One of the primary duties of a communications center is to dispatch units to emergencies. Requests for service are typically reported through 9-1-1, conventional telephones, automatic alarms, and pull boxes. Resources are then alerted by a variety of means, including in-station signaling, pagers, radio, and mobile data terminals. Unlike days of old, when the transition of information between these two functions depended upon manual run cards and handwritten logs, that task is now accomplished using computer-aided dispatch, or CAD.
Although much progress has been made over time, many original CAD systems were developed specifically for law enforcement, so when specifying these devices, it is critical to assure that fire service concerns are met. To that end, the following 20 questions can assist you in making an informed choice.
1. Which current customers do we most closely resemble?
A good place to begin is by assuring that the vendor has the resources and experience necessary. Larger communities may require more features and support than some can provide. Ask for references based upon clients having similar population, mix of agencies, number of units, call volume, amount and type of interfaces, dispatch positions and co-users. Arrange for site visits, if possible, because one size truly does not fit all.
2. How does your development schedule affect our project?
Development schedules can have significant impact upon end users. Many firms produce two or more releases per year, which can contain fixes, new features, or both. Buyers need to understand what these upgrades entail in terms of disruption and expense, including if any will require additional hardware. This is of particular concern should you be purchasing the final build of a platform and major programming changes are planned. A firm commitment for the release date of any additional contracted features is mandatory.
3. What plans have you made to avoid obsolescence?
A great many changes such as Next Generation 9-1-1 and FirstNet loom close to the horizon. How has the vendor planned to integrate these and other evolving services into their CAD product? A major investment should not become outmoded overnight.
4. How is data selectively secured, yet shared when needed?
All information contained in a CAD system is not meant to be seen by every user. Whether this relates to records designed to be accessible only to a certain rank or function, or data that is segregated by agency or law, precautions must be taken to ensure that privacy is maintained. Conversely, facts that have a material impact upon safety, especially those entered or updated during an active response, must immediately be shared across the platform. Ask for a detailed demonstration of how this is accomplished.
5. How are hazard warnings and updates displayed?
Information concerning premise hazards and changing conditions are among the most important entries tracked by CAD. Therefore, these warnings must be prominently presented to the dispatcher so as not to be overlooked during periods of high activity. However, this display must not be so cumbersome as to prevent crucial ongoing activities such as the assignment of additional apparatus.
6. How quickly does your system respond?
Speed is of the essence in the dispatch process, and telecommunicators cannot afford to wait unnecessarily for CAD to respond to functions such as the import of 9-1-1 data, unit recommendations, and database queries. Determine the performance benchmarks during periods of peak demand for the system being proposed.
7. How intelligent is your map?
With the preponderance of 9-1-1 calls coming from wireless devices, accurate plotting of their location is a must. But map functionality must also provide a graphic link to information, such as the status and flow rate of hydrants, real-time road closures for routing responders, and the display of blueprints with just a click. The capacity to modify or select areas by mouse, and to use other Windows functionality like drag and drop can also be beneficial. Obtain a clearly defined explanation and demonstration of all supported features.
8. How do you manage geo-specific responses?
Perhaps no public safety discipline makes greater use of address-centric assignments than the fire service. Whether it is an area of town designated as a high-value district, or a single structure that elicits an augmented response, CAD must be capable of recognizing these locations, and generating the correct recommendation without operator intervention. A dispatcher should not have to remember every such address within the jurisdiction, and no special event class should have to be manually entered in order to get the correct assignment.
9. Can you handle both mobile and stationary dispatch?
While the conventional dispatch of fire apparatus is typically based upon station location, agencies using Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) may include an actual geographic position approach. Find out if both are supported, and if they can be mixed.
10. Can you manage a combination of station and unit dispatching?
Similarly, agencies are typically dispatched either by station/department, or through apparatus specific assignments, such as two engines and a truck. Learn how this is managed, and if both methods can be utilized.
11. How do you address time of day, storm mode, and other special situations?
Regardless of the type of agency served, there is occasional need for changes in normal deployment and response. Included here are time of day and day of week adjustments, as well as so-called “storm plans” that may limit the number of units assigned. Regardless of their purpose, determine the ability to pre-plan and schedule these modifications as well as the ease of implementing them on the fly.
12. Can your recommendation routine manage split crews?
Among the differences between fire CAD and other services is the concept of split crews, wherein the same personnel may be used to staff two different pieces of apparatus. This creates a scenario where both cannot simultaneously respond. Ask how this is addressed. Even if your agency does not require it now, you may in the future. In any event, a positive response is indicative of familiarity with fire service needs.
13. What configurations can be changed?
Subtle nuances between the way departments operate can be addressed through configuration of the CAD system. However, when this configuration becomes wholesale, it can potentially affect performance and support. Make a list of what is important to you and gain an understanding of the modification process. Among concerns typically addressed here are the automated assignment of radio channels and the utilization of activity-based timers.
14. How easily can the system be overridden?
If the initial information provided to CAD is correct, the recommendations made by the system will typically be valid. However, at no point should this preclude the dispatcher or Incident Commander from overriding these advisements. Whether it is the change or entry of an address or the assignment of a resource, the ability for manual intervention must exist.
15. Are any proprietary devices used in your system?
While software is certainly expected to be specific to the vendor, hardware is not. The ability to maintain your system well into the future can depend upon the availability of off-the-shelf replacement devices. Identify any specialized components that may be utilized, as well as strategies for their long-term availability and upgrade.
16. What service can I expect after the sale?
Public safety requires 24/7/365 support, and response times commensurate with the emergent nature of our work. Carefully analyze access to telephone and on-site assistance, and clearly define mitigation windows. Remember, too, that software and hardware purchased from different sources will also have separate maintenance mechanisms.
17. What is the overall cost?
A low initial purchase price does not guarantee a favorable cost of long-term ownership, and nowhere is this more applicable than with CAD. Obtain figures on annual maintenance for as long as possible, and factor in all hidden costs such as networking and data conversion. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples when making your final decision.
18. Can you demo with a limited set of our data?
When your search has been narrowed to the final candidates, it’s time to ask for a demonstration using a limited set of your data. This will provide confirmation that your current files can be converted for use by the prospective software and offer a hands-on look at how familiar functions can be performed.
19. What do my dispatchers and IT people say?
While the primary concern may be to secure software that serves the fire department’s demands, these are the people who you depend on to operate and maintain the system. Heavily involve them in the acquisition process. Failure to do so can be costly.
20. What do we really need?
When all is said and done, this most important question must be asked. What is it that our department really needs? Now is the time to determine what is necessary and what is nice in order to obtain the best CAD system possible for the price.
Computer-aided dispatch is an operationally critical long-term investment. Agencies must use due diligence during procurement to ensure that the end product meets or exceeds their requirements.