911 center gets computer-aided dispatch program

Public safety upgrade
Project manager Bob Jones talks about making the transition to the new system.

The everyday workflow of Soldotna's emergency dispatchers has been turned upside-down, as they are adjusting to the digital age.


Soldotna Public Safety Communications Center is now operating with computer-aided dispatch software. The information management tool went live the week of Sept. 19, and it has drastically changed the conditions of emergency response.

In a crowded room on the second floor of Soldotna's Emergency Response Center, dispatchers answer 911 calls and assign the appropriate response units. Their workstations consist of two keyboards and six computer screens. Each screen contains critical data and no desk space is spared among the abundant amount of hardware.

When a dispatcher takes a call the preferred method of data entry is typing in a specific command line into the new CAD software. This automates information used by law enforcement and emergency medical responders handling the situations.

In the past -- just a couple weeks ago -- dispatchers would use radio logs noting the time of the call, the caller and additional pertinent information. Dispatchers would literally yell across the room to ask questions, such as the whereabouts of a trooper, communications center manager Tammy Goggia said.

"All the agencies that consist of hundreds of units, these guys have to know where they are at all times. It's hard to get your mind around that in a pencil and paper world," Bob Jones, project manager, said.

The CAD software helps to automate the entry, storage and retrieval of information essential for handling requests for assistance from Kenai Peninsula residents, and tracking the activities of law enforcement, fire and emergency medical responders.

Each dispatcher on-shift can view incoming calls and information being input by coworkers in real time, replacing the need to yell across the room.

The middle computer screen at the workstation contains multi-colored lines that represent different calls for service.

Another screen is stacked on top of the middle screen, displaying a digital map, which can be viewed as a satellite image or as a graphic representation. Using radio designator numbers, the map displays where units are in real time.

"Each of these different color lines represents different calls for service we're handling right now. If there are medical calls they'd be down in this screen, anything that's pending and needs to be dispatched are up in this window and any units at traffic stops are in this window," shift supervisor Suzanne Hall said. "Really and truly at a glance you can walk in here and sit down and know what the situation is immediately."

Acquisition of the new software has been years coming, and the Peninsula is late to the update in technology. Bethel, a small community in Southwestern Alaska, has been using CAD technology since 1994.

"We're way behind. Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau have had CAD for years," Jones said.

Equipping the Peninsula with the technology was possible through the acquisition of two grants, one from the Department of Homeland Security and a stimulus grant via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The two grants totaled approximately $1.4 million, but the project itself cost less than $1 million.

The CAD software acquired through New World Systems cost approximately $450,000. The remainder of the grant money was spent on hardware and connecting with criminal databases.

Another benefit of the new technology, by connecting with federal and state criminal databases the quality of response and responder safety is enhanced. It alerts responders of potential dangerous or hazardous situations based on prior incidents, warrants and previous medical responses.

The foundation has been laid for further development toward public safety in the Peninsula. The CAD software manages units' status and maximizes resources by enhancing response times, but information is still relayed over radio.

There is a mobile component that uses the same framework, allowing law enforcement and medical responders to access dispatch information instantly through a wireless connection.

Organizations cannot have mobile capability without CAD, and the foundation needs to be placed first, Jones said.

"Buying mobile units and getting wireless in the units," Jones said. "Local departments will look for funding sources, which are getting hard to come by, but there are still sources out there for public safety."

Several fire departments are currently trying to acquire funds to get the mobile data terminals, according to Goggia.


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