Virginia County’s New Emergency Communications Center Simplifies Operations

Arlington County eases maintenance while reducing heat and noise for dispatchers.

by / September 15, 2009
The new Arlington County emergency operations facility has a video wall that can tap into 250 feeds, a new digital radio system and three times as many 911 lines. The PCs are separated from the operator area, giving the administrators easy reach without disturbing the operators. Photo courtesy of Arlington County, Va.

In April 1993, Arlington County, Va., pulled together all its emergency communications capabilities into a single state-of-the-art Emergency Communications Center. But after little more than a decade, it was no longer state-of-the-art, so in May 2008 the county unveiled a new and considerably improved version.

With three times the prior footprint, the new 8,000-square-foot facility accommodates 24 positions, a video wall that can tap 250 feeds, a new digital radio system and three times as many 911 lines.

A key component is the computer network configuration. The new system, designed and implemented by Quebec-based Matrox, dramatically reduces heat and noise, and simplifies system operation and maintenance.

“We knew from day one it was going to be better,” said Roger Waller, computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system manager and technology specialist for the Arlington County Office of Emergency Management. “Functionality is much better, reliability is much better, and that makes it a better place to work because everyone feels they can count on their system.”

Up Off the Floor

At the core of the new solution are Matrox Extio F1400 remote graphics units, which provide as much as 820 feet of fiber-optic cable to separate user devices from the computer. Computers have been relocated away from the operator area to a separate space where they are all within an administrator’s easy reach.

Previously one or more computers would be crowded into a single workspace. When troubles arose, administrators had to get down on their hands and knees in a hot and crowded space to untangle wires and attempt to address the problem.

By removing PCs from the work area, the system allows IT staff to remediate problems more easily. “The biggest thing from my perspective as a CAD systems manager is not just the fact that you are creating more room,” Waller said. “It means that if we have a problem, I don’t have to crawl under desks, trace wires and things of that nature.”

Remote location of PCs also lets administrators access and maintain these systems without intruding on dispatchers’ work environment, a potentially significant benefit in an atmosphere already buzzing with urgent activity.

Furthermore, the removal of PCs from the work floor helps administrators guarantee a certain level of privacy and security, said Liv Stewart, Matrox Graphics strategic sales representative.

“If it’s a 911 center, people’s personal information is coming in. There are all sorts of records management systems with phone numbers, housing information and incident-specific information. All kinds of personal information might be in there,” she said.

Remove the physical PC, and it reduces the chances of such data being accessed inappropriately. “The fact that the PC is locked in another room and that the operators do not have access to that information -- that’s a plus from the IT manager’s standpoint,” Stewart said.

Such a remote solution could not have been easily achieved by traditional means. “[Category]5 or Cat6 cable were our first thought because that’s what was there,” Waller said. These would not offer sufficient reliability or support the intensive video needs of the CAD center. “We had been looking at video card solutions, but gaming video cards don’t do four, six or eight monitors.”

Those monitors may display applications such as an interactive map, a messaging window, an event entry window, and police and fire availability windows. Waller needed something to tie these together for the operator seamlessly and simultaneously.

“The key thing is being able to use those three screens as one,” Waller said. Matrox allows a user to move a mouse seamlessly from one monitor to the next, with no flipping from screen to screen. Up to four monitors at a time can operate in either “independent” or “stretched” mode, with a 1920x1200 maximum resolution per display.

Underneath each desk, a Matrox unit that’s one foot long by one and a half inches deep offers multiple USB ports to support mouse, keyboard and other peripherals.

Trouble Factors

When Arlington County moved to expand and enhance its communications center, several factors weighed heavily.

First there was the pressure of public visibility. After all, this was the installation that responded on 9/11, when a hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon, killing 184 people. With its proximity to Washington, D.C., the county is a high-profile center that is on call to respond to significant national events, and therefore is under unusually high public scrutiny.

Sheer volume also was a consideration. In 2007, the emergency communications center processed more than 458,000 phone calls.

But most troublesome were the more immediate issues of heat and noise. The old call center was hot and loud. Because of the numerous PCs crowding the space, temperature irregularities were a problem. “You could sit in a position where the top half of your body was 68 degrees and the bottom half was at 90 degrees,” Waller said.

The heat became more than just a matter of comfort. Center managers found the high temperatures caused by under-the-desk PCs were taking a bite out of the bottom line. “We went through more motherboards simply from overheating,” Waller said. “When you shove these computers back where there is no airflow, where there are four or five of them under a desk, they are just not designed for that.”

The noise was likewise problematic, posing not just an irritation but also an operational distraction. “I have radio in one ear and all of this other noise in the other ear. It simply takes away your ability to hear,” Waller said.

In fact, call center noise is a common concern. At 60 to 65 decibels, a call center produces similar racket as a power tool, which is far louder than the 55 decibels of a typical office space, according to Brendan B. Read, author of Designing the Best Call Center for Your Business. Move the PCs into another room, and the noise is significantly diminished.

“When we first moved into [the old center], it was a great space, but as time went on and we added new technologies and features, that space started to shrink,” Waller said.

Positive Outcomes

Arlington County put a lot of thought into its new call center and a lot of cash too. The Emergency Communications Center cost approximately $9.6 million. Funding came from diverse sources, including bonds issued by Arlington’s Industrial Development Authority and U.S. Department of Justice state and local emergency preparedness grant funding. Simultaneous with the upgraded center, a new digital radio system covering all emergency services cost the county $18 million.

For that money, the county got a significantly improved emergency communications capability, beyond just the increased capacity that upped the number of 911 lines from 16 to 48 lines.

With advanced graphics capabilities and high-capacity fiber-optic connections, Matrox removed the PCs from the room without diminishing performance levels for the end-user. “They are not sacrificing image quality; they are not sacrificing mouse cursor performance,” Stewart said. “It’s all just as if the PC was under the desk.”

Because computers are easier to reach and there are fewer malfunctions due to heat overload, productivity has increased. “Our CAD system has 98 percent uptime,” Waller said. “Very rarely do we have to go into manual mode in this center.”

Matrox representatives said their solution is a bit more expensive than a more standard graphics card. For many municipalities, price may be a discouraging factor, especially if they are under tight budget constraints. “But there are a lot of counties we are talking to about these more sophisticated upgrades,” Stewart said.

Waller also offers a word of caution: Planning is key in this type of upgrade. “Fiber comes in different grades, so you have to determine the size of the fiber, since that size will determine how far the fiber will carry the signal properly,” he said. “You can get fiber that goes 400 feet or fiber that goes five miles.”

Overall, Waller said, the new setup has created not just a more comfortable and more efficient center, but also a more effective communications operation. “The response to the end-user -- the public and the responders out in the field -- is a much smoother and more rapid process than it was before.”


Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.

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