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Just as fire stations have evolved from simple sheds into the multi-bay structures of today, the new generation of emergency communications centers has little likeness to those past.
Underground bunkers that were products of the Cold War era have given way to energy-efficient facilities that make abundant use of natural light while still providing high levels of security. There have been significant changes in technology as well, to the point that nothing even remotely resembling a telephone can be found. Dispatch has definitely gone digital, from the replacement of analog switches by virtual buttons on a computer screen to the change from reel-to-reel recording tape to disc-drive storage of audio. This article highlights the features and functions of the communications center of the 21st century.
One of the biggest differences in modern Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPS) is that there will likely be fewer of them. Fiscal realities along with state and local action are bringing pressure to merge to bear. For example, the entire state of Maine has only 26 PSAPs, Indiana allows no more than two per county, Ohio and Massachusetts are vigorously pursuing consolidation and Washington State – according to documents published on an official website – is “proactively addressing regionalization.”
Nor has the federal government been silent on this topic. In a Feb. 22, 2013,”Report to Congress and Recommendations on Legal and Regulatory Framework for Next Generation 9-1-1 Services,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) advised that “Congress should encourage the development of consolidated regional Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) call centers where possible, for example, by offering preference for grant eligibility to states and regions that make progress toward this goal.”
Still, not every agency is supportive of consolidation. As of this writing, the cities of Coral Springs and Plantation have opted not to participate in a proposed project in Broward County, FL, aimed at reducing both the number of 9-1-1 centers and the number of calls transferred between PSAPs.
Regardless of the number of dispatch facilities in a community, the concept that an emergency communications center must have four brick-and-mortar walls will also be challenged as technology moves forward. NG 9-1-1 will be comprised of several components. Location information, for example, will no longer be stored in tabular files, but rather attached to the request for assistance through geographic coordinates. This will change the way that dispatch does business, as well as the equipment required – both inside and outside the PSAP – to make this possible.
Up in the “cloud”
The use of the so-called “cloud” will also increasingly become a part of the fire service communications vocabulary. Data will be stored remotely – some shared and some not, because security remains a critical issue. Terms like “distributed processing” will also take on a new meaning. When currently used, it typically refers to computer systems that rely on the horsepower of desktops in addition to the centralized server. Taking this forward, these activities will be taken offsite. Even now, some communications PSAPs have opted to have their 9-1-1 calls received at remote data centers, then relayed back for call takers to answer and process.
Another exciting related prospect is the possibility of off-duty personnel using their home computers to manage 9-1-1 calls. During major emergencies, call center staffing could be immediately increased by mobilizing dispatchers from their kitchens and dens. Saving significant time over physical call-backs, especially during inclement weather, such procedures would provide a new and immediate way of ramping up resources when they are needed the most.