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Are CAD Systems Becoming Too Complicated?

Author: Mike Scott & Randall D. Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-06-29
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Originally published in our March, 2005 issue
(But clearly still a relevant topic!)

For some, Computer-Aided Dispatch systems are the do-all, end-all of a communication center’s technology.  Yet many dispatch managers wonder whether today’s CAD systems are becoming too complicated, and are including many features which are irrelevant and unimportant.  The question isn’t the quality or quantity of the technology that has been developed to add to the features a CAD system offers, but whether the myriad of features present in some new CAD systems are necessary or even relevant. 

Bill McMurray, communications manager for Marin County Sheriff’s Department in California and this year’s president of NENA admits that dispatch managers and personnel often want CAD to do everything.  As a result CAD vendors actively market their “bells and whistles” but McMurray said not all features are necessary.

“We are struggling with how to make our CAD system do whatever it is departments want it to do,” said McMurray.  “It’s like a science experiment with trial and error techniques before you produce the results you want, primarily because the field expectations keep shifting.”

 

Complexity and Computer Systems

One issue that adversely affects many public safety departments is the lack of a recognized standard for CAD products, according to Barry Furey, communications manager for Knox County (TN).  Furey has been alarmed at the general lack of computer knowledge of many dispatch personnel and the various CAD systems can magnify this problem.

“Sometimes CAD systems don't so much create problems as they do magnify those that you have,” said Furey.  “No matter how intuitive the graphics, there is a limit to the amount of data that one person can. process effectively.  Perhaps what we also need to be asking is how many resources and incidents can one person reliably track?”

McMurray agrees.  “Until someone develops a valid and recognized standard, we will no doubt continue to put more and more information in front of our telecommunicators without thought of the consequences,” he said.

Bucks County (PA) Emergency Communications Superintendent of Training Stephen Reichman believes that many of the extras CAD vendors bundle into their systems look good at tradeshows but are not of functional importance.  In fact, Bucks County has yet to convert its PRC/Northrop Grumman CAD system to a GUI based (Windows formatted Graphic User Interface) display.

Reichman said he comes from the viewpoint that CAD systems can be simplistic, efficient and powerful without always looking pretty.  “I transitioned from a non-CAD to CAD environment, so I can appreciate the comparison,” he said.  “The significant thing was that I was able to transition with much ease into CAD due to the system being used.  When we train it makes things much easier.”

Stratus Technologies

 

Transitioning to New Systems

 Vendors agree that the quality of training can help or hinder the transition period from old to new CAD systems.  “Training is key as is the ability to provide a transition path from old workflows/commands to new workflows/commands,” said Betty Hall, Manager, Marketing Communications for Madison (AL) based Intergraph Public Safety. “There is a need for solid training to mitigate the impact of change.”

Yet the lack of training on a CAD system or even understanding how the system works can also be a symptom of the stresses and complexity of a dispatcher’s everyday job.  James Kuthy, senior consultant for Biddle Consulting Group, Inc. in Rancho Cordova (CA) said CAD vendors typically appropriate so many features as part of their systems that it often leads to dispatcher overload.

Kuthy said a dispatcher who has to adjust radio frequencies, refer to maps and protocols while simultaneously juggling dozens of units can become overwhelmed before even dealing with a complex CAD application.  “It’s not just CAD, it’s the inner relationship between CAD and the other aspects of the job that frequently lead to overload and stress,” said Kuthy.

Steve McClellan, fire communications manager for Ventura County (CA) Fire Protection District searched for a new CAD vendor in Fall 2004 and feels that CAD is a tool to increase efficiency in processing emergency calls.  “If the use of that CAD tool slows down the dispatch process because of the complexity with which it operates, that’s where I see the point as it becoming too complicated.”

Nancy Cole, lead communications dispatcher for Santa Rosa Police Department in California said one consideration vendors should give is getting end-users more involved during the internal beta testing process.  “I would hope vendors wouldn’t wait until they have a product  before asking how it can be improved,” said Cole.  “Get back to the basics.  What works in an office with great bells and whistles in a test environment does not necessarily work in a dispatch environment.”

Among the features Brenda Vande Voorde, 9-1-1 Coordinator for the Fayette County Sheriff's Office in West Union, Iowa would like to see are “Functions that flow with how a dispatcher would handle a call from start to finish.  Prompts that assist, not delay, in data entry.  The ability to determine emergency service zones for an address.  Hardware that can keep up with the system and has room for growth.” 

 

Complexity and Change

Objections to any CAD system change are common, even if that means adding new features to the TriTech Software System CAD program, said TriTech CEO Chris Maloney.  But Maloney said feedback improved once clients were guided through a brief learning curve.  “Those clients who thought the new system was too complex now acknowledge that it’s much more comprehensive than the old CAD solution,” said Maloney.

New World Systems Communications Specialist Melissa Diemert that agencies should be able to customize and control all aspects of their CAD system without requiring programming changes.  “One thing we consistently hear is that access to data needs to be simple,” said Diemert.

Stacie Parrie, regional operations manager for PTS Solutions in Harrisonburg, Louis.  said her company focuses on providing basic CAD services.  She believes a state-of-the-art CAD system needs to provide incident management, radio log management, mapping capable of providing phase two, E9-1-1 data, equipment management, user-friendliness, simplicity in regards to operation and ease of record retrieval.

Parrie added that a system’s “user friendliness” is a function of how long it takes to learn to effectively work the system.  “If it’s longer than two hours for a new user, it’s not user friendly,” said Parrie.

The list of essential functions that a state-of-the-art CAD system should provide customers isn’t that long, according to Gary Bunyard, Senior Vice President, Business Development for Tiburon, Inc.  He said comprehensive and efficient call, resource, and reference management functions and an effective method of communications between all users are most critical.  “Integrated access to other information systems to eliminate redundant data entry and simplify operations is another primary user need,” noted Bunyard. 

“No matter how you twist it, a dispatcher’s role is predominantly recording information, or data,” Bunyard said.  “What data is entered may certainly impact the subsequent steps that are taken, but data entry is the fundamental function.  GUIs that demonstrate well to a police chief or a purchasing agent are not necessarily conducive to the efficient entry and processing of the types of data entered by a dispatcher.  CAD is not a video game; it’s a data processing system that needs to be effective for a very unique use.”

Functionality, design and configurability are three primary user needs, said Ed Colin, president of FDM Software Ltd., of North Vancouver, BC, Canada.  Beyond that, automated processes and customizable features are also highly desired features.  “The CAD application should easily integrate with mobile devices to deliver information to and communicate with emergency responders in the field,” said Colin.  “This integration should occur seamlessly and should be invisible to the dispatcher.”

Migrating to a new CAD system can be a challenging experience on its own, regardless of the system involved.  “A new CAD system is a leveling factor for dispatcher abilities,” said Maloney.  “Those who were masters of the previous system are now beginning on the same level with those who weren't as good with the old system.  It's really hard on "experts" to lose that edge.  Some worked extra hard to regain their advantage, some allowed others to become the experts, and one who saw it coming jumped in early and became a trainer for the new system so he could still be an expert.

So when do vendors think a CAD system is too complicated?

“We have found that a CAD system becomes too complicated when the features impede the efficient and effective use of the system,” said Bunyard.  “When defining requirements for a new or replacement system, it is important for vendors like us to not lose focus on the client’s objective.”

TriTech’s Chris Maloney said such systems often are designed too broadly which detracts from the basic fundamentals of dispatch.  “When procuring a new system, agencies try and make sure that any and all requirements are thrown into the RFP to make sure they don’t miss anything,” he said.  This leads to “featuritis” – systems that can do everything poorly and not important things well.”

Maloney feels that CAD systems are perceived as overly complicated when functional specifications are defined by people who have no or little real world dispatch experience. “It is also common that functionality needed by one client becomes a part of the requirements definition for subsequent clients when text is simply copied from one RFP into another without a careful review of the importance or validity of the requirement for the specific agency,” Maloney said. 

Colin said a dispatcher should always be able to process calls without completing multiple steps.  If dispatchers are forced to manually enter all information, that CAD system is too bulky and time-consuming.  “We provide our users with the option of either streamlining setup or creating very detailed response definitions,” he said.

Some users wonder if ease of use for dispatchers is being sacrificed in order to benefit records management on the administrative end.  “These are completely independent functions, said FDM’s Ed Colin.  “A state-of-the-art CAD system should be simple, fast and easy to use for everyone who needs to work with the information.  The fact that users are reporting on data should not affect other users viewing or manipulating the data or dispatchers processing calls.”

 “The focus of a computer aided dispatch system must always be to make the call takers, dispatchers, and first responders faster, efficient, and safe,” said Tiburon’s Gary Bunyard.  “None of these objectives should be sacrificed for the purpose of statistical reporting and analysis.  That being said, the two are not mutually exclusive and a quality CAD system is certainly capable of unobtrusively providing a wealth of management reporting capabilities.”

Maloney agrees.  “A CAD system can become too complicated for the needs of a dispatch operation of the dispatchers are busy trying to troubleshoot issues and the logic behind the system,” he said.  “If it takes more than one or two clicks of a mouse (to arrive at the appropriate screen), it becomes too complicated to retrieve in a timely manner for field personnel.”

Another issue with CAD systems is whether there should be a difference in CAD functionality to meet the specific needs of law enforcement dispatch versus fire or EMS or whether one system should serve all users.  Most CAD vendors feel each public safety service has unique operational requirements and procedures that must be satisfied by a quality multi-service CAD system.

“While it may be possible for a single system to effectively meet the needs of all three disciplines, there are a number of unique needs that each service has,” said Tritech’s Chris Maloney.  “It's very common for a great police system to do a poor job of supporting Fire/EMS and vice versa.  I believe the needs of the two are very different.  In the Fire/EMS world, CAD is primarily a decision-support tool.  In the police world, CAD is primarily a record-keeping and records-checking tool.  By nature of their calls and responses, there are many things that they do differently, and that should be customizable to the responding agency.  However, there are some basic similarities as well that could be combined so the dispatcher would have fewer commands to learn (in a cross-trained environment).”

The amount of post-installation support offered by the CAD vendor can help or hinder acceptance of a new system, especially one that is more complicated than its predecessor.  Santa Rosa found their IPS system awkward but found Intergraph responsive to making it work for them.  “When needed, we have been able to get new commands and quick solutions, due to local tech support,” said Nancy Cole.  “Our vendor has been quick to resolve most issues.  Their product has evolved with more west coast agencies jumping on board, due to different needs than their east coast users.” 

“Maybe the reason that CAD systems are getting too complicated is that we're getting too complicated?,” asks Barry Furey. “One nation, one number = 6,000 PSAPs, 6,000 SOPs.  There is no way that ‘shrink wrap’ off the shelf software can deal with all of our local idiosyncracies.”

At the end of the day, a CAD system should become the center of integration and interoperability as a decision support hub, said Betty Hall, Intergraph.  An agency’s CAD should be able to extend its connectivity to other regional CAD systems as well as state, regional and national databases.

“One stop access to information is the first step in reducing workload on operators,” said Hall.  “Decision-making needs to be in the hands of operators, analysts, administrators, and supervisors.”

Mike Scott writes for several national and regional publications and has been a frequent contributor to our printed magazine. He previously worked in the public safety software industry. Randall Larson is the editor of 9-1-1 Magazine, and a 25-year veteran of the dispatch console.

Original magazine's page layout design by Bob Payne.


SIDEBAR 1:

Are CAD Systems Becoming Too Complicated?: The Dispatcher’s Perspective

Nancy Cole, Lead Communications Dispatcher; Santa Rosa Police Department, Calif.   Single Agency PSAP for city Police/Fire/EMS.  Intergraph CAD since 2003 (now on version 7.8)

Barry Furey, Executive Director, Knox County Emergency Communications District, Tenn.  Serves 2 law, 1 fire, and 1 EMS agency.  Annual dispatches: 455,000. CAD: Motorola Printrak.

Steve McClellan, Fire Communications Manager. Ventura County Fire Protection District, Calif.  Serves 9 fire agencies.  Annual dispatches: 100,000. CAD: PSSI Response, installed in 1993. 

Bill McMurray, Communications Manager, Marin County Sheriff's Office, Calif.  Serves 7 law, 10 fire, and 5 local government agencies.  Annual dispatches: 202,933 law, 23,207 fire, 7,260 local govt.  PRC COBOL CAD, since May 1995.

Brenda Vande Voorde:  9-1-1 Coordinator-Fayette County Sheriff's Office, Iowa. Serves 11 law, 12 fire, 6 first responder, and 5 EMS agencies.  Annual dispatches: 15,000.  Currently using an in-house computer management system for calls and records; investigating acquiring a CAD.  

Is it possible for a CAD system to become too complicated to use effectively for the needs of your dispatch operation? 

Cole: With a Windows system, one mistake and there are two or three dialog boxes to dismiss before continuing workflow.  During a pursuit or big fire, that’s not good! 

Furey:The challenge is to display the information in an easily accessible and understood format to the dispatcher.  In some cases, complicated routines and complex syntax have bypassed the computer skills of some of our employees.  As we attract new employees who are more computer savvy, we will close this gap. 

Vande Voorde: Some of the CAD systems we were shown have an amazing number of functions that, for demonstration purposes, appear to blow other CAD systems out of the water, but during a hot call, or several calls, the dispatcher does not have time to be entering data into several screens or checking too many alert and reference tabs.

 

What advice would you give to other dispatch agencies who might be considering acquiring a new CAD system?

Cole: Ask for the ability to have input to the end product.  Had we not, I feel it would have been more difficult for the consortium’s end users to operate the off the shelf system.  It was a good system, and we made it better.

Furey: Clearly define your needs and write detailed performance specifications. Don't assume the standard contract offered by the vendor is the only contract available. Negotiate for what is important to you.

McClellan:  Invest the time, effort, and money to hire a highly skilled, knowledgeable consultant who has extensive current experience in CAD acquisition projects to help you with the entire CAD acquisition process, including developing requirements, structuring the RFP, developing evaluative criteria on which vendor proposals can be rated, contract negotiations, design development and system acceptance testing.  Find a vendor that will meet your needs – don't accept less just because that is all that the particular vendor offers with their product.  Look to the CAD vendor to provide turnkey on-site maintenance and support for the system they sell you.  

McMurray: Involve the end users in the development of the requirements and in the system selection process, and fully vest all user agencies with responsibilities in the entire process.  Getting all end users involved limits their ability to complain later on… 

Vande Voorde: We are finding that doing your homework before you even start to see CADs demonstrated to you is essential.  Go to different Centers, speak to dispatchers (they run the system).  Follow up on references, and ask the right questions.  Then find other Centers who are willing to share their knowledge with you on how they waded through the process.

 

What advice would you like to give to CAD manufacturers concerning meeting your needs for a CAD system?

Furey: Listen to your customers. Have your sales force talk to your developers. Close that gap! Provide user defined MIS tools and the ability to plug in over the counter reporting tools.

McClellan:  Structure your product line to have the flexibility to meet an individual customer's needs - one size does not fit all when it comes to CAD systems.  Most agencies have a philosophy that if they are going to purchase a product this costly and this critical to their operation, they need one that meets their specific needs.

McMurray: Think about the requirements of the end user.  Conduct comprehensive focus group sessions to ferret out their needs and desires.  Seek input from outside of your customer base to find out what is important and what is maddening to the dispatchers and call takers (i.e., if you are graphics intensive, that may be pretty, but dysfunctional to a dispatcher who just wants to be able to quickly move around the screen, input data and retrieve information.

Vande Voorde: We can only chose one, while the options are vast on what is offered.  It is a difficult and challenging process to find the "perfect" CAD that fits your Center.  Most vendors were willing to meet the deadline we chose as well as limit their demonstrations to a reasonable time frame, after all we are trying to get as many people from a 24/7 Center to come in on extra time and budget/staff constraints dictate the need to compress what they would like to have for demonstrations, into what we can reasonably manage.

[Remembering Bill McMurray, a 30 year member of the Marin County (CA) Sheriff's Office and NENA President during 2004-2005, who sadly passed away in 2007. Learn about the Bill McMurray ENP Scholarship on the NENA web site].


SIDEBAR-2

Are CAD Systems Becoming Too Complicated?: The Vendor’s View

FDM Software Ltd., North Vancouver, BC.  Ed Colin, President/Melodie Smith, Marketing Consultant.  CAD Product: FDMCAD, since 1995.

Intergraph Public Safety, Madison, AL. Betty Hall, Manager, Marketing Communications, CAD Products: I/CAD since 1991.

New World Systems, Troy, MI.  Melissa Diemert, Communications Specialist/Brian Chasteen, Application Support Manager. CAD Products: Aegis/MSP CAD, since 1999.  Aegis 400 since 1986.

PTS Solutions, Inc., Harrisonburg, LA.  Staci W. Parrie, Regional Operations Manager.  CAD Products: PTS CAD Solutions since 1996, PTS Mobile Solutions since 2001.

Tiburon, Inc.  (a CompuDyne company), Fremont, CA.  Gary T. Bunyard, Senior Vice President, Business Development.  CAD Product: Tiburon CAD/Ti, since 1999.

TriTech Software Systems, San Diego, CA.  Chris Maloney, CEO.  CAD Products: VisiCAD; EMS since 1993; Fire since 1996; Police since 1998.  VisiNET Mobile since 2003.

 

How closely have you worked with users (dispatchers) when designing/engineering your CAD system?

FDM Software Ltd: We work closely with our users to define the requirements for our product.  In fact, the primary source of enhancements and feature changes between product versions is user feedback.

Intergraph Public Safety: Our system was initially designed by experienced emergency services professionals and we continue to engage our customers for input in product direction and enhancements.  For new functionality, we partner with select customers who have experience and interest in that functional area of the system. 

New World Systems: New World Systems designs its CAD based on our customer’s input on requirements and functionality.  New World has several local and national user group meetings, and advisory committees that provide us with the information we need to make sure that our system meets dispatcher’s needs today and in the future. 

Tiburon: The initial functional and user interface design was developed with extensive input from focus groups made up of clients, users of competitor systems, consultants, industry experts and Tiburon’s product specialists.  The product has evolved with continued focus group input.

 

Is it possible for a CAD system become  so complicated that it compromises usability in a dispatch environment? 

FDM Software Ltd: A dispatcher should always be able to process calls without completing a large number of steps. Anything that can be auto-populated or automated should be. Additionally, users need to be aware that an intelligent and easy-to-use system will always come at a price. The system should never become too complicated for the needs of the dispatch operation. However users should be prepared for some complexity in the initial setup, as they need to devote some analysis and time in order to incorporate their business requirements into the system.

Intergraph Public Safety: Systems can become too complicated when operators feel they have to think too much about which actions to take next.  Operators must be able to perform their needed operation with intuition, ease, and efficiency.

New World Systems: As long as the vendor has taken the time to design a system where agencies can simply “opt out” of features and functions, it shouldn’t get too complicated. 

Tiburon: CAD systems could become too complicated for two reasons.  One is that the system presents a large amount of information to the dispatcher that must be mentally processed before a dispatch is made, slowing the entire process.  Second is when the system is not reliable and the dispatcher must second-guess CAD recommendations on a frequent basis.  Dispatches are slowed because dispatchers don't trust the system and every recommendation must be analyzed before it is accepted and units are committed.

Tritech Software Systems:  CAD systems can become unnecessarily complicated when systems that present unnecessary information to dispatchers - information the dispatcher does not need to make a correct dispatch and field units do not need or want.  They also become too complex because the number and breadth of features requested have become too broad and detract from the basic fundamentals of dispatch.  

 

What advice would you like to give to CAD users who are evaluating a new system for their Emergency Dispatch Center?

FDM Software Ltd: Evaluate the agency requirements and review existing systems for ease of use, power, and most importantly, the ability to modify the system over time as conditions change.  Most products on the market today lack the ability to be customized or modified by the client to reflect any changing requirements.

Intergraph Public Safety: Allow end users to work in a mode they are most comfortable with (text, mouse, GUI) until they are ready to migrate to new paradigms.

New World Systems (Brian Chasteen): Look for a vendor who is fully integrated and who has developed their own products.  Make sure the vendor provides end user tools that allow for a variety of reporting needs.

Tiburon: Make certain that the system chosen can be effectively scaled to match the operational demands and requirements of your organization.  Consider how a system performs in your setting whether it be heads-down data entry in a high-volume communications center or more paced, analytical actions in a lower-volume operation.

Tritech Software Systems: Ensure that the agency is on board with the entire process.  Have buy in and opportunities for involvement along the way. 


FURTHER READING:

Archived from our March 2005 issue: here!


 

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