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Customizing a Keypad as an Alternative Dispatch Console Interface

Author: Ray Desmarais, Melbourne Police Department, Florida.

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-07-05
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We had concerns that this mouse-driven interface could pose a problem for our dispatchers who already suffer from a cluttered work space and were used to a keyboard-driven system for radio dispatch management. Using a modular keypad programmed to emulate the console functions, we developed an in-house solution that is working very well for our dispatchers.

Harris Corporation provides first responders with a wide variety of mission critical communication solutions to state, federal, and local government agencies. Located in Melbourne, Florida, Harris is the maker of the Symphony 800 MHz radio console. The console’s technology allows the user to customize their screen with multi-tabbed modules, and it has the ability to place your most frequently utilized features directly where each dispatcher prefers them. This enables the dispatcher to move audio to different speakers and have the ability to immediately play back audio.

The Melbourne Police Department is a user of the Harris 800 MHz radio solutions. We were introduced to the new Symphony 800 MHz radio console in January of 2016 as a solution moving into the P25 world. This new console replaced our previous Harris Maestro 800 MHz radio console. The Maestro is a keyboard-driven radio console that has been around for the past 18 years, and dispatchers within our organization as well as throughout Brevard County, Florida, are used to the keyboard solution. The new Symphony console is a mouse-driven solution. We had concerns that this could pose as a problem for our dispatchers who already suffer from a cluttered work space for their mapping program, CAD program, phone system, and now their radio system. We had asked Harris Corporation for the design of a keyboard for their new radio Symphony Console. Harris Corporation has begun the design of that keyboard, but it will not be available until possibly 2018. We needed a quicker solution to the already cluttered dispatch space.

We looked into the possibility of making our own keyboard, and discovered a company called P.I. Engineering. They have been in computer keyboard design since 1993, and have designed a product called X-keys®. The X-key keyboard is a user-programmable, plug-and-play USB computer input device. It is a complete keypad with an enclosure suitable for desktop, handheld, or mounted use. The device uses the Human Interface Device (HID) class protocol which is able to emulate keyboard, mouse, game controller (joystick), and multimedia commands. The device can also communicate directly with macro software such as MacroWorks 3.1, or any custom software written. It has standard keycaps that are designed for insertion of custom labels by the user, as well as two banks of LED backlighting. Each key has the ability to be programmed individually. X-keys comes in various models from a 4 button configuration up to a 128 button configuration. It functions by using the MacroWorks software to program each button function that is also included. This allows the programmer to enter a string of key strokes and program a particular button to run that string, or to run a <control> command resident within the console system, enabling a keypad button to run a command to transmit on a selected talk path.  We also configured our display screens to coincide with the layout of the keypad so everything matched. We were also able to program the X and Y coordinates of the mouse pointer as well as the push of a left mouse button into a button on the keypad.  

To avoid extensive use of dispatcher mousing, we have created the X-keys® keypad to provide the same function via a button-push. The image above shows how the buttons on the X-keys keypad [bottom] match our most frequently-used tabs on the Symphony console [above]. My top three left buttons are my tone alert buttons. The next top three are for changing pages on the Symphony program. Note the pages of channels on the Symphony console, designated POLICE, POLICE MUTUAL, FIRE, FIRE MUTUAL. Each page has the channels in the same position and layout. I have set up the top right three keys on the keypad to toggle through the police and fire pages and statewide mutual aid page.  On each page there are 12 channels. Six channels on the top row and six on the bottom row. I have set row two and three on the X-Keys to instant-transmit on the coinciding channels that the operator has pulled up on the Symphony program. The bottom row is volume up and down, the middle key is a double key used for transmit on the selected channel. The next keys are for  instant play back and emergency mute. If it suits your needs more, you can flip the keys sideways and have six rows of four buttons rather than four rows of six buttons each

I wanted to make our dispatchers’ lives easier with fewer changes from what they have been used to, and allowing them to free up an already cluttered work space, while using the Symphony console to maximum benefit. With assistance from our local vendor, Communication International, as well as Lizzet Ruiz from Brevard County Emergency Management, we had proposed this as a solution. We purchased, programmed, and installed X-keys at each radio position within our Communications Center. Our dispatchers are very pleased with the ease of functionality as well as an immediate solution. Since the installation we have received calls across Brevard County as well as across the state of Florida asking for information and assistance on this solution. 

Ray Desmarais is the Communication Center Manager for the Melbourne Police Department in Florida. For more information on MPD, see



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