9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Eyes On The Scene: Video in the Comm Center

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, April 2013
Written by Kelly Sharp.  She has been a 9-1-1 training officer for nearly 20 years.  She holds a Master's degree in education and is on the part-time faculty for the Portland Oregon Community College's Emergency Telecommunications 9-1-1 Dispatcher Program.

I expected it to be another Tuesday at the office.  Just another round of the same old fights, medicals and accidents.  Never did I think I would end up as part of a team working a multi-jurisdictional pursuit of a bank robber who carjacked people across two cities, outran the officers and disappeared.  We thought we had lost him, right up until the local news helicopter caught sight of the vehicle.  Then the great video chase was on.

The helicopter pilot relayed street information to the dispatch supervisor, who then updated the call.  The police dispatcher watched the live feed as "breaking news" on the television, enabling her to describe each turn of the stolen vehicle to the officers.  The suspect, who thought he was safe, was tackled by officers who snuck up behind him -- and cheers broke out across the dispatch floor.

The media, a comm center and law enforcement all working together?  Not something one sees every day.  But it worked.  It might have been messy and complicated as information travelled from helicopter pilot to news anchor to supervisor to dispatcher to officer, but in the end it was Law Enforcement 1, Bad Guy 0.

Wouldn't it be great if that kind of vidoe technology were available all the time?  Imagine a comm center where dispatchers could provide officers with real-time movements of a suspect.  Have a bad guy who took off on foot and then jumped into a car?  The telecommunicator watching the camera relays the vehicle description and direction of travel as fast as it happens.  Have issues with juveniles tagging the park?  Get it on tape, and off to jail they go.  Problems with fights at the local bar every Saturday night?  No longer will the bartender have to run in and out to call back with updates.  Instead, telecommunicators can provide the information as it happens.

Think it sounds like science fiction?  It's not.  In fact, it's already happening in centers across the U.S.  Video surveillance is the latest emerging technology to enter the dispatch world and it may just change how PSAPs do business.

According to Diamond Chaflawee, director of marketing and business development for public safety business for NICE Systems, Inc., it is not possible for agencies to access information as it happens from cameras typically monitored in the city control center or city video monitoring center.  Depending on how the system is set up, the dispatcher can watch the video stream directly or the camera operator in the monitoring center can relay what they are seeing on the video to the PSAP by phone.  Either way, the dispatch staff now has eyes on locations all around the city, using information provided by everyone from public agencies to the department of transportation to private organizations.  It's the next step in NG9-1-1, and agencies around the country are catching on.

In Chicago, dispatchers and calltakers have had access to Police Observation Devices (POD), public safety cameras used specifically for crime reduction, since 2003, according to Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) spokesperson Therese Kordelewski.  Plus, they have access to additional information from more than 20,000 cameras located around the city.

"Dispatch staff has the capability to view real-time video from cameras located near calls for service," Kordelewski said.  "Real-time video is also accessible by police officers at any police district or the police fusion center, and by OEMC and police personnel in the city's operations center (OC), a 24-hour center staffed by multiple city agencies for event monitoring and response coordination."

And it's not just the big cities using the new tech.  The dispatchers in Bethlehem, Pa., population 75,000, have had access to a total of 58 cameras around the city for the past five years according to Robert Haffner, the 9-1-1 director for city of Bethlehem.  "We sort the cameras based on geographically groupings," Haffner explained.  "It's gotten to the  point where not only do they (the dispatchers) know where the cameras are, they can track individuals through multiple cameras and follow them for officers to then catch up."

Having the cameras available throughout the city is one thing, but being able to use all that information in the comm center is another.  That's where companies like NICE Systems Inc. come in, providing recording equipment to catch the scene on video, then send that information via broadband and LTE technologies using a platform that connects the video from one organization to the CAD system of the dispatch center.  This allows the outside agency to "push" the video to the agency's CAD system, where the dispatcher can send it on to the officer's computer.  With this system, everyone sees the same information in real time.

Once a vendor is selected and the platform to connect all the players is in place, anything goes.  Video surveillance, license plate recognition, chemical spill alerts, if it can be recorded it can be forwarded into dispatch.  Another benefit: Many of the vidoe systems are set up with a two-way network.  Not only can the outside agency send information in, but the dispatcher also has the ability to grab control of the cameras based on location.  Need to see that crash on the freeway?  Click a button, and voila, it loads right onto the CAD screen.

Chicago dispatchers can view video feed from the POD cameras right on the monitor at their dispatch position.  But what if there are no PODs nearby?  No problem.  They can also review information from camera operators in other monitoring centers via police radio or through the CAD console, said Kordelewski.

"We can deploy camera access to mobile devices such as laptops, iPhones, BlackBerries and tablet devices using commercial cellular broadband connections for real-time access in the field," she said.

Bethlehem has a similar system, with 24-inch screens at four positions on the dispatch floor.  If everyone needs to see the show, staff can project the video to one of two 60-inch monitors up on the wall of the comm center.

It's a complex-sounding process that adds a vital tool to the dispatch toolbox for managing responses and resources.  "I think it's very important.  I think it's adding a lot of value for the dispatcher to be able to see what's going on before they coordinate and dispatch the units to the scene.  It enhances significantly their situational awareness," Chaflawee said.

For the dispatcher or calltaker, video surveillance can be a win/win.  Think about the typical Saturday night fight call.  One caller says it's 12 people fighting with machetes and the other caller says there are three people punching each other with 10 spectators standing around cheering.  Before the availability of cameras in the comm center, the calltaker's only option was to enter all the conflicting information and let the responders sort it out when they got there.  But by using video surveillance, they can get a more accurate idea of what is really going on.

Or take that minor vehicle accident called in by a cell caller who saw it for all of 3.2 seconds as he drove by.  When dispatchers use a city traffic video passed to them by the department of transportation, they can see it's actually three cars and a body lying in the street.  They relay that information to the fire or EMS units who can use it to determine if they want to increase their response.

Then there is the whole officer safety thing.  Imagine an officer on a traffic stop near the local Walmart.  Before, the only way a dispatcher would know there was a problem was if the officer yelped for help on the radio.  But now the dispatcher can see the officer via the parking lot camera, sending additional units if needed without having to wait for an emergency alert.

"We've had situations where, because of the observations of the dispatcher, the officers were made aware of potential life-threatening situations that they didn't realize were developing because they were preoccupied.  Our police like that," Haffner said.  "Now, it has gotten to the point where once we dispatch a call the officers are saying, 'Do we have a camera in that area, and can you see what you can find?'"

Of course, the thought of adding camera monitoring duties to any overworked, understaffed dispatch center is certain to result in howls of protest.  It could mean new equipment, new training and new responsibilities.  "Are you kidding me?" they may rage.  "When will I learn it? How will I work it? What do you mean I'm going to just sit and look at cameras? What do you think I am - a security guard?"

Haffner admits there was some reluctance when the cameras were initially added, but concerns about the workload have lessened as the staff has become accustomed to the benefits of having them.  "What we've found is that they (the dispatchers) feel like they are actually making a difference to the officers on scene."

For example, Bethlehem had been having robberies targeting university students on the south side of town.  The 9-1-1 center received information that one had occurred within the last 15 minutes and the dispatcher working the camera was on it.

"Our dispatchers on their own took the initiative to go back 15 minutes earlier on the cameras on the south side and say, 'OK if they were here and this is where it happened, maybe they ran down this street." Haffner said.

Using the cameras, the dispatcher was able to follow the suspect right to the house he ran into and relayed that information to the responding units, who caught them red-handed.

"As a result of that arrest, (we) cleared 60 robberies on the south side of town that we would have never (otherwise) cleared because by the time our officers got there the people were already in a home.  We would have never known where they went had it not been for the cameras,"Haffner said.  Talk about teamwork.

One unexpected benefit in the use of cameras systems is in training.  With a video system synched with CAD screen recording, supervisors can monitor calls and offer immediate guidance for resource management based on what they see.  The call-review process becomes more effective overall when both supervisors and dispatchers watch the video of past events and critique the response based on what happened on scene.  This provides opportunities for employees to receive specific feedback on response issues that need imporvement as well as kudos when everything went right.

In the training environment, video recordings of actual events open up an entirely new world.  Instead of having to imagine a scene, trainees can be tasked with coming up with their own responses to the situation they are watching.  Have a trainee who is struggling with cover cars?  Use a video of a traffic stop as a practical example of what is happening on the other side of the radio.  Want to explain how to determine how many units go on a fight?  Pull up the video of the bar fight last night that spilled into the street and use it to help the trainee form a response plan.

The Bethlehem system can provide an even more complete picture.  "We can show the call come in, the dispatcher enter the call, the radio transmission dispatching the call and the camera as it records the call out on the street, and you can play that all back pretty much like a movie and then just watch the totality of the whole circumstance unfold," Haffner explained.  Imagine having the luxury of reviewing an entire event step by step to provide the most accurate feedback possible to employees.

The ability to record CAD entries can also be used to identify software problems.  Because the entire CAD screen, including the mouse pointer and command line, is recorded, the CAD vendors can now see exactly what was typed when the error occurred instead of badgering the dispatcher with the "Well what were you doing when it broke?" question.

"It really has helped us identify problems with the system or end user problems,"Haffner explained.

Cameras in the streets, video coming into dispatch centers from outside agencies, surveillance sent to cop cars, it's all part of the NG9-1-1 wave that may someday be just as routine as CAD and radios.  It's on the way, and it may be here faster than anyone expects.

"I do believe it's something we will see more and more of.  I think it could happen during your career," Chaflawee said.

So what does this mean for those on the front lines?  Someday, telecommunicators may be watching everyone and everything, all the time.  Now is the time to make sure we're ready for whatever that duty entails.