Designing & Operating Your Dispatch Center

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...


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This same NFPA standard also speaks to a variety of other issues, calling for among other things, “at least two independent and reliable power sources” and a “means for connecting a portable or vehicle-mounted generator.” Also specified is the use of Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) to augment the motor-driven generators. These devices provide a margin of safety should the generators fail, but just as important they filter electricity during periods of normal operation, protecting critical equipment from fluctuations in voltage and spikes.

With the proliferation of sensitive electronics within the dispatch center, UPS protection is a must – and so is having room for current and future operational systems. One of the recurring themes uncovered during discussions with agencies having recently built dispatch facilities was concern over having enough space, cooling and power to supply future growth. Included here is sufficient square footage to allow for the installation of new equipment and replacement of old systems. Since communications systems must always remain live, providing a buffer makes forward migration a much easier task.

Perhaps the most complex discussion arises over how much space is too much – and how much space is not enough. While the virtualization of servers (the running of multiple applications on one device) can help to reduce demand, the growing popularity of “blade servers” which move equipment from the dispatch center floor to the computer room may actually up the requirements. During the projected life-spans of these projects it is almost impossible to guess how many new applications will be placed into everyday use by the fire service or by other services within multi-jurisdictional facilities. (How ubiquitous is this spread of technology? In 2000, for example, the dispatch center I manage had two server-based computer applications. Today, we have almost 80. Tomorrow – who knows?) But modern dispatch center design must pay increasing heed to the space needed for technology.

Allocate storage space

Space too is a requirement, when it comes to storage. Because it is not an operational component, it is often overlooked in the planning stages, with painful results once the building is occupied. Take a look around your dispatch center. How many items do you need to keep it running? Obviously, there are spare parts for radios, computers and mechanical equipment. But don’t forget devices such as headsets and spare uniforms, as well as space for extra chairs. Staff will need a place to store their coats and personal items. General office and janitorial supplies are also on the list, as are public education and training materials. It doesn’t take long before all of this adds up.

Within the center, both technology and user demands will shape the future. The advent of NG 9-1-1 and “FirstNet,” the FIRST responder NETwork, will have a major impact on the way dispatch does business. NG 9-1-1 brings with it not only the ability to text an emergency, but also to send a still picture or video of the unfolding incident. This will require a new set of policies and procedures for handling calls, as well as a new skill set. Equipment will have to be upgraded in order to process these new types of information. Already here is the ability for computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems to accept input directly from alarm companies.

Both intelligent highways and crash-notification systems will likely report directly to the PSAP, providing additional information to process and store. All of these will be displayed on LED monitors, which have helped to reduce the profile of modern adjustable dispatch consoles. Radio transmissions themselves will be controlled by devices that use Internet Protocol (IP) networks. While these will not use the World Wide Web, they will use the same technology, but on a closed and secured system.

The consoles on which this technology rides will carry forward much of today’s best features such as cable management, personal comfort heat and air units, and adjustments to allow the telecommunicator to work in a sitting or standing position. Additionally, swivel and extension arms, similar to those used on home TVs, will allow the monitors to be adjusted, as well. Ease of maintenance also increasingly calls for components to be located above the raised floor. While wiring will continue to run beneath, many agencies are locating routers and other devices in enclosures that complement the dispatch decor.