New EOC Facilitates Multiagency Coordination

State-of-the-art Public Safety Emergency Operations Center consolidates emergency services for 13 municipalities in Bergen County, N.J.

by Hesha Patel / December 9, 2011

Neighboring towns within the same county often chip in for a common emergency management and response center for things like fires, floods and other emergencies. The logic is simple: It is more cost-effective to build one center and divvy-up costs based on population and demographic data than have each town build its own center and invest in personnel, training, vehicles and equipment.

One example is Bergen County, N.J., where seven towns — Alpine, Closter, Harrington Park, Haworth, Northvale, Norwood and Rockleigh — were served by a common Interboro Regional Police Communications Network that was built 40 years ago. The Interboro network fulfilled its basic premise of saving each town a significant amount of money while also providing an adequate level of emergency services. However, as the county’s population grew and as technology moved forward by leaps and bounds over a 40-year span, the Interboro gradually became obsolete. Upkeep, repairs and maintenance became increasingly expensive and difficult.

Although the town was ready to replace the Interboro network with something more modern, it had a few concerns. The biggest concern was to make sure the new system in no way jeopardized public safety. There were also concerns that a centralized command center that relied on technology may not be as effective as police personnel who had first-hand information of the neighborhood, its layout, demographics and personal familiarity with residents.


The Ideal Solution


A weakened economy, reduced funding from the state, a mandatory 2 percent cap on property taxes and severe budget shortfalls led Bergen County towns to look for more cost-effective and efficient solutions for their various programs.

When county officials started to look at choices for upgrading or replacing the Interboro Regional Police Communications Network, they soon realized that upgrading an obsolete network — which still relied on scanners, faxes, analog video and old-school ways of communication — did not make practical or economic sense. County officials also realized that the existing system severely limited their ability to anticipate emergencies and coordinate responses between county agencies and towns, and that emergency response times could also be significantly improved using newer technology. Upon exploring the options, they realized that the most sensible option was to set up a new network that easily integrated with the legacy systems while also seamlessly interfacing with the latest technologies.

They formulized their ideal solution, one that would integrate easily with their legacy infrastructure and databases and be:

  • Forward compatible with modern day networking and smart mobile technologies.
     
  • A system that would scale easily as the county’s population expanded.
     
  • A system that would be easy to learn and use, leverage the power of newer high-definition and 3-D video display technology, and provide an easy to manage visual view of emergency situations.
     
  • A network infrastructure that would support open standards so devices from multiple manufacturers and application developers could easily be integrated without expensive customization or proprietary software.
     
  • A solution that would have lower operating expenses, but still be significantly more effective than the existing network.


With all of the above in mind and with foresight on the part of town planners, Bergen County raised $12.4 million and decided to build a highly scalable, state-of-the-art Public Safety Emergency Operations Center. The center, which began operations on Oct. 1, 2010, is laid out over 36,000 square feet. It features a 911 command and communications center designed so police, fire and medical staff can monitor and respond to emergencies for towns within Bergen County.

"With critical data and content flowing from room to room with our public safety operations center, we continue to discover new ways to utilize all the features built into the Activu solution,” said Capt. Mark Lepinski of the Bergen County Department of Public Safety. “In an emergency situation, we use Activu to seamlessly share data across multiple agencies. This has given us the greatest flexibility for collaboration and increased situational awareness to handle events quickly."

From a technology perspective, the county picked an open, Internet protocol-based visualization and collaboration solution from Activu Corp. The software supports commercial off-the-shelf hardware and can easily scale as the county’s needs expand. It also easily integrated with the county’s network environment, and allows operators to access and view information from any device on the network and display it on the center’s large screens. The software also features a mobility suite that brings mobile decision-makers and responders quickly up to speed on the emergency, so decision-making is collaborative and as comprehensive as can be.

All activity — including multiple camera feeds, map views, weather reports and other relevant data — is displayed on a large video display wall, with operators seamlessly controlling all visuals, zooming in as needed, manipulating images and more. In addition, county and state officials in different offices, floors and buildings, or with smart mobile devices in the field, can log on to the central system and see everything as if they were sitting at the center. 


All Under One Roof


One of the key benefits that member-towns will derive is multiagency coordination, with the center bringing together public safety dispatch and the Office of Emergency Management under one roof. The center lets various agencies coordinate efforts to quickly respond to disasters — fire, police, utility companies and others. The center also features a dispatch training room so new staff can be trained for emergency response and given practical experience simultaneously.

The center has separate seating areas for each agency. Yet all authorized users have a common operating picture of every situation as it develops. In a single facility, the county has created a coordinated and cohesive response team for daily operations and emergencies.

The center also features an executive conference room that doubles as a briefing room for the mayor and other officials. The executive conference room overlooks the main communications center and is equipped with its own video display screens so executive decision-makers can quickly develop situational awareness and collaborate and share critical information for faster, more effective decision-making.

The center is currently contracted for shared services with 13 municipalities, with additional municipalities intending to consolidate their emergency services in 2011 and 2012. The new operations center is expected to result in significant savings, to the tune of $200,000 a year, for each member-town that runs emergency dispatch through the Bergen facility.


Hesha Patel is the director of marketing for Activu.