Virginia Automates Alarm Company to 911 Transmissions

New data exchange standard could eliminate more than 32 million 911 calls nationally.

by / June 22, 2009

Photo: Bill Hobgood, public safety team project manager of the Richmond, Va., Department of Information Technology

Alarm monitoring companies typically call a 911 operator to report an incident when an alarm sounds, which can result in errors, delays and possibly life-threatening circumstances.

But that doesn't happen in Richmond, Va., which now automates the process, eliminating phone calls, saving time and possibly lives. The automation interface could eliminate more than 32 million incoming 911 phone calls for assistance from alarm-monitoring companies.

Richmond, in partnership with solution provider Intergraph, went live in April after a two-year pilot that displayed the viability of the software interface and resulted in an American National Standards Institute standard recognized by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International.

"The new exchange standard simply replaces that traditional call that alarm companies place to 911 centers in order to notify them of an alarm event," said Bill Hobgood, public safety team project manager of the Richmond Department of Information Technology. "If you look at just the initial delivery of the new alarm event by telephone and using this standard nationwide we predict across all the 6,500 public safety answering points [PSAPs] if they were to take advantage of the standard, we could eliminate 32 million telephone calls to 911 every year."

Hobgood said follow-up calls or update messages from the alarm-monitoring companies that are made after the initial 911 call could also be eliminated with the new XML-based software standard. That's 40 million to 60 million calls eliminated.

The alarm data is transmitted electronically and processed by the 911 center's computer aided dispatch system as a call-for-service that appears immediately in the operator's dispatch queue ready to be assigned to first responders. The result is a time savings of two to three minutes per call, maybe more.

"During a hurricane situation I've heard some alarm companies complain that they've tried to call the PSAP and they pick up the phone and tell the alarm company operator to hold on, and eight to 10 minutes later get back on the line to get the information," Hobgood said.

Another benefit of the standard is the elimination of mistakes that occur regularly with the phone calls.

"You might have a mix of accents or somebody might have a low-volume voice or a lot of noise in the background," Hobgood said. "A lot of mistakes happen, like Fourth Street or Fourth Avenue. Most are caught but it's the mistakes that aren't caught that turn into tragedies like somebody entered the wrong alarm type, maybe a burglary instead of a fire, and the wrong responders get sent."

Those misunderstandings are prevented with the automatic exchange of information. The alarm company software will send a request for an address validation to ensure that the street where the alarm went off matches with the PSAP's database.

Hobgood said there are about seven companies that write software for alarm companies and the alarm companies must request that the standard be written into it. "The neat thing about having a standard is anybody who has to write an interface only has to write it one time."