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Dispatcher Robin Marshall takes an emergency call. Dispatchers now have five phone lines, several radio channels and four computer screens that are monitored constantly. They also operate the IDACS data system when police need background information during traffic stops and other situations. (Photos by Lee Cable)

E-911 system sees major upgrades

New equipment part of overall improvement to office

February 11, 2009
Anyone who visits the E-911 Dispatch Office in the Crawford County Judicial Complex will conclude that this is not your father's E-911.

At one time, the dispatchers used a regular telephone to receive calls and had one small radio to communicate with emergency responders like fire departments, police and ambulance services. Dispatchers used a notebook to log all calls and list which agency was dispatched and at what time.

But in the last couple of years, the center has come a long way in modernizing both equipment and methods of dispatching — and record keeping.

An almost amazing chain of events now takes place when an emergency call comes in to the center. In front of each dispatcher are several computer screens, which are part of the new CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) program used throughout the state. An emergency call triggers a short siren blast instead of a ring on one of the E-911 phones. The computer screens immediately light up. One screen monitors the call — pinpoints where it's from, the time, the caller — and, if it's a cell phone call, it identifies the tower that processes the call, and notes the longitude and latitude so responders can use a GPS unit to find the location.

Another screen, called a think map, displays a map of the area.

Richard White, E-911 supervisor, thumbs through an EMD Protocol that gives dispatchers immediate information on injuries and medical emergencies.
"With this screen, we can print out the names of everyone living within a mile of the incident," veteran dispatcher Debbie Pittman said. "This can help in case we need to evacuate an area or pinpoint another residence. It can show us where a flat area may be in the vicinity in case we need to send in a helicopter. And we can zoom in and out to see what is close by."

There is also a screen that displays the units that may need to be called: fire departments, police, ambulances, county highway department and town marshals. Another screen is used to click and drag any of those units to assign which ones are needed in each incident.

There are five telephone lines at each desk, and the dispatchers monitor several radio channels including the Emergency Management Agency, county highway, state police at Jasper, fire departments, local police and ambulances. Dispatchers also have to use a completely different computer system, IDACS, that is set up on one side of the office and is hooked up to the data base of the Indiana State Police. The system allows local police officers to radio dispatchers and get a criminal background check during a traffic stop or at other times when needed.

"We now have foot pedals under the desks that we'll soon be using," Pittman said. "Those will allow us to listen to the callers with headphones, which will free up our hands to type in information on the computers and key the radio transmitters at the same time. The new system has been complicated to learn. A lot of us old-timers were used to just writing everything down, but we're adjusting and it's working well."

Robin Marshall, another long-time dispatcher, agreed.

"It's a lot to learn," she added, "but it's so much better than a pencil and paper. It's a great system, and I feel it's working out really well."

There are two dispatchers on duty at all times, and there are three shifts per day.

"I try to keep a senior dispatcher on duty with a less-experienced dispatcher at all times," said Richard White, E-911 supervisor, who has 27 years experience as a firefighter and 15 years as a dispatcher. "The senior dispatchers know what to ask the callers, what to do in certain emergencies, and the younger ones seem to catch on to the computer systems really well. It makes for a well-rounded crew, and this is certainly a team effort. I have six full-time dispatchers and five part-time. I hope to add one more full-time person soon, which will allow me more time to oversee and train the dispatchers and make improvements in the system. That would bring everything up to the next level."

All dispatchers are certified in CPR in order to help people over the phone while emergency responders are going to the scene. They also have a large flip-chart at each desk that can tell them what to do during almost any medical emergency. For instance, if someone is having a baby, and the ambulance can't get there in time, dispatchers can talk someone through it, right down to tying the umbilical cord. If someone has a serious nose-bleed, they have a chart on how to help. They have other charts on choking, burns and even heart attacks.

"Things get really hectic here at times," White said. "A lot of times, it's almost too much for two people to handle. We are often overwhelmed by the amount of radio traffic. It would really help, now that emergency responders all have 800 megahertz radios, if say, for instance, firefighters would communicate with each other on their fire ground channels and use a situation commander to communicate with us. That would clear up a lot of confusion for us. Sometimes we have up to 30 people talking on radios at one time, and it's almost impossible to determine what is an emergency for us and what is just a couple of people talking about a missing road sign. And during all of this, we're still having to take 911 calls.

"It gets to be too much for two sets of ears, eyes and hands. During the ice storm, we were getting E-911 calls about every minute, minute and a half. The stress here can really be significant and the abundance of unnecessary radio traffic can add to that in a big way. I'm looking forward to the (county) communication committee that is supposed to be set up soon.

"That should help us all work on making things better, more efficient and more effective. All of us are sometimes reluctant to change from the old ways, but we have to move on, to grow and accept that new ways are often improvements."

White went on to say it may help if firefighters, EMS crews and even police officers could come in and sit with the dispatchers during a shift, to see what goes on, and that dispatchers should ride in the ambulances, fire-trucks and police cars so everyone would appreciate what the other person does.

"Thanks to (Emergency Management Agency Director) Kent Barrow, we all have most of what we need in radio equipment and computers to do our jobs in a very professional way," White said. "Now, we all need to work together to get the most out of it."

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