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Play it Again, Sam

Author: Barry Furey

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

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A Manager’s Guide to Recorder Procurement

By Barry Furey

Originally published in our April, 2008 issue.

One of the most repeated quotes of all times comes from the movie classic Casablanca, when Humphrey Bogart tells his piano player Sam to play the song “As Time Goes” by again. Since Bogie had no instant replay, he had no other choice than to request another rendition of the tune. However, as time goes by in the real world, public safety agencies have come to rely on the ability to immediately recall stored audio at the push of a button, and to maintain a long-term record of their telephone and radio interactions.

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As is the case with many PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) products, the 9-1-1 center manager has a wide range of vendors and options from which to choose when considering a new recording system. Of course, this also means that there is a similarly disparate range of prices to go along with these choices. How, then, can someone sort through all the claims to find the best solution. How do you know what’s right for you. The answer is, by performing a careful assessment of your needs.

One of the most important items to consider is the size of your operation and the volume of calls handled. For smaller centers, this often doesn’t present a problem, but for larger facilities it is critical to assure that all vendors under consideration have performed similar tasks. How many positions do you have? How many calls do you take in an average year? Are all recorded positions on-site, or will secondary PSAPs also use the system? These are all critical items to define. Do you have an alternate center? If so, is a duplicate system required, and is it truly duplicate in that it replicates exactly equipment at the primary site?

How you do business is yet another consideration. Will every position and every line be recorded, or only a specified number. Do you want to record pre-pickup audio or only conversations after the call is answered. Is instant replay a desired feature. If so, is it part of this system, a stand-alone network, or part of another PC-based application at the telecommunicator desktop. Where disparate applications must be tied together, how does this work. Are additional interfaces needed. Is cabling required. Will there be software and/or labor charges not identified in the quote. Unless you have internal technical services staff that are qualified to perform the scope of work, the safe term to use on most procurements is “turnkey”; meaning you want to have a completely functional recording device at a specified, all inclusive price.

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Related to this is the issue of time synchronization. How and where will the recorders get their time? Is there a built in clock? Can they obtain it from CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) or the telephone system, or will a separate network clock be required? If you already have a network time standard, are the devices proposed compatible. The need to have all record keeping devices in synchronization cannot be overemphasized. It is not an easy or pleasant task to explain to the media or a jury why the dispatch and arrival timestamps in CAD need to be adjusted by a few minutes and a couple of seconds because the time on the telephone logger is different.

There are several key components of your service provision that also bear scrutiny. One critical issue is that of storage; how long do you need to keep your records. Obviously, the more months you need, the more capacity you need, and likely the more it will cost. But even this requires further definition. Availability of information can be looked at from both the perspective of instant replay, as well as from overall records that may even include radio channels that are not typically monitored by dispatch.

Some desktop applications allow for a complete search of online audio, while those at telecommunicator positions are often defined by specified timeframes and limited to conversations generated at that position. Here, too, these parameters must be defined, as must the scope of recall. Is the requirement for telephone only, or does it include radio? If radio is included, does that mean select audio, unselect audio, or something different? What type of controls are required? In contrast to the formerly limited recall, play and rewind functionality, the ability to change speeds, focus on words and phrases, and select one of many calls ought to be standard fare.

The other key discussion should revolve around data which is immediately accessible versus that which is stored in an archival format. How many days, months, or years do you need at your fingertips? When does active data move to your archive, and how does it migrate? Is there an automatic update via a network connection, or does your system administrator have to copy it to another media then manually reload? And, does this archival server provide any additional functions, such as a backup to your primary device, or a host for Management Information Systems (MIS) applications?

Throughout this article, I have consciously referred to “systems,” “servers,” “applications,” and “networks” as often as I have used the term “recorder,” because these phrases more accurately describe computers. And, like the bulk of the other tools in our tool chest, recorders are now essentially microprocessors. Having been in this business before recording, it’s hard to believe that we once rejected it as an invasion of our privacy and an intimation that we didn’t know what we were doing. I have seen the progression from acquiring wider tapes and endless-loop playbacks, through so-called “bubble memory,” to today’s digital smorgasbord of options.

Since technology, and often our service population, keeps growing, it is extremely important to acquire a recording system that will meet these needs for several years to come. While the word several can be defined locally, I’m sure that none of us wants to buy something that is essentially obsolete before it gets installed.

To this end, there are more questions that can be directed toward suppliers. How old is your current technology? When do you expect a platform change? How often is software upgraded, and at what cost, if any? What type of service is available, and how can critical problems be escalated toward resolution? What are the costs of this service for the first through the fifth year? What warranty is offered? Sometimes what looks like a bargain at first blush becomes less attractive when the expenses of long-term ownerships are compared.

How long are parts guaranteed to be available? Is any portion of the device proprietary, or can some or all of the components be purchased elsewhere over-the-counter? Will the software source code be placed in escrow in case the company goes bankrupt or out of business? If this were to occur near the end of the life cycle, the damage is minimized. However, if production ceased shortly after acquisition, this single caveat could have a significant impact for the buyer. Similarly, will service contracts be honored or be assignable if the provider is absorbed by a conglomerate? Not every vendor will agree to every request, and it’s up to you to determine which ones may be deal killers. While you’re at it, it’s wise to specify that any legal disputes will first go to mediation, then to an appropriate court in your state. Most standard manufacturer’s contracts use their home office location as the venue of choice. If push comes to shove, you probably don’t want to fly halfway across the country to resolve the issue.

Future growth can also be defined by population, call volume, and service expansion predications. How many calls do you anticipate handling in 2013? Will you have more telecommunicators, or facilities? How will what you purchase in 2008 move forward with your operation, and at what cost? How many channels can the system accommodate, and how does it expand? Is it simply a matter of plugging a card into the delivered hardware, or are additional racks, servers, and power supplies going to be needed simply to add one or two more telephones or consoles? Buying devices that are already “maxed out” is bad business.

Talk of the future must surely also bring us to talk of Next Generation 9-1-1, and all of the equipment and services associated with this initiative. Just as we can no longer define a telephone as a device that hangs on the wall connected to wires, we can no longer identify a 9-1-1 call as simply audio. The recording system of the future must be able to seamlessly receive and store requests for emergency assistance that include text messages, telematics data, photos, and motion pictures. Even today, the need to capture latitude and longitude information from wireless calls creates a standard beyond just tracking ANI (Automatic Number Information) and ALI (Automatic Location Information).

As radio applications in the 700 MHz band become more popular, an increasing number of trunked radio systems will likely appear, as will new networks designed to handle data. Our telephones are moving toward VoIP (Voice over Internet Provider), and operate far differently than their analog ancestors. These are but a few examples of the diversity required from modern recorders.

But, getting the information in is just the beginning. Getting it out is equally important. The best records in the world are of little use if they can not be easily located and quickly distributed. That’s why questions about record retrieval should also be asked. The most important ones deal with the ability to search by common parameters such as day of week, time of day, or telephone number. But, as we move forward, a myriad of other conditionals will be needed. Additionally, we must consider how these records will be duplicated, distributed, and authenticated, as well as ensuring that the appropriate level of protection from illegal access is provided.

As always, it’s a good practice to have interested vendors perform a demonstration of their products to the key decision makers on your staff, and to talk to other agencies who use their services. The time taken to define your needs and compare them to the current offerings is well worth the effort; because, for the record, the line, “Play it again, Sam,” was never once uttered anywhere in Casablanca. What Bogart really said was, “Play it Sam, play… [As Time Goes By]” If one of the most famous actors of all times appearing in one of the most popular movies of all time can be misquoted by millions of people for more than 65 years, then obviously so can your telecommunicators; all the more reason for you to have a reliable recording system.

Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 35 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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