It's a common story: An incident occurs requiring emergency personnel from different agencies or jurisdictions to respond. Once on the scene, difficulties arise because disparate radio equipment makes it hard for those agencies to communicate.
In recent years, Hendricks County, Ind., had such an incident. Fire personnel couldn't communicate once on the scene - prompting intense discussion, and now action, in the form of a new radio system and the consolidation of four dispatch centers into one.
"That was one of the things that helped kick this off," said Larry Brinker, executive director of the new Hendricks County Communications Center, which resulted after negotiations and consultations with police, fire, emergency medical services (EMS) and public works. "We had a fire, and four different agencies showed up with four different radios. As they were fighting the fire, we had to go around and [give] extra radios to everyone so they could communicate. Now they all have the same capabilities on the same channel."
About three years ago - after this incident - Hendricks County commissioners agreed that improving 911 communications was critical, and blessed the spending of a 911-surcharge fund on new communications technology.
Knowing this funding was available had police, fire, EMS and public works dreaming of shiny new facilities, and spiffy new technology and capabilities - and the original plan sought to make it all happen by outfitting all four dispatch centers with such things.
Officials knew what kinds of new technologies they wanted in the centers, but found that the $7.5 million generated by a $1 monthly surcharge for 911 emergency services - which was added to every phone line since 1995 - and some federal grant money wouldn't suffice for the four centers. Equipping all four centers with the technology they envisioned would cost $12 million.
"Everybody wanted to keep their own dispatch centers, but they wanted all the technology options they could possibly have," Brinker said.
"The original plan we put together, which was going to outfit all four dispatch centers with about three-quarters of the capabilities, was going to cost about $12 million," Brinker said. "We pared it to where we'd operate two centers, and that got us down to $8.5 million at about 75 percent of the technology. When we brought it down to one location, that freed up enough of the savings that we were able to get 100 percent of the technology we wanted, and do it at the cost we had to work with."
The result is a new communications center with state-of-the-art equipment that dispatches for police, fire and emergency medical in Hendricks, Avon, Brownsburg, Danville and Plainfield counties.
"In the past, a 911 call might get transferred two or three times before it got to the right place," Brinker said. "Now, all 911 calls come to one location, and the call-taker enters the information into the computer."
Having all the dispatchers in one building meant a couple of things. One, fewer dispatchers would be needed; and two, personnel would be used more efficiently. The county employed 38 call-takers, down from 49 prior to the consolidation. The center includes 13 workstations for dispatchers, and each station has six flat video screens that display information about incoming calls.
When there were four centers, each needed to be staffed with two or three call-takers. If there was an emergency in one area, the call-takers in one of the centers were overwhelmed while the call-takers in the other centers weren't busy. "Now we have eight to 11 people scheduled on duty to handle multiple emergencies throughout the county," Brinker said.
The goal was to get down to the 38 dispatchers through retirement and attrition, and that's exactly how it happened, Brinker said. "No one was fired."
One Radio System
Another piece of the
consolidation is a common radio system and equipment among police, fire and EMS - a far cry from the days when different departments would show up with different radio equipment.
All 250 emergency vehicles in Hendricks County, including police cars, fire trucks and ambulances, are equipped with a laptop or other digital device, as well as a radio. Prior to the consolidation, there were essentially three different radio systems throughout the state, including a local 800 MHz system and a state 800 MHz system. Unfortunately one was analog and one was digital. "The bad news was that even though [both] were 800, they still couldn't talk to each other," Brinker said.
Now the county's system is digital and allows radio communications like never before, as everyone has the same equipment, even the SWAT teams, Brinker said. "The SWAT teams usually travel with other agencies. They now have the exact same equipment, the same capabilities, and that makes a big difference."
If there's a nonemergency call to the police, it's transferred straight to the squad car nearest the incident, as each car will soon be equipped with a GPS device. The police unit will then respond by voice, over the radio or by pressing an "en-route" button on the computer. All 250 emergency vehicles will be equipped with a GPS device so that dispatchers can see the exact location of every vehicle. Dispatchers can also call up three-dimensional aerial photos of a house or business to alert first responders of the locations of doors, windows and other features of the structure.
Local police personnel can communicate directly with dispatch and with every other unit. "All of law enforcement is working on one talk group and everybody can hear what the other departments are doing," Brinker said. "The way we do that is we only broadcast the emergency dispatches over the radio because the rest of it is done over a mobile data terminal in the cars."
Sheriff Dave Galloway expects some of the kinks to be worked out of the system when the GPS devices are in place and everyone becomes familiar with multiple agencies. "I'm the sheriff of the county, and I'm not notified on some major events that take place in a timely manner," he said. "It's minor stuff really, getting coordinated on record services, jurisdictions and things like that. We have new people working together in the dispatch center. It's a new system and they're learning and sometimes they don't know who's been notified, who hasn't been notified and who needs to be notified. And we don't have GPS operational yet. Right now we have officers being sent from too far away."
Eye on Indiana
That functionality makes Hendricks County unique in the state, and other regions are watching to see how the system will work. "That's not even very common among individual cities," Brinker said. "Larger cities will create a north district and a south district where they'll have the capability of switching channels to talk, but they're not always on that one channel."
An example of the new system's value was evident recently when an armed robbery was broadcast over the 800 MHz radio system in Plainfield. Two officers from the city of Avon happened to be driving through Plainfield and heard the radio call. They arrived on the scene within seconds and set up a perimeter before Plainfield officers arrived. Once on the scene, all units were able to communicate via the radio system. With the old system in place, those Avon officers would never have known about the robbery and would have driven right through town.
The county purchased 500 portable radios, an additional radio tower, Motorola MOSCAD firehouse and weather alerting systems, and equipped all police cars with Motorola ML 900 laptops.
"With the firehouse alerting, each time a fire run comes out, it will set off the tones at the firehouse, and it has the capabilities of opening the garage doors, can turn on and off lights in certain areas of the firehouse and also turns on the speakers in the firehouse, so they can hear the call throughout the building," Brinker explained.
"It was time we in Hendricks County had the ability to talk to each other," Galloway said. "The public will be better served with this system. The ability to communicate is of vital importance to public safety, and I'm in favor of one system so that police, fire and EMS can communicate. This is going to be positive for the citizens of Hendricks County."