9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

One PSAP, to Go, Please! Disasters Don't Discriminate, So Comm Centers Must Prepare for the Worst

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2009
Written by Dave Colter, WA1ZCN, CEO of Northmark Communications, a manufacturer of field-deployable telephone and radio communications systems. He has more than 30 years' experience in public safety as a firefighter, EMT, emergency management director and disaster communications coordinator. He is also a licensed ham radio operator and member of APCO.

Disasters don't discriminate. Many public safety answering point (PSAP) facilities can be destroyed or damaged just as easily as any other building in the community. Older PSAPs are often located in buildings not specifically designed for survivability and could be rendered useless when needed most. Even modern, well-hardened facilities can suffer damage from fire, lightning damage, earthquakes or flooding. When a disaster occurs, an increasing volume of 911 calls must still be taken and help must be dispatched, even if the primary PSAP has been damaged or destroyed. The public expects you to be there, no matter what. Your agency must have a contingency plan in place to deal quickly and effectively with any loss of functionality. Many PSAPs have a sister facility in a neighboring jurisdiction to which they can shift calls in an emergency. But what happens if the emergency has affected them as well?

Most smaller agencies simply can't afford to set aside valuable space and funds for a permanent backup PSAP facility. Fortunately, there's a simple way to solve to problem without breaking the budget. It's called the "PSAP in a Box." When a primary 911 PSAP has been destroyed or becomes unsafe, a portable "PSAP in a box" can help ensure continued emergency response. Storing all required supplies and equipment in sturdy containers allows them to be moved and set up at a safe location quickly and efficiently. Contingency PSAP sites should be chosen carefully, based on safety, suitability and access. Radio, telephone and Internet communications are critical to success and should be well thought out and regularly tested. The entire portable PSAP should be used and tested in an annual full-scale drill.

When disaster strikes, simply take your portable PSAP and move to a predesignated alternate location. Here's how it might work for you.

The Bare Bones Approach

Relocating or duplicating 100% of your PSAPs capabilities may not be possible. For one thing, the ANI/ALI data feeds can't be easily rerouted or forwarded to an alternate location. Your full computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system probably isn't portable either. However, the most important functions during a disaster are to take calls and dispatch units in the field. For that, you need only to be able to answer 911 calls and communicate via radio. Those two functions are more easily relocated at a moment's notice.

Packaging Your Portable PSAP

You might call this the "PSAP-in-a-Box" approach - well, a number of boxes really. The boxes will contain all the equipment, supplies and materials necessary to open and operate the PSAP at a temporary location. Boxes should be clearly labeled, and the contents updated at least once each year. They can be stored in any easily accessible, safe, secure location.

The boxes might contain some or all of the following items, depending on your needs:

  • Forms;
  • Hardbound log books (for last resort event and call logging);
  • Official stationary;
  • Envelopes;
  • Empty three-ring view binders;
  • Legal pads;
  • PSAP door and direction signs (laminated);
  • Standard copy paper;
  • Three-hole pre-punched copy paper;
  • Pens, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners, rulers, scissors, 3-hole punch;
  • Staplers, pushpins, staples, paper clips, cellophane tape, etc,;
  • Dry erase markers and erasers (or chalk and erasers, as needed);
  • Desk calculators;
  • Battery-operated wall clock(s);
  • Flashlights;
  • Spare batteries for everything that needs them;
  • Generic self-inking rubber stamps (Confidential, Copy, Faxed, Time/Date, etc.);
  • Multiple copies of your emergency operations plan;
  • Maps with clear plastic overlays;
  • Local and nearby telephone directories;
  • Disaster resource contact information;
  • Departmental telephone directories;
  • Emergency call-up lists with home/cell phone numbers of all elected officials, employees and other key community members;
  • Portable PBX telephone system;
  • Portable two-way radio base stations for each agency, with antennas;
  • Laptop computers, network switch, connecting cables;
  • Copies of key software, data bases, forms and other data on CD-ROMs or removable hard drives;
  • Ink jet printers and spare ink cartridges;
  • Fax machine (plain paper type), extra toner cartridge;
  • Extension cords and plug strips, small task lamps;
  • Keys to the facilities, including exterior doors, utility rooms, breaker panels, etc,; and
  • Emergency food and beverage starter supplies.

The list looks long, but the contents should fit into several large plastic storage tubs, depending on the volume of supplies. Avoid the temptation to leave out certain items using the logic that you can use materials already stocked for daily use at the temporary PSAP site. Remember Murphy's law? If you need it they'll have just run out, or it will be locked up in a supply closet. During an emergency, you don't have time to reorder or hunt for supplies; you need them now.

Likewise, avoid planning to put certain items into the portalbe PSAP boxes at the last moment. Chances are that they'll be forgotten, locked in someone's office or simply not found. If you must do this with certain items, be sure a list of the items and their locations is firmly secured to the cover of the box in a plastic sheet protector. Clearly label the list "MISSING ITEMS" in large, difficult to miss letters. In fact, it's a good idea to tape a contents inventory checklist (in a plastic sheet protector) to the cover or end of each box. At least once a year, inventory the boxes to be sure everything is there and in good condition, and update any information or materials. Although no one should ever raid these boxes for supplies, it does happen.

The best boxes are the heavy-duty soft plastic storage tubs with solid snap-on lids, such as those by Rubbermaid, Sterilie and TuckerTote. These will help keep the contents clean and dry, and can be safely stacked. Plastic boxes with hinged split lids are not as durable and won't keep out dust and water. Cardboard file boxes, while cheaper, are not strong or durable enough.


All PSAPs depend on computers for their daily work. This is no different during an emergency. The simplest solution is to use one or more laptop computers, preloaded with any required software. The computers can be used on a daily basis (but should remain in the office and never go home with anyone) or be kept in ready reserve. Critical files and static databases that would be needed during an emergency should be regularly backed up onto CD-ROMs and kept with the laptops or in one of the portable PSAP boxes. Dynamic databases (those that are continually updated) can be mirrored to a portable USB hard or flash drive and taken with you. If passwords are required for computer access, be sure all key personnel know the passwords or keep written copies in a sealed envelope in one of the boxes. Remember Murphy? If only one person knows the passwords, that person will be unavailable the day the storm hits.

Choosing Temporary PSAP Sites

One or more locations should be chosen and prepared well in advance. It might seem obvious, but sites that are near rivers or the coast, in flood plains, on steep hillsides or are difficult to reach are probably not good choices. Road access is also critical; could flooding or mudslides also isolate the site?

Buildings should be structurally sound and able to survive most likely disasters. Good candidates include school classrooms, conference room, fire department training or meeting facilities, and even nongovernment facilities, and even nongovernment facilities, such as church and hospital meeting rooms. These rooms often have items needed for a PSAP, such as white boards on the walls, tables, plenty of chairs and, sometimes, a kitchen and showers. If possible, avoid rooms with outside windows exposed to prevailig storm winds or find ways to quickly board them up. Be sure that at least two independent emergency exits are available.

A permanently installed backup generator with a large fuel supply is a real plus because it saves time bringing in and hooking up portables and running extension cords. Many schools and government buildings already have them. Be sure the generator actually powers the lights and outlets in the areas you'll need to occupy, the life safety systems and any IT or other systems you might need to use, because many generators power only a limited number of critical circuits. Also, find out if it's large enough to handle all of your needs in addition to its normal load. Any permanent or portable generator must be regularly tested under full-operating load, serviced at least once ayear and supplied with adequate fuel.

Telephone Service

Telephone landlines should be preinstalled at each potential PSAP site, because the odds of getting the telephone company to intall them at the last moemts with a disaster in progress are near zero. Lines should be installed to jacks in the PSAP room, preferably in a lockbox to prevent unauthorized use. Keys or combinations for the lockbox should be kept in one or more of the portable PSAP boxes. Depending on local phone company tariffs, you may be able to pay a minimum "keep alive" fee, with the ability to quickly convert to full service with a phone call.

Non-public telephone numbers should be distributed to any agency or person who will need them well in advance, but not published where the public can find them. An appropriate number of lines in a hunt group can be designated for 911 trunks. Other lines can be designated for administrative and fax calls. When the temporary facility is to be opened, a call to your telephone company's emergency operations center will allow your calls to be redirected to the temporary site's lines. Prior planning and coordination with the telephone company is vital; don't assume anything will just happen.

If you aren't already signed up for the FCC's Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP) program, do it today. Just being a 911 center doesn't guarantee a fast response from many phone companies. But with TSP, your calls for emergency service are automatically moved to a high-priority pool. Signing up is easy, and the recurring cost is low, so don't delay. To get started, call the National Communication Service TSP Program Office at 866/627-2255.

A portable PSAP telephone system, such as the Northmark Communications DTS1824P, MPRI Sherpa, or Zetron 3200, lets you have office-style telephone features almost anywhere. On-site set up can be done by one or two people in a few minutes. For a very low-budget approach, you can simply plug in a bunch or regular phones, one per line. You won't have intercom, or the ability to transfer calls, or to put calls on hold, but it does work.

If the operation of landlines can't be adequately ensured during a disaster, consider purchasing special cellular or satellite phone base stations. These are designed to connect to either a PBX system or a regular telephone. Examples include the Telular SX5c CDMA/GSM cellular base station and Northmark Communications Sky Connect II Iridium satellite base station. Cellular service can work well if sites outside the affected area can be reached with high-gain Yagi antennas or if the emergency is of a limited scope. Telular cellular base stations are available in rack mount banks providing up to eight lines, fed with a common antenna. Although cellular service might work for 911 backup in certain circumstances, satellite service would be far too costly at up to $1.50 per minute plus long-distance charges. The primary use for this service is last-resort interagency communication, such as for calling the governor for help or contacting telephone repair. Handheld satellite telephones are not a great alternative for PSAP use, because they require the user to stand out in the weather to make and receive calls. No one wants to stand in the storm waiting for a call back from the governor's aide.

As with landline telephone service, cellular and satellite accounts and service need to be established well in advance of any need. Last-minute service activations are nearly impossible, especially on nights and weekends. The minimum annual fees are cheap insurance that the service will be available on a moment's notice.

If you're considering voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephones or trunks for your PSAP, be sure you have a number of trained IT technicians on staff. Contrary to many people's expectations, these are not simple plug-and-play devices that can be set up quickly by anyone under adverse conditions. Internet connections are also among the first to fail during a major disaster. Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) is far more robust and often keeps working even when all the other utilities are long dead.

Radio Communications

The PSAP boxes should contain both agency-specific and interoperability radios, as dictated by your emergency communications plan. The simplest setup includes a suitable mobile radio attached to an AC power supply. Some AC power supplies, such as the Astron RS-12ABB, provide for the connection of a marine deep-cycle backup battery to keep radios operating during generator refueling. Several firms offer portable radio dispatch consoles, custom built for your application. For antennas, choose lightweight, medium-gain models that can easily be disassembled and stored in a rugged carry case. Readily available PA speaker tripods use with sadbag ballast or parachute cord guy-lines make excellent portable antenna suppors. Antennas and cables can also be permanently installed at each potential PSAP site to save time. Be sure to space antennas as far apart as possible to avoid interference. Consult with a radio professional regarding the best equipment choices for your application.

Use a separate radio for every agency so that each channel can be monitored full time, and calls responded to quickly. Channel-scanning arrangement on multi-channel radios may save money, but will result in missed calls with potentially serious results.

Internet Access

If the temporary site has a wired or wireless Ethernet, work with the site's IT staff to be sure immediate access will be possible without further action on their part. Wireless network access or security codes should be pre-programmed into all PSAP computers and tested. DSL or TI service will be more reliable during an emergency than CATV broadband due to the way the distribution systems are powered. If the site's service is likely to fail during a disaster, consider alternate means, such as a portable satellite earth station. Commercial-grade low-and high-speed service is available from a number of providers, but like telephone service it needs to be contracted for well in advance.

Storing a Portable PSAP

The best location would be one that is as invulnerable as possible to sudden damage. If your primary concern is tornadoes, an easily accessed below-ground shelter might be best. In a flood-prone area, that might not work. In areas where the primary danger is from storms (e.g., hurricanes and the like), which provide plenty of reaction time, the choice of storage location isn't as important. Storing your PSAP in a box in your regular PSAP facility won't work if your facility is damaged without warning, such as by fire or tornado. Ensure that several trusted people on each shift have access to the storage area to ensure that you can get it quickly when needed. Spare keys should be kept at locations other than the primary PSAP.

Drills & Maintenance

The portable PSAP should be periodically tested under realistic conditions as part of a full-scale drill. Not only does this help ensure that you have packed everything you need, but it gets your staff used to operating under emergency conditions using your agency's emergency operations plan and equipment, and that your plans and procedures work as intended. Just before the drill, any electronic equipment in the portable PSAP should be tested and maintained, and any problems fixed before returning it to storage. Don't forget to keep batteries charged year-round, and replenish any supplies you use during drills.

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