The first 911 call was made in early 1968. For some perspective, note that President Lyndon Baines Johnson occupied the White House, the Concorde supersonic passenger jet had yet to make its first test flight, a gallon of gasoline cost 35 cents, and the Vietnam War was raging.
Suffice it to say a lot has changed over the past half century to improve the way in which members of the community rally the enforcement cavalry to the scene of a calamity.
Inside the PSAP
Prior to 911 systems, panic-stricken people had to dial zero and ask the operator for police or fire. Or in some jurisdictions they had to dial a seven-digit local number—on a rotary phone while under extreme duress—in order to summon emergency assistance. Compounding matters was the fact that back then, getting a busy signal was always a strong possibility.
Today, 911 call-takers and dispatchers are an absolutely essential element in the public safety ecosystem—often performing unsung acts of heroism in immensely stressful situations.
Call-takers collect information from individuals who may be whispering, screaming, or babbling incoherently, make some semblance of sense of what they’re being told, and pass it along to the dispatchers who then do their level best to ensure that the most accurate and up-to-date information available is disseminated.
For this ballet of information gathering and distribution to occur, PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points) in the United States now look a lot like an air-traffic control room, replete with wrap-around computer stations on the desks and big-screen television monitors lining the walls. Behind it all is incalculably more computing power than NASA’s flight control center when Apollo 8 made its historic orbit around the moon in late 1968.
Today, one of the companies equipping mission-critical emergency communicators with the technology and tools they need is CentralSquare Technologies. That company’s CAD Enterprise solution provides “CAD to CAD functionality and a unified suite of solutions from the 911 call through case closure,” according to company literature.
CentralSquare Chief Product Officer Steve Mayes explains, “It took many years for PSAPs to actually implement 911—there were many places that were still relying on those seven-digit numbers. They were writing out dispatch cards, handing those from call-takers to dispatchers—everything was really manual and paper-intensive at that time.”
Mayes says that the call-taking/dispatching process got more streamlined and technologically advanced with the proliferation of mobile data terminals (MDT) in squad cars in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“We’re probably on our third generation of computer-aided dispatch technologies now,” Mayes says “What you’ll find now is the CAD system is really the main integrated part of the workflow for dispatch centers today.”
CentralSquare is really an amalgamation of four different companies that—over the course of time, mergers, acquisitions and movement in the marketplace—combines all the best of the different capabilities, technologies, know-how, and a really large customer base under one corporate roof.
Mayes explains, “You’ll see us supporting a number of different solutions in the market, anywhere from smaller dispatch centers, all the way up to some of the largest tier-one, tier-zero agencies across the country. We’ve got what we think is the broadest portfolio of CAD mobile records, jail, 911 products, and we really can tailor those solutions based on the customer size and need and business processes.”
CentralSquare customers include Dallas; Arapahoe County, CO; DeKalb County, GA; Lafourche Parish County, LA; Pickens County, SC; and myriad other jurisdictions nationwide.
There is a process—really, a set of processes—that the company uses to tailor each deployment to fit the needs of the individual agency.
“It all starts with us doing the upfront work,” Mayes says. “We’ll go out and do a discovery session and really understand what the agency’s needs are—how they operate today. We’ll then bring in our technical team or we’ll run a multi-site demonstration to get the agencies familiar with the product and how it fits with their needs and their workflows.”
Mayes says that “step one is the feature-fit analysis.”
“We’ll look and see whether they’re moving from some other vendor’s product or moving from one of our products to maybe one of our cloud-based products or different technologies. We do go in and make sure that we understand where there could be potential gaps and make sure we uncover areas where we need to spend some time making sure that the new product’s going to fit in their workflow.”
The CentralSquare team then ensures that the agency personnel understand how the product fits with their stated requirements. The company then engages its professional services team to help with deployment and integration of the software.
“We’ve got a team of experts that have been doing these types of deployments for many, many years,” Mayes says. “They’ve got a very standard process to go in and do the deployment of the hardware and software and then help the agencies through the configuration.”
Mayes says that integrating within the agency’s existing environment is essential so that the agencies are ready to be effective on the solution once the technology change-over occurs.
“We do dozens and dozens of these in a year—we’ve got a very structured approach to take customers live and support them in a very successful way,” Mayes says. “We spend time to make sure we understand those requirements, because it may be something we have off the shelf and it’s an interface we’ve done before.”
Mayes adds, “We have a very large portfolio of existing interfaces. But there may be some interface work that needs to be done in order to make that happen. So we’re very thoughtful about that upfront in trying to understand everything that’s needed to be done before the customer can successfully go live with the technology.”
Verifying and Locating
According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) an estimated 240 million calls are made to 911 in the United States each year—80% of those calls come from wireless devices.
That’s a staggering—yet altogether unsurprising—number.
As a consequence, PSAP technology providers need to constantly evolve their offerings to enable those operations to keep up with the increasingly mobile nature of 911 callers.
Hurdles presented by calls made from mobile devices include pocket dials—people accidentally dial their mom and can just as easily misdial 911 on their mobile phone—as well as text-to-911, and identifying the caller’s location.
Location doesn’t just mean latitude and longitude. Increasingly, PSAPs must also discern vertical location—the “Z axis”—in order to comply with a recent FCC requirement that Commercial Mobile Radio Service (CMRS) providers supply that information to within three meters above or below “the handset for 80% of wireless E911 calls made from the z-axis capable device.”
Mayes says, “We have a capability called caller location query, which is something that we actually patented. In this case, we can text to the caller. They can accept the text. Then we can get location updates for them, even if there’s not an active 911 voice going on. That’s a way we can get better visibility to the caller’s mobile location, especially if they’re on the move on an ongoing basis.”
Mayes says that the company has the ability to add the vertical location of a caller to its offerings and that through overlaying that data with building plans, ultimately get to first responders a much more accurate location as they approach the scene.
“We’ll see significant improvements in that multi-story situation here in the near future,” Mayes says. “That additional information, I think, is where you’re going to see huge benefits over the next several years.”
As far as those accidental “pocket dial” and “hang-up” calls are concerned, Mayes says that CentralSquare has a simple and elegant solution.
“We have a feature we call abandoned text back. “We know about 80% of the calls are now coming from mobile devices. So if it’s a hang-up, instead of calling back we can actually immediately text, through our 911 equipment, that caller a message that basically asks them if they meant to call 911 or not,” Mayes says.
CentralSquare says its technology can save up to two minutes on every abandoned call with that automated outbound text that validates the misdial.
Mayes adds, “A lot of times callers are more comfortable texting back versus answering a number that they don’t know. So we found that to be highly effective in reducing the times we have to send somebody out to answer an abandoned call. Or, if it’s maybe a situation where they’d rather text back and forth versus communicate by voice, we can address that as well.”
Mayes says that he believes that one of the things that’s on the horizon for the men and women working in the PSAP is the ability to provide “alternate responses” to certain situations that don’t necessarily fit with what is now only handled as a 911 emergency.
“I think about mental health crises, where CAD will be playing an even larger role in those alternative responses and whether it is sending a crisis team as opposed to a police officer in certain situations, or making sure that you send officers with the right type of crisis training, or even sending that call information to mental health agencies for follow-up,” Mayes says. “I think you’re going to see CAD play a much bigger role in making sure that that crisis team, that mental health response is much more effective.”
Mayes believes that technology will continue to evolve that will allow responders of all kind to have access to more timely information, more updated information and information more quickly as they’re en route to the scene of a call.
Mayes adds that technology will soon enable the synthetization of data from multiple witnesses calling about the same incident.
“One of the capabilities we’re working on now is there’s so many witnesses that are using their cell phone to capture video of incidents in progress,” Mayes says. “Think about the benefits of being able to easily stream that information real time to a dispatcher.”
Mayes adds, “Being able to actually provide that same stream to the first responder—that’s something, I think, we’re going to see a lot of demand for in the near future, just having that additional situational awareness.”
The old trope that “information is power” isn’t exactly accurate. Simply possessing information is the potential for power. The appropriate application of information toward a desired goal or objective is where power really becomes real.
The men and women working the PSAP have the daunting task of turning potential power of raw information into real—often life-saving—actionable intelligence in the hands of first responders across America 24/7/365.
Those mission-critical emergency communicators rely on ever-evolving technology to provide citizens with the best possible public safety services while also feverishly working to ensure the safety of those who put their lives on the line answering the call.
Doug Wyllie is contributing web editor for POLICE.