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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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Author: Don Grammar

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

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How Resilient, Coordinated Communications Can Quicken Response and Improve Outcomes

By Don Grammar, Information Technology Director, City of McKinney, Texas

A police officer for the City of McKinney, Texas, uses the touch-screen function on his Panasonic Toughbook , which is wirelessly connected to dispatch, other patrol units, and criminal databases. Photo Courtesy: City of McKinney and Laura SmetakIn a crisis, coordinated communication is critical to establishing command and control, maintaining situational awareness and coordinating response efforts across agencies and jurisdictions. When an emergency of any kind strikes, first responders must have immediate access to real-time, situational information. From relaying exact locations to coordinating the deployment of public safety or emergency medical services (EMS) personnel and vehicles to dispatching additional first responders, accurate and efficiently disseminated information is vital to ensuring the safety of citizens and first responders alike. Whether it is a major incident or a smaller-scale incident, cross-agency and cross-jurisdiction communication is not an option – it is a necessity.

Unclogging the Communications Bottleneck

From radio dispatch to mobile phones to field-ready notebooks and laptops, information technology (IT) is the medium through which first responders nationwide can achieve resilient, coordinated communications within and across agencies and jurisdictions. Despite the importance of IT to emergency response and the technological advances that have been made in recent years, many first responders in municipalities across the country still have communication problems similar to those that existed before the September 11 tragedy. Police departments unable to relay messages to firefighters about impeding dangers, firefighters unable to coordinate response efforts with other jurisdictions, and paramedics unable to immediately send critical patient information to a nearby hospital are just a few of the all-too-real examples that can and do happen.

With this top of mind, the City of McKinney, Texas, enlisted the help of CDW Government, Inc. (CDW-G) for advice on an emergency communications solution to lay the groundwork for a coordinated emergency response effort to ensure the safety of the residents who call McKinney home.

Sharing Streamlines Response

Under the guidance of CDW Government, Inc. (CDW-G), the city outfitted its EMS fleet with Panasonic Toughbooks.  The Toughbooks have not only resulted in gains for the city, but also, and more importantly, the patients.  EMS personnel use the Toughbooks to record all patient care information on site  EKG readings, vitals, signs and symptoms, and even billing information  and the data is directly, and immediately, relayed to the hospital.  Not only do the Toughbooks help to eliminate the duplication of data, but they also save valuable time in the patient triage process. Photo Courtesy: City of McKinney and Laura SmetakA suburb in the heart of tornado alley, on the northeastern edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, McKinney is one of the fastest-growing communities in the country. With more than 126,000 people residing within McKinney’s 58.5 square miles, this vibrant city has become a destination for many looking for a safe and peaceful community in which to live.

With a steadily rising population and the likelihood of dangerous weather, city officials knew that to ensure citizen safety, they needed to improve the flow of information and communication between 9-1-1 dispatchers, fire and EMS personnel.

McKinney sought a technology solution that would streamline operations, allowing information to be shared in real time and provide the highly mobile workforce with the tools to receive and record critical information while in the field. Working with CDW-G, the city implemented a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to streamline 9-1-1 call center operations and outfitted its EMS fleet with Panasonic Toughbook CF-19s and its police and fire department vehicles with Panasonic Toughbook CF-30s. The ruggedized technology is ideal for public safety because it performs well in harsh environments, including those with high vibration or extreme hot and cold temperatures. Further, the city installed Panasonic Arbitrator in-car video systems into its police vehicles, which allow police personnel to relay situational information wirelessly and near instantly.

The new CAD system ensures that the correct public safety department receives emergency information instantly. When the 9-1-1 operators receive a call, they enter it into the system, which selects the proper public safety resource and automatically sends detailed situation information to the appropriate first responders – police, fire or EMS.

“More and more, we are seeing the Panasonic Toughbooks and other ruggedized technologies transition out of police and patrol cars and into the vehicles and hands of other first responders,” said Houston Thomas, CDW-G public safety business development manager. “For field personnel who must react to unforeseen situations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, ruggedized, portable technologies are indispensable tools for providing citizen services, from medical aid to traffic management to public transportation.”

At the scene of an emergency, EMS personnel record all patient care information, from EKG readings to vital signs and symptoms, directly into the Toughbooks located in their vehicles. Within seconds, the data is relayed to the hospital wirelessly. The technology eliminates data duplication, reduces medical errors and saves valuable time in the patient triage process.

“Integrating this modern technology into the City of McKinney EMS vehicles is an essential component to improving our public safety response,” said EMS Coordinator Captain Russell Griffin. “The computers and software deliver location and patient information to paramedics almost instantly. Most importantly, paramedics, supervisors and continuing quality improvement (CQI) staff can access information during an emergency that previously they would have waited hours or even days to receive.”

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Keeping the Record Straight

The Toughbooks also helped eliminate the three-week turnaround on the paperwork audited by supervisors. With the ability to enter patient and emergency information directly and immediately into the Toughbooks, first responders can quickly and more efficiently record information, allowing them to focus on the emergency at hand.

“Our streamlined, electronic EMS reporting and recordkeeping translates into better and faster service for McKinney residents when they need it most,” Griffin said.

While the Toughbook and CAD solutions have significantly improved 9-1-1 and EMS operations, city officials realized more could be done to bolster public safety response. To that end, McKinney upgraded the city’s antiquated information database. Its new centralized database, created by Open Software Solutions, Inc. (OSSI), integrated the police department’s records management system, establishing a comprehensive system to collect, store, and provide access to the reports, records and other information gathered by police officers during daily activities. The database also allows the officers to research and identify problem locations, people and crime trends.

“The system brought the department to the cutting edge of public safety technology and will continue to scale as the department grows,” said Assistant Police Chief Rex Redden. “The statistical tools in the program allow officers to identify hot spots in their patrol beats, so that they can better target enforcement efforts.”

The centralized database allows the City of McKinney to share data and information between departments, as well as neighboring communities and jurisdictions. The ability to have critical data accessible at the click of a mouse allows for the efficient management of records and field operations, while helping to ensure the safety of citizens and officers.

Emergency personnel generate hundreds, if not thousands, of records that may or may not need to be used regularly. In either case, those records must be accessible at a moment’s notice. As a part of the OSSI software deployment, CDW-G also assisted in the implementation of EMC storage to back up data and enable continuity of operations if the centralized database was damaged during a storm or other event.

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Ensuring Safety with Resilient, Coordinated Communication

Resilient, coordinated communication is a critical necessity when responding to an emergency situation. Each passing second is one too many for a citizen in distress. It is absolutely necessary for emergency personnel to have the tools, resources and, most importantly, confidence, to know that they can perform their job with lightning-fast speed and accuracy, helping to ensure that valuable time is not lost, and more importantly, that citizens are kept safe.

About the Author
Don Grammar has worked with the Information Technology (IT) department of the City of McKinney since 1997. He first started as an MIS Coordinator with one employee, and now he oversees a department of 24 employees as the IT Director. Prior to running the IT Department for the City of McKinney, Grammar had a 30-year career with IBM. He is married with three children, five grandchildren and likes to work a 150-acre cattle ranch in his spare time.

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