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Another Fine Mess: Untangling the Web of PSAP Wiring

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-04-23
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Originally published in our Nov/Dec 2008 issue.

While, “What’s in your wallet?” is a question asked by a credit card company in a television commercial, “What’s under your floor?” might be a more appropriate query for communications managers.  Anyone who says we’re living in a wireless world has obviously never spent much time beneath the two by two carpet squares that hide what lies below.  It is, after all, a scientific fact that if all the subterranean cabling were gathered from every dispatch center around the world and laid end to end, it would reach far past the edges of our solar system and into a distant galaxy.  However, it is also a scientific fact that this could never occur because it would involve first untangling every one of those cables; a task that is known to be virtually impossible.

The Seattle (WA) Fire Department dispatch center.  Modern dispatch centers and their console systems are designed to organize and keep menageries of cable and wiring secure and out of site. Photo: Watson Consoles

A quick peek into this mysterious netherworld often provides visual illustration to the terms spaghetti pile, rat’s nest, and outright mess.  Oftentimes, this mess actually escapes its underground world and climbs like Kudzu up the legs of consoles and furniture, as if seeking light.  If all this wiring is not reproducing while we are not watching, how did so many of our centers become overrun with this plague?  And, more importantly, how can we keep it from happening again in the future?

The answer to the first part is simple: we let it get that way.  It wasn’t all that long ago that there was very little equipment interoperability within the public safety answering point (PSAP).  Devices were added one at a time.  Each had the need for electric power.  Each had a need for a connection to something else; sometimes even multiple connections to several somethings else.  Radio consolettes were more common than consoles in smaller communities, so rather than having an integrated interface, police fire, and emergency medical services each had their own support network which often consisted of what we commonly call telephone wire.  Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems of the day were typically mainframes that supported “dumb” terminals.  What processing there was, was done in the equipment room.  Multi-line telephones were one of the few devices that used bundled cabling, but this also posed another problem in that these cables were the size of a small snake, and took up a good chunk of space under the console.

As we modernized, our electronic devices became more compatible, but also more numerous.  This meant that we needed more network, and especially more electrical outlets.  When new systems were installed, old cabling was largely left in place.  This was rationalized by the fact that the previous devices had to keep functioning during the cutover, and the fear that somebody would cut the “wrong” wire since typically nothing was labeled and the guy who put it in (and was the only one who knew where everything was) retired long ago. 

Does your under-console space look like this?  Without proper cable management, whether through console attachments or proactive maintenance, dispatch consoles can become a snake’s nest of wires and cables, which can potentially come unplugged at a bad time.

The Twisted World beneath the Console

Given this, the first step to take in untangling the wiring maze is by removing what you no longer need.  An especially effective time to do this is during an upgrade.  We recently converted to a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone switch and requested that the installer do just that.  While they weren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect, the end result will make future maintenance much easier.  A second important tenet is to label what goes where.  Clearly legible tags with permanent markings should be placed at regular intervals to assist service personnel in tracking down problems.  Again, the best time to do this is when the cabling is being installed, but working backwards to existing service can cut down on maintenance time and prevent additional problems caused by someone inadvertently tapping into an improper line.  Color coding your wiring can also help.

If your center is exposed to the risk of flooding (even if you’re not on the banks of the Mississippi, a nearby water or sewer line will still do the trick), the benefits of a permanent marking requirement can’t be overstated.  You don’t want your tags to be dripping ink or coming loose at the time when they will be needed the most.  However, simply labeling your cabling falls short of what is really needed; an under floor roadmap.  Nothing disrupts operations more than a bunch of folks with screwdrivers and flashlights pulling up random squares of tile.  By creating what’s known in many industries as an “as built” diagram, you can eliminate the guesswork and immediately point support personnel in the proper direction.  Such an “as built” should also be present for your electrical power, with readily available information concerning which devices are connected to which circuits.  This helps on those rare but important occasions when things have to be shut off; and shut off quickly.

The design and method of installation of your wiring is also of paramount importance.  A professional layout will be neatly done and provide an opportunity for future expansion.  While your exact requirements will be a driving factor, one increasingly popular method is to use distribution points located throughout the floor.  These function similarly to airport hubs that receive the bulk of the major traffic, then route it out to regional centers.  This method eliminates numerous individual “home runs”, or wires that return from each device back to the original source.  As bandwidth demands continue to grow, another increasingly popular choice is to deliver fiber directly to the desktop.  Each console receives its own optic feed which carries all the data needed for every application.  This brings up another point concerning PSAP wiring in the current generation; it’s all about data.  With the influx of digital devices, including CAD, recorders, VoIP phones, and Radio over Internet Protocol (RoIP), self-healing and redundant intranets are rapidly replacing the conventional paths of the past.  Proper design also takes into account the appropriate isolation of electrical circuits, cables carrying radio-frequency energy, and other wires, from both a safety and interference standpoint.

The nature of your flooring itself will also come into play.  Some floors actually contain built in cable management systems that neatly confine and route wiring around the room.  If your sub-floor area will be used as a plenum for HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) then special fire rated carriers must be used, and additional fire protection and/or detection may be added.  Technologies such as blade servers and remote workstations can substantially reduce the number of devices housed at the consoles by relocating the processors to another area; this obviously also affects cabling demands.


Adventures under the Floor

While most under floor wiring remains in the dark, managers should not remain in the dark about wiring.  It pays to know the difference between fiber optic, coax, and twisted pair, and to seek qualified help in determining your future requirements.  As the onset of Next Gen 9-1-1 approaches, nobody I know is assuming that less capacity will be needed during the next decade.  Once the hood is up, so to speak, it’s a good time to perform preventive maintenance.  Being informed also means being aware of the many standards that can influence cabling choices.  Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Factory Mutual (FM), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), National Telephone Industry Association (NTIA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the National Electrical Code (NEC), National Emergency Number Association (NENA), as well as local and state building codes all speak in part to the issue.

This console system from Wright Line comes with hidden channels to keep wiring secure but accessible.  With modern height-adjustable sit/stand consoles, keeping cables where they won’t stretch and unplug or break is a necessity.  Maintaining a healthy and organized console floor is also conducive to a PSAP’s professional appearance and avoids a rat’s nest of unorganized and unidentified wiring which can become problematic when switching out systems. Photo: Wright Line

However, wires that manage to see the light of day can also be a concern.  Those that remain exposed on the desktop are unsightly at best; and a dust collector and electrical problem at worst.  Those that grace the floor near the furniture’s base are a tripping hazard and can easily be kicked loose, thereby potentially disabling a critical piece of equipment.  Consoles themselves have contributed to the cabling conundrum through the addition of many features which have become almost standard in the last few years.  Environmental control systems require territory for ductwork and levers or knobs, task lighting adds other demands, and motorized height adjustments call for yet another set of motors, lifts, and switches.  And, since consoles are now supposed to go up or down at will, there has to be sufficient slack in all wires and hoses to allow this to freely happen.  While it’s a good idea to leave some wiggle room under the floor – subject to code restrictions – to allow for the repositioning of consoles within the center, this additional work station wiring can’t be hidden underground.


Sales and Self Solutions

Good news can be found in the fact that PSAP furniture suppliers have turned their attention to this issue.  Vendor displays at the 2008 APCO conference in Kansas City showed an interesting array of practical solutions.  Covered raceways and channels are used to appropriately route wires while still removing them from view, and monitor display arms and racks provide simple but effective means of securing cables.  The provision of electrical outlets at multiple locations around the consoles diminishes the need to make long cord runs, and locking ventilated boxes that are an integral part of the furnishings provide a secure yet accessible location for CPUs (Central Processing Units) and other electronics.  Slide out drawers and swing out panels make for easier servicing.

However, it you’re not currently in the market for new consoles, there is still much that can be done to improve a haphazard installation.  As with the under floor adventure, start by removing anything that’s no longer needed.  Label everything that is.  See if you can consolidate smaller individual wires into a larger conductor.  If not, spring for some wire molding or cable dressing to provide a less cluttered and more professional look.  Gather up everything off the floor and fasten it out of the way.  Make a visual assessment of the health of all your wiring, and remove those that are frayed or sharply kinked.  Strive to wire all consoles in the same manner in order to make maintenance easier.  Consider adding a convenience electrical outlet that is not on the center uninterrupted power supply (UPS) as a place to plug in fans, heaters, and power tools, should the need arise.

Watson’s console management solution is based on the supposition that it’s better to move wires than technology when the primary or secondary platforms are adjusted for height.  Watson’s uniframe console design includes a technology “wedge” that houses the energy chain, which carries all vertical wires from CPU cavities to the worksurfaces. Horizontal management is accomplished using the cable tray and cleats. Photo: Watson Consoles

It’s also a good idea to cover any exposed terminal blocks, and to secure sensitive devices from unauthorized access and tampering.  While I have been managing 9-1-1 centers since the 1970s, I have never once seen a telecommunicator try to adjust anything they weren’t supposed to.  Of course, that’s because they typically did it while the boss wasn’t looking, so there is a lot to be said for having critical components under lock and key.  Given that, your service personnel still need to be able to access things they need to fix, so the challenge is to effectively screen components from sight while still keeping them handy to repair.  If you don’t, chances are things will not be returned to where you put them.

Regardless of your current situation or approach, professional looking cable management can improve both the appearance of and ability to maintain your facility.  With patience, pliers, and a plan it’s possible to turn your current confusion into another fine mess you’ve gotten yourself out of.


Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40  years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states.  A life member of APCO International, he is the current Director of the Raleigh-Wake County, NC Emergency Communications Center.


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