9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Internet Use in Emergency Communications Centers

Excerpts from Public Safety Communications Magazine February 2005
Written by Candy Rostan, who has nearly 19 years' experience in dispatching public safety and answering emergency phone calls, she supervises a small city's combined police/fire/EMS dispatch center.

Back in the 1980s, when I started working as a state police dispatcher, we did not use the computer nearly as much as we do today. We had a ledger, which served as our blotter, to record requests for service to which we dispatched patrols. Many agencies have replaced their blotters with CAD and RMS systems. We still use a statewide computer to run driver's licenses, registrations or "wants and warrants," but now there are so many additional automated duties in dispatch centers that most agencies have multiple -- some as many as five or six -- screens to monitor at each dispatch position.

If you have Internet access on same PC as your CAD, it is important to have excellent anti-virus protection and install a firewall between your CAD and Internet-access programs. If you connect your CAD system to the statewide computer system, contact the state's computer administrator to see what is required for a firewall or for a "gateway" procedure.

These days, when our server is down even briefly, I really miss it. Here are some other things for which we have used the Internet:
  • We look up phone numbers or addresses for people the police are trying to find. The "reverse look-up" or "crisscross" directory frequently assists police in investigations. We can find an address quickly and easily in many cases if we have only the phone number by inputting the calling number into the reverse look-up section on Internet phone-directory sites. It is much faster than calling telephone-company security offices and does not abuse our access-privilege agreement, as we do not go into the 911 ANI/ALI database unless all else fails.
  • We access national news Web sites. We can sign up for news alerts that provide up-to-the-minute reports when terror-alert levels are changed or important news breaks.
  • We used the Internet to research the recent SARS outbreak, West Nile virus, meningitis, and a suspected tuberculosis exposure in our own center. We found information from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and from other health-department sites on handling suspicious-package reports during the anthrax contamination of U.S. government office buildings. Online articles and health-department Web sites taught us how dispatchers could play a part in preventing the spread of disease and enhance responder safety.
  • When we were resetting programmable alarms for Daylight Savings Time, we searched online to find out how many hours "Zulu time" differs from our time zone. In our area, ours is one of the few offices open at 2 a.m., so we cannot always just call someone and ask. Online, we can find answers to nearly any question by going to ask.com and asking the "Internet Butler" at Ask Jeeves. To find Zulu time, we simply typed in the question, "What is Zulu time?"
  • We monitor storm reports and watch live weather radar in our area, as well as receive the readings a Buffalo-based TV station gathers atop area schools. We also visit the National Weather Service's Web site to track storms headed for our area. Most TV stations have weather links on which you can enter your own zip code and receive local weather. We all know how valuable good weather information can be while firefighters are working a fire or trying to evacuate an area after a HAZMAT spill. Wind speeds and wind direction are critical, as are the temperature, weather warnings and humidity readings.
  • In the middle of the night, we have downloaded warranty information or instruction manuals for our equipment by going to the appropriate Web sites and clicking the tech-support links there. On many companies' sites, you can chat online with repair technicians, who will talk you through some problems to avoid expensive repair visits. Most companies list their phone numbers or those of their authorized repair-service centers, where you might find additional help.
  • We print online forms for ordering and other purposes. We order many supplies online.
  • We have found sample training manuals or examples of other agency manuals that provide suggestions for use in other agencies. They also let you see if you have left anything out of your own training or orientation manuals.
  • Employee-assistance programs often have Web sites with helpful ideas to combat work stress or to manage time so work seems less stressful. Health-insurance sites also have good information on how to keep employees healthy and fit.
  • E-mail and the Internet are the most valuable tools for law-enforcement agencies, because the Internet makes it so easy to share more than just wanted posters or faxed warrants. Dispatchers can receive information about area investigations, support one another, seek advice, print photos of suspects or share law-enforcement-sensitive information that would be inappropriate to transmit in NCIC messages or statewide-computer teletype messages. This keeps law enforcement advised of other area activities that might relate to their cases, help solve a case or keep officers safe
  • Most state-police computer centers can run special searches that are not readily available over NCIC. One of our searches lets us find, for example, every red pickup truck registered in certain counties or perhaps a list of all license plates that start with the letters "CWV" in a given area.
  • We have used the online language translator on Altavista.com when foreign visitors or users of sign language have been in the station and had trouble making their needs known to us. This translation service is free to everyone, so the price is right for our strained budgets! (We have used Altavista's "ANYWHO" link as a telephone-book reference and a reverse look-up site, too.)
  • To search for grants and other funding, as well as find the best deal on office supplies, equipment and batteries. We order supplies online through a large office-supply company that offers reduced pricing or "state bid" pricing. We find federal procurement sites online, also.
  • We get the latest news from the FCC, APCO, ADA and many other government training or public safety informational sites. The FCC site (fcc.gov) has links that enable centers to renew their licenses online and their tech-support line is helpful. Many magazines catalog their articles online, which makes researching almost any topic much easier. You can research HIPAA regulations and recommendations by typing "HIPAA" into a Google search and clicking on the related links.
  • Some use greeting-card sites to print cards for staff members celebrating birthdays and other occasions. Greeting-card sites are installing "spyware" or "ad-ware" on their customer's hard drives, in exchange for allowing surfers to use their card-creating software for free, so your agency may not allow this activity.
  • We find EMD articles to use toward recertification from a number of dispatch-related magazine sites. APCO maintains a Web site (apcointl.org) where you can find information on its training programs and products. Dispatch Monthly, 911 Magazine and Firehouse Magazine all have Web sites, as do many other publications and newspapers. Government sites, such as fema.gov, have training links and offer some free training programs online. You can search your state's department-of-state Web site. (If you are unsure if a magazine has a Web site, go to google.com and, in the search block, type the words "training and 911," "dispatcher training" or the name of the magazine you want to view. If you are researching a specific topic, such as "dispatchers and stress," just type that in the search block and hit the return (or enter) key.) On some sites, dispatchers can train by listening to actual 911 calls online, then discuss whether the calls were handled correctly and why (or why not). Some dispatch centers have their own Web sites where you can get new ideas or support from other dispatchers for work issues. Many agencies show pictures of their centers. (To find sample calls online, type "live 9-1-1 calls" into a Google search and you will find many sites that have them.)
  • While planning to remodel our center, we searched online business sites to find office furniture and map out our center's floor plans.
  • I use e-mail as a quick tool to get messages to all dispatchers at once or to send individual messages to one or more dispatchers. Our data-processing department set up a group-address site for all dispatchers, so all we have to type in the address line is "dispatchers" for everyone to receive the same message. If you use the address-book function on your e-mail program, you can also create groups of employees, such as "evening dispatchers" or "B-line dispatchers," as needed. If you encourage dispatchers to sign on at least once a shift to receive their e-mail, it will soon become a habit. It is easy to attach a "return receipt request," "tell me when this message has been read," or a follow-up flag to ensure that employees receive important messages and that you remember to follow up.
  • We help motorists who ask for driving directions. Lycos.com has door-to-door driving directions and maps, as do mapquest.com, and expedia.com, to name a few. These sites are handy also when employees must travel to out-of-town locations, because the mileage from point to point is detailed on the instructions.
  • We track whether "Avoidable Alarm Reports" have been submitted by our dispatchers, then follow up to see whether customers have paid.
  • We flag e-mails for follow-up on a later date, to be sure a situation has been corrected or a task has been completed.

Education and Funding

You can further your career by taking online training courses. You can even complete an accredited college-degree program while rotating shifts and taking online courses.

Many college programs offer accelerated degree programs off campus, where the teachers do the commuting and you attend class locally one night a week. Ask colleges in your area if they have programs that coincide with your normal days off. If not and if you are a structured self-starter, the online option may suit you best.

You do not have to log on at a certain time of day to take most of these Internet offerings. You can sign on when you are off duty and complete your assignments. If you do log on during the scheduled class time, you can chat online with the instructor or your classmates.

You can look for grants to pay for your education by searching Google or any other search engine, using the key words "tuition assistance." And check out Fastweb.com or scholarshipandgrantguide.com. (Also, a great place to look for scholarships is your local high school's guidance office, although that may not be available online.)

To look for public safety dispatching courses, search APCO's Virtual Institute at apcointl.org/institute/ to see the many courses and inexpensive Webinars APCO offers online.

More Uses

To research a person's background, enter his or her name into yahoo.com to receive a biography. You will get a lot of information if that person's name has been in the newspaper for any reason or if he or she holds any type of public office.

Another way of looking for information about people or of finding a certain person is via a "people search" on the Internet, using any search engine. (Note: AltaVista's "AnyWho" site is excellent for this.)

During emergencies, you can use company Web sites to reach experts on their products. This is useful if one of their trucks has spilled an unidentified substance or if it has caught fire.

Travel sites post traveler warnings for your employees traveling out of the country. Go to travelang.com, orbitz.com or travel.state.gov to look for U.S. State Department warnings or to find medical assistance recommendations. There is also a U.S. Customs link at travel.state.gov that will help you if you are taking anything other than clothing over the U.S. border with you and if you need to know what kind of personal identification is required for you or your children at the border. Also, if an employee is out of the country and needs medical treatment, these sites can be very helpful, as can the U.S. embassy in the country he or she is visiting.

You can find travel information at travelocity.com, hotels.com, cheaptickets.com, priceline.com and the Web sites for all the airlines.

Because screensaver downloads and Internet games are especially susceptible to spyware or ad-ware, we recommend employees avoid surfing those sites. Some centers provide game software on disks that have been scanned for viruses and spyware. Others forbid surfing to game sites or screensaver sites, by blocking them to restrict access. Even where allowed, most centers restrict game-playing to break times or when phone and radio traffic are slow. You know how boring and sleep-inducing an extremely slow night at work can be. I would prefer to have an alert game-playing dispatcher answer my emergency call for help, rather than one who was about to doze off in boredom!

I've no doubt omitted many other uses. I firmly believe the Internet is one of our most valuable tools, if it is properly managed.

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