A Consolidated 911 Dispatch Has Local Police Agencies Working Together More Than Ever

Before state-mandated consolidation, each police department housed its own dispatch and ran on separate channels.

by Elizabeth Depompei, The Evening News and The Tribune / August 12, 2015

(TNS) - Since Clark County, Ind., consolidated 911 dispatch for all of the county’s police agencies in December, officers from different departments are working together more than ever.

That’s because all dispatch for the county runs on one radio channel and all on-duty officers across the county are tuned in. If there’s a robbery in Jeffersonville and a nearby Clarksville Police Department officer hears the report over the radio, the officer could respond and assist.

Assistant Chief David Kirby with CPD said that since the consolidation, it’s a daily occurrence for two or more police agencies to respond to the same incident.

“To me, that’s one of the great things about this [consolidation],” Kirby said. “You have such inter-agency cooperation now.”

But Kirby said having all dispatch on one channel is also one of the biggest adjustments for officers. Before state-mandated consolidation, each police department housed its own dispatch and ran on separate channels.

Now, the radio is never quiet. Kirby said that while that’s the case, it’s still easy enough for officers to understand when their department is being dispatched. Each department is assigned an alpha character and the dispatcher announces the character before anything else.

Kirby also said that if there’s a major event that needs particular attention, officers can use a secondary channel so they don’t disrupt any information relating to the major event.

HOW IT WORKS

Having all agencies on one channel is just one of the change law enforcement has had to adjust to over the past eight months. The changes come after a state mandate that required Indiana’s 92 counties to consolidate their dispatches under one roof by Dec. 31, 2014.

Indiana Statewide 911 Board Executive Director Barry Ritter said the mandate was intended to improve public safety and reduce costs to taxpayers. The state board collects money from surcharges on residents’ phone bills and disburses that money to local dispatch centers.

Any county that didn’t comply with consolidation by Dec. 31 would lose that money. Ritter said Lake County in northwestern Indiana is the only county that hasn’t complied.

Before consolidation, 911 calls made within Clark County — which has several police agencies — would go to the Clark County Office of Emergency Communications, known as central alarm, in Sellersburg. Central alarm has always dispatched fire and emergency medical services for the county, but if law enforcement needed to be dispatched, the call-taker would transfer the call to the appropriate police department’s dispatch.

Now, central alarm dispatches any and all emergency calls for fire, EMS and police. When someone in Clark County dials 911, a call-taker at central alarm answers and takes the caller’s information. As soon as the call-taker selects the type of call — for example, a stabbing — a dispatcher in the same room receives an alert on his or her computer. The alert will automatically show which agencies — in this case EMS and police — need to be dispatched.

The call-taker can continue to update the information, which will show up on the dispatcher’s screen in real time. Dispatchers receive audio and visual alerts for each new call, and they’re in proximity to the call-takers.

“Now if you had a real hot call, they’ll just yell it to each other,” said central alarm Director Brad Meixell. “They’ll still type but they’ll let [each other] know.”

Dispatchers sit in a module equipped with six different computer monitors that show them incoming calls, a map showing where the call is coming from and a map that shows where the closest officers are in the area.

Central alarm dispatchers weren’t the only ones to get new equipment and software. All but one department, the Jeffersonville Police Department, had to change the software they use to log incidents. Now all departments use the same software, which also means each department has access to all other departments’ case histories.

“One of the biggest benefits for that is the sharing of information between different agencies,” Meixell said. “So if a detective’s working a theft case and they’ve got a suspect, they can see any contact another police department has had with that suspect and any other cases they may have pending with them.”

Officers also have mobile computers mounted in their patrol cars. When a call-taker or dispatcher logs a call, officers can see it live on their screen. Kirby said officers can even file reports from their cars.

GROWING PAINS

Though the legislation requiring consolidation was passed in 2008, Meixell said the county only had about six months to complete the consolidation. The hold up, he said, was in part due to securing interlocal agreements and finding vendors for the new equipment and software.

Clark County Sheriff’s Capt. Randy Burton said the shortened timeline worked against the county. The consolidation process, he said, typically takes 18 months.

“We’re going through our growing pains as we’re actually active on the system,” Burton said.

Burton and Meixell said another hurdle was getting the needed staff in time for consolidation. Many of the dispatchers at central alarm came from the department dispatch centers, but not everyone wanted to transfer to central alarm, for various reasons, Meixell said.

Central alarm now employs 28 dispatchers and typically has five to seven dispatchers per shift, depending on the hour of day. A recent consolidation study based on the center’s call volume recommended nine to 10 dispatchers per shift, Meixell said.

Burton, along with Meixell, Kirby and area police and fire chiefs, are part of an operations board for central alarm. The operations board meets every first Wednesday of the month. Any actions that require funding must be approved by a separate fiscal board.

Burton said the board needs to see how seven dispatchers work, but that overnight weekend shifts could need eight to 10 dispatchers. More dispatchers could also relieve the stress of sitting in a dark room for long shifts that can get “hectic,” Burton said.

“It will definitely be more efficient once we get the full staff and get everybody rolling in here,” Burton added.

As for the officers, Burton said it will take time for them to adjust to the new protocols. For example, officers are supposed to switch to a different channel to make requests for vehicle identification numbers and license checks, but they don’t always remember to switch back to the main channel afterward.

“It’s just getting everybody trained on the new systems, trained on the new protocols,” he said. “And going from, ‘I’ve worked here for 20 years and this is the way we’ve always done it’ to, here’s the way we gotta do it now.”

Meixell said there’s also the matter of training the public. When someone calls a local police department for a nonemergency, they’re greeted by an automated phone tree. When given the option to be transferred to dispatch, or central alarm, the caller might select that option even though it’s a nonemergency.

Phone calls are answered based on priority. The call that’s been ringing the longest is answered by the first available dispatcher. If a call was transferred from a police department’s phone tree, it takes a lesser priority.

“There’s intelligence when calls ring in how it queues for call-takers,” Meixell said.

Still, Meixell said, people end up on the phone with a dispatcher about things like the weather or why their cable was turned off. To alleviate those calls, CPD plans on implementing a live operator to replace the automated phone tree, Kirby said.

MOVING AHEAD

Meanwhile, central alarm continues to move into what Meixell called the “next generation” of emergency technology. Central alarm dispatchers increasingly communicate using “text to 911,” a program that went statewide in May 2014.

Central alarm started using the technology, which allows people to send a text message to 911, in March 2014.

“We’ve had instances where people that can’t talk on the phone, involved in a domestic or something, where they’ve had to text 911 because they can’t call,” Meixell said. “And we’ve had some instances where we’ve been able to really help somebody out in those type of situations.”

Dispatchers receive text message alerts on their computer screens and are able to type back messages to the person trying to get help.

In some cases, a person in an emergency situation may call and hang up, but may not be in a situation where they can answer the phone when central alarm calls them back. Or, Meixell said, they may have accidentally called 911.

“Now what we do, we’ll try to call them back [and] if we can’t reach them we’ll text them back and say, ‘We got a call from you, is there an emergency?’ “ Meixell said.

Soon, Meixell said, people will be able to send photos and video to dispatchers via text message. That information could then be passed on to responders. Kirby said that kind of technology could be a “game-changer.”

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