Emergencies are, by definition, unexpected occurrences — but one Florida county has a new 911 system that aims to remove some of the guesswork by putting data in the hands of decision-makers who can make smarter choices about emergency response.
In Manatee County, Fla., an aging legacy 911 center kicked off conversations about how to improve emergency services, and late last year, officials launched the city's new, more efficient next-generation 911 call center. The upgrades give dispatchers modernized communication tools and will allow for multimedia communications, but perhaps most significant is that officials now have the necessary ammunition to make life-saving decisions: data analytics.
Public Safety Director Bob Smith said that hard data has allowed for more precision in staffing first responders on the streets and on the county’s barrier island, which is connected to the mainland by two bridges.
“We have an ambulance on that island, but we [found that] the call times and call volumes on that island were longer than what we were targeting for our response times. So what we looked at was, ‘What is our busiest call frame and our busiest call volume on the island?’” Smith said. “Because of the data we were able to pull from the system, we actually stood up a new quick-response vehicle for our EMS units.”
In addition to the stationed ambulance, a rapid-response SUV and accompanying paramedic are available to respond during emergencies during peak call times Thursday through Sunday.
The data also has allowed officials to evaluate staffing within the center itself. Because the system tracks each call as it enters the dispatch queue, prior to the line actually ringing, Smith said officials can more accurately evaluate wait times and make the case for increased staffing levels.
“One of the things we’ve been able to determine based on that much more efficient way of tracking call times, is that we are actually shorter staffed than what we thought we were," he said. "So [the data] was able to help us make the argument as part of the budget process to add additional staff."
The new platform, from Carousel Industries, lets dispatchers operate from multiple remote locations and streamlines the call-taking process.
Originally, Smith said a mix of local public safety answering points (PSAPs) made up the overall system, which relied on several local agencies to transfer calls to one another based on the type of incident.
The consolidation aimed to streamline this process and improve response times during emergencies by cutting down on the need to transfer calls.
“The process at the time before we started this was call transfers. If we took a call that was in their city, we transferred it to them and vice versa,” he said. “We dispatched fire and [emergency medical services] on the county side, and the municipalities dispatched law enforcement, and so it was a call transfer process we were trying to eliminate.”
Carousel Industries was originally brought on to help manage the county’s legacy technology, but Dan Grossman, director of Public Safety Systems at Carousel Industries, said it was evident a new platform would ultimately be needed.
“During that time, we were able to build a relationship with the customer and spec toward a next-gen, [Internet Protocol]-based system," he said. "We knew there would be ultimately some kind of procurement, so we were really acting as a consultant and a provider and we were awarded the RFP about 18 months after.”
As it stands, the new countywide system is housed at the Public Safety Center and redundant backup systems are housed in the county administrative center. Remote access points allow for not only redundancy, but also the ability to take portions of the system offline for upgrades without negative impacts to the emergency dispatch services.
So the concept, Smith said, is that the call center is dually capable. "So if we lose one side, the other side is there to allow us from a technology perspective to do updates on one side without having to shut down," he said. "The primary component was some level of continuity in having the separate locations."
As with many counties in the nation, the push to modernize call centers has been a major focus as citizens move away from static landline telephones, for which the systems were originally designed, and become more dependent on mobile devices.
The next-generation 911 call center can pull in communication technologies, like text, picture and video messaging, so dispatchers and first responders get a more accurate picture of each situation they encounter.
“There is an operational benefit when we can get photos — whether it a car wreck, house fire, what have you — that will give first responders an actual picture of what they are heading into and help them prepare for it,” Smith said. “Also, the ability to receive text is beneficial to those who are hearing- or speech-impaired, and for people who may be in a situation where they couldn’t speak on the phone, so a domestic violence situation, or something of that nature.”
Though Manatee County's system is capable of handling these multimedia features, Smith said that legislation must be passed to enable them.