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What's On Your Desktop? Monitors, Maps, and Manuals that Shape Our World

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By Barry Furey

Originally published in our Nov/Dec 2006 issue.

A current television commercial asks, “What’s in your wallet?”  For thousands of telecommunicators, a more pertinent question is, “What’s on your desktop?”  The answer to the first question is a well known credit-card.  The answer to the second is not so easy.  In fact, there is no single correct answer.

The tools of the 21st Century telecommunicator are as diverse as the duties he or she performs.  Chances are good that some form of Computer Aided Dispatch graces the work space; however the size of the community served plays a major role in whether or not automation is used.  According to a 1999 survey performed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 100% of municipalities serving 250,000 or more residents were computerized, while only 18% of towns with less than 2,500 people had gone digital.  These smaller communities still rely on the tried and true paper and pen method, although dispatch cards are also common sights in larger facilities; albeit as a backup for the times when CAD goes down.

Since about three-quarters of US counties have Phase I enhanced wireless 9-1-1 service, and about one-half have Phase II, some form of geo-location device is now also normally present.  In the simplest form, this is an ALI (Automatic Location Information) display that can receive latitude and longitude, and a paper map.  Increasingly, it is a map-driven CAD or integrated computer and telephone system that can import wireless ALI and auto-populate a screen with the approximate location of the caller.

And, since an increasing amount of our activities are computerized, a wide range of programs – not all specifically designed for public safety – can also often be found.  Emergency Medical Dispatch is performed by many agencies, but it cannot be performed without the proper guidance.  EMD may exist as a stand-alone computer program, as a program interfaced to CAD, or as a manual card system.  Also entering the scene are similar guidelines for fire and law enforcement.  While many of these are produced specifically for this purpose, others are home-grown.  Decision-tree and expert-tutor type software can be modified to assist dispatchers in the call screening process.

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Electronic versions of the old standby bluebook and city directory also exist, providing cross-reference telephone information.  Of course, a desktop connected to the Internet truly opens up a world of possibilities.  National white and yellow pages are available online, lessening the need for ever having to dial directory assistance.  Reverse lookups by number or address can also be obtained.  Other popular resources are Geographic Information System sites.  Primarily operated by local government agencies, many provide residence ownership information, and some even provide photos and plot plans.  GIS web pages often have available layers for features such as topography and utilities.  If these features are not present on the CAD map, they can be readily accessed for use in emergencies.  These are valuable assets in managing a wide variety of calls.

Even commercial based map sites can be of benefit if there is no map associated with CAD, or if no CAD is present.  Although the data may not always be completely current, they can often offer a cost effective way of finding an address and even response directions; particularly if a local response team or fire department is traveling to an incident in an unfamiliar area or adjoining jurisdiction.  Though not strictly a mapping resource, traffic cameras operated by local and state departments of transportation, and even local television stations can be of benefit in getting the picture when it comes to handling major accidents and weather emergencies.  The ability for telecommunicators to obtain real-time views of accident scenes or to visually check the status of evacuation routes can be counted among the many benefits.

Many former “paper” resources, such as hazardous materials guides, are now also readily available via the Web.  And, when it comes to education and training, Internet resources are almost unlimited.  With the current focus on NIMS, FEMA produced online training is a popular destination for surfing telecommunicators.  Several associations, institutes of higher education, and private vendors have an extensive array of classes, including recognized degree and certificate programs, designed for and directed to public safety personnel that can be completed via Internet.

Of course, access to the Web does not come without risk, and stringent security precautions must be taken.  NCIC and SCIC regulations must also be considered.  Short of full-blown access, agencies may provide a limited gateway to selected, approved sites, restrict the Web to a dedicated machine, or may establish an internal intranet.  Intranets provide a localized means of accessing information using web-based technology.  They are an increasingly common means of organizing the storage of forms, SOPs, and other documents used in daily operations.  The use of hypertext and links, for example, can provide an easy means of searching large policy manuals through the use of keywords. 

 

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Regardless of how it is reached, weather-related information and weather maps also rate high on the dispatcher’s toolkit.  From a TV station’s Doppler radar feed to subscription forecast services, having advanced warning on serious storms can provide public safety with time to prepare.  As we continue to add these tools to the desktop, however, we can also see changes in the desktop itself.  Monitors, by necessity, have gotten larger in order to display an ever increasing amount of information.  Perhaps, a more correct statement is that monitors have gotten wider, because the use of flat panels by many agencies has actually reduced their depth.  The surfaces on which they are mounted may also now rise and fall, depending upon whether the operator chooses to stand or sit.  And, somewhere on these surfaces may also be found environmental controls that set temperature and airflow.

As is the case with many industries, some non-standard issue equipment can commonly be found.  Many telecommunicators maintain personal notebooks and cheat-sheets to use as references, when required.  And very few will be found without some sort of personal stash of snacks, sundries, and Sudafed nearby.  This may be decidedly low-tech, but imperative. 

Perhaps the most important control room technology is not technology at all, but rather, the people who use it.  A perfect and very recent example of this is Tammy Rogers of Central Communications in Bentonville Arkansas who spent forty-eight hours tracking down a wireless 9-1-1 hang-up.  According to the Benton County Daily Record, dispatcher Toni Brandon answered a call from a juvenile, apparently in distress, reporting that she had been shot.  A non-initialized handset was used, and no location could be obtained before the caller was disconnected. 

Over the course of the next two days, Ms. Rogers showed a mix of ingenuity and uncommon tenacity.  Using both law enforcement and cellular carrier resources, and a myriad of desktop tools, she was finally able to determine that the telephone had been given to a child as a toy, and that the call was – fortunately – not an actual emergency. 

Given the skills demonstrated by dispatcher Rogers in the case, and by many other telecommunicators on a daily basis, the most critical question may not be, “What’s on your desktop?” Better we should be asking, “Who’s sitting in your chair?”

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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