, fire and other city departments. The team prepared the initial request for information document and advertised it worldwide.

Eleven bidders responded to the request, and two finalists were selected. Each was asked to produce a conceptual design that would match the city's needs. After conducting a detailed analysis of the requirements, each vendor submitted a proposal. The city's project team combined the optimum components of each submission and reissued it as the criteria for the preliminary design. After the preliminary designs were examined, the Illinois division of the Fluor Daniel Corp. was selected to be the vendor.

Construction of the Chicago Emergency Communications Center (CECC) began immediately after vendor selection in August 1992. The facility encompasses 161,000 square feet on five levels. "The facility is designed for a 50-year useful life and is configured to allow upgrading of systems without disrupting operations or services," noted Bishop.

The building was designed around the operations function of the facility. The fourth floor operations suite occupies 16,500 square feet with 22-foot-high ceilings. It holds 108 workstation consoles. Two video systems are each capable of projecting a 13 x 17-foot wall image. Video, city maps and Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) data can all be projected by this system.

Redundancy is the keyword for the entire installation. Electricity is provided by twin feeds from the Edison company. Each feed comes from a different generating station. Two independent natural gas-fired 1,650 KVA backup generators are available if commercial power fails. A 20-minute uninterruptable power system supplies all critical systems. The facility uses three 300-ton absorption chillers for energy-efficient heating and cooling. Both water and natural gas supply lines are redundant. All incoming fiber and commercial telephone cables enter the building from diverse routes. This eliminates loss of connection from accidental cable cutting.

The CECC was designed to be fully operational during a crisis. Outside the facility, planters tastefully perform double duty as crash barriers. Inside, all the building mechanics are located on the first floor. No mechanical basement was used for fear of flooding. Air intakes were carefully located to prevent intentional contamination. For additional security, the operations floor is windowless. All computers are located in the center of the building.

Creature comfort was also considered for the 80 operators on duty during the peak period from 1:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. Private rooms are available for those needing some time alone after handling a grueling emergency call.

A second facility, called a warm standby site, is used for the alternate response program (ARP). Bishop said, "If, in the initial contact with the citizen, we determine the call is not an emergency, but only requires a report, then it is transferred to our alternate response facility." A different operator at the ARP facility then takes the call, removing it from the high-speed call queue. The ARP prevents the main facility from becoming congested with low priority calls.

At the flick of a switch, the ARP site can become a fully functioning S-911 center. All 911 calls will immediately transfer to that location. Only one center operates as an S-911 center at any given time.

The CECC is connected to 176 miles of fiber-optic cable called the Internal Secure Communications Network (ISCN). This high-speed network interconnects voice and data communications between the CECC and 210 police and fire stations. Nineteen hundred fire call boxes are also integrated into the CECC system.

Improvements have been made to field communications as well. In general, the fire department will have mobile units, and the police will use hand-held or transportable units. The transportable units range from small hand-held devices the size of a portable radio up to a full laptop computer. All hand-held data terminals have radio frequency modems built in. These terminals can be used by officers away from their vehicles, both indoors and out. Identification, license and other data-checking operations are no longer tethered to the vehicle.

For the fire department mobile system, a hybrid Global Positioning System (GPS) dead reckoning system provides location accuracy within 10 feet. Right now, GPS products from six different vendors are being tested. Final selection of hand-held and mobile units will be completed this fall.

To make these devices operate, Chicago has one of the most sophisticated radio networks of its type anywhere. The Motorola Radio Network Gateway system supports four network controllers and 31 base stations. Twenty-four base stations are low-power police sites. The remaining seven are high-power fire department sites. Supporting up to 3,000 radio data devices, the system has a very high capacity for message traffic. Built-in flexibility allows for partitioning of the low- and high-power systems between the police and fire departments.

"The heart of our system is the Computer Aided Dispatch," said Bishop. Inside the CECC complex, four Digital Equipment Corp. ALPHA servers support each of three critical applications. The architecture is client/server using an FDDI backbone. Each of the 108 workstations can be reconfigured to perform any function within moments. All workstations can become call-taker positions, and up to 44 can be dispatching consoles. If a console fails, another can be immediately brought online to replace it. All the training consoles also can be activated as police, fire or medical dispatch consoles during a major emergency.

Incoming calls from any hard-wired telephone or fire call box in the city will connect with the CECC in 1.2 seconds. Ninety-nine percent of all incoming calls will be answered in less than two rings or 10 seconds. The Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) system determines which dispatcher has been available for the longest time, and routes the call to that workstation.

Unlike the previous 911 system, the new S-911 system is paperless. Information is no longer written on paper by the call taker, then handed to the dispatcher. The electronic S-911 call record uses time stamps generated by a satellite-referenced master time clock. All reports derived from the S-911 system are generated from the CAD data and single time-stamp reference. The single incident record reduces the chance for error.

One of the unique features of the CAD system is the interactive mapping component. The city's basemap has been digitized and includes the population of building footprints for almost 900,000 city structures. When a call taker receives a call, in less than 1.8 seconds the automatic map-display system generates a map two blocks square around the caller's location. The map also shows street closings and detours around the target area. If there is no match from the address database, the system will accept manual entry of any city address.

The total price tag for this technological wonder is $217 million. Thirty-five million went for the facilities, and $65 million for the equipment they contain. The remaining $117 million was spent on field communications equipment improvements in the police and fire departments. The S-911 project is funded through a 95-cent monthly surcharge on city telephone bills.

There will always be skeptics of large-scale public works projects. The isolationists will continue to question why they pay into something they will probably never use. But when a person in distress dials 911, they become a 100 percent user of the S-911 system. Infrastructure benefits the entire community, not just those who travel on a particular roadway. Accident victims will be reassured knowing help from Buck Rogers is less than two rings away.