Communications, Technology

Computer-Aided Dispatch: Why “Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough

Issue 3 and Volume 21.

For most of my time as chief, our county had been on the same dated computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system.

And while it wasn’t the most advanced technology, it worked. It was good enough. So, why did we recently decide to overhaul our operations and move to a next-generation CAD system? Because I knew we could do better. Because when it comes to the safety of our community and the firefighters risking their jobs every day, “good enough” isn’t good enough.

Saginaw County is one of the busier dispatch centers in Michigan. We have 22 fire departments in the county, which spans 825 square miles. Every year, the county receives more than 350,000 911 calls with seven dispatchers.

Previously, firefighters made many of their response decisions on their arrival at the incident scene. Beyond the address, additional information on the building layout, its owners, its business, or even the surrounding area was simply not available to them prior to arrival.

Now when a citizen calls 911 for emergency assistance, reporting a fire in a multiple-level building downtown, our personnel are alerted faster with more information provided as they head to the scene. In addition to details provided by the caller, they see the location of the nearest fire hydrants, building blueprints of each floor, and even video from on scene.

Saginaw’s new PremierOne CAD system, from Motorola Solutions, brings together mapping, records information, media content, and land mobile radio functionality into our command centers. Since implementation, we’ve seen an improvement in our response efforts-reduced time to respond to incidents, better situational awareness heading to incidents, and increased safety of citizens and firefighters.

The following are five benefits our department has seen over the past year.

More Informed Decision Making

From the moment firefighters are dispatched to when they arrive on scene, dispatch can update them with critical information directly to their mobile data terminals (MDTs). Beyond the address of the incident, firefighters have access to a wealth of information, including the following:

  • Ownership and history of the building: Does the owner have a hostile history or have certain needs? Has ownership recently changed? Is the building a residence or a business? If it’s a business, what type of business? This critical information provides firefighters with line of sight and the ability to evaluate how to approach the scene before they arrive. For instance, with residences, being aware of whether the resident has a past record of violence toward public safety officials alerts our team to approach with increased caution. Or, knowing the home is occupied by an elderly couple will inform firefighters that the couple may not be as mobile and could require additional assistance once on scene. The businesses located in Saginaw County span a wide range of industries, each requiring specific responses. For example, firefighters responding to a fire at a business that contains highly flammable contents, such as an art store with pallets of paper, paints, and oils, would need to exercise increased caution in their response.
  • Building layouts: What is the structure’s layout, and what are the best entry and exit points? Do recent building permits indicate the building is undergoing renovations? We took the time in advance of our new system implementation to input blueprints and layouts of several buildings and businesses. Having this background is incredibly important for firefighters who need to enter a burning building for a rescue effort. The ability to view a building’s layout with PremierOne saves time planning how to enter it and, more importantly, increases our firefighters’ safety by providing information about potential weaknesses in key areas of the building.
  • Satellite images: Is the building situated next to potentially dangerous or vulnerable structures that could hinder response efforts? Similar to building blueprints, inputting the latest satellite images has increased our situational awareness of not just the specific incident but how it could affect the surrounding areas. For instance, is the building in close proximity to another building that could potentially risk catching fire as well? Or, does the building have potentially dangerous content or fumes that may affect the surrounding homes, businesses, or schools and require alerts to be issued or evacuations?
  • Multimedia: Are there photographs, video, and other multimedia files from a previous incident record? Dispatchers can now attach multimedia files (911 recordings, video clips, etc.) to incidents, messages, and alerts. In addition, mapping technologies enable dispatchers to share real-time video from the CAD map. Sending this information directly to a unit’s MDT greatly increases firefighters’ situational awareness and safety.

Increased Safety

Every firefighter knows that his radio is his lifeline. However, as more data become available to agencies, information is becoming a second lifeline for firefighters. We’ve taken the time to enter detailed background information about buildings and businesses into PremierOne. As a result, when firefighters are sent to a hardware store, they are automatically notified of potentially hazardous materials at that address so they can plan and make safer decisions in their response approach.

Faster Response

We can also input township information within the system, such as utilities and electrical. For instance, the location of the closest fire hydrants will be provided to first responders en route, allowing the teams to know exactly where to position their trucks with relation to the fire. It’s a simple feature, but I believe those few seconds it saves are invaluable in an industry when seconds can mean the difference between a close call and a tragedy.

Resource Allocation

For Saginaw Township, the ability to leverage mutual-aid box alarm system (MABAS) via our CAD system has been incredibly helpful. With predetermined equipment and apparatus from mutual-aid departments, the Saginaw Township Fire Department is able to easily determine deployable equipment and personnel that may be required to assist with a specific incident. We’ve found this to be invaluable during major incidents such as a large accident along a highway or major structure fires. Knowing who our neighboring agencies are and what units are available saves critical time in getting resources to the scene.

Interoperability

With the State of Michigan using a unified land mobile radio system, it was critically important for our county’s CAD system to also be interoperable. We can now communicate seamlessly with the county’s 17 police departments and emergency medical services (EMS), sharing text, photographs, and other multimedia for a coordinated response effort.

Within a few minutes, we can all update each other on a common channel. In heightened situations with several police and EMS involved where we are not already on the common channel, our firefighters can have our dispatcher patch and connect all our channels together with the click of a mouse.

Today, Saginaw County’s emergency response system is at a place that we never thought we would be five years ago. As technology evolves, we’re excited to be on a next-generation system that can grow with us to continue to provide our responders with the best situational intelligence available. Because every day, when our 80 firefighters risk their lives to save others, I can rest easy knowing they have access to the best technology available to do so.

JIM PETERSON is the chief of the Saginaw (MI) Township Fire Department. He was the first chief from Saginaw County, Michigan, to serve as president of the Michigan Fire Chief’s Association.