Pitfalls of Public Safety Integration
- By Jane Morrissey
- Apr 12, 1998
Public safety may be the highest civic priority within local government, but the technology used to support such services often lags behind the times. While getting the job done, many 911, computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and radio systems are outdated and splintered among police, fire and other city agencies involved in emergency response.
But a wave of recent upgrades to these systems shows a trend toward the consolidation of operations and the creation of combined facilities to make city responses more efficient. While not cutting-edge-these agencies can't afford glitches with unproven technology when lives are on the line-these upgrades are a far cry from the archaic interfaces and excessive management burdens of the past.
Case in point: the $37 million public safety system upgrade Atlanta performed in advance of hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics. The city chose TRW Systems Integration Group, Fairfax, Va., as the prime contractor for its new communications system. It was TRW's first foray into public safety, and it was a successful one, although the result has not been without some disappointments and regrets, according to city officials.
"If I had to do it all over again, there are some things that I would do differently," said Maj. Bill Gordon of the Atlanta Police Department, who was involved with the project from its outset. But selecting TRW wouldn't be one of them.
"I was against it in the beginning; I thought it was a waste [of money]," Gordon said of an outside consultant's recommendation to use a systems integrator. "But I was wrong. I think TRW cost us about $5 million, and they probably saved us about $6 [million] or $7 million. And the project actually came in on schedule and a little bit under budget."
The use of systems integrators in public safety projects is becoming more commonplace. Because upgrades are typically few and far between, integrators can offer more recent expertise. The also tend to have experience with many approaches because no two cities operate alike.
"It's maybe 10 to 15 years between these major upgrades, and cities can do a lot of good research, but they just haven't been through the real aspect of putting together one of these systems recently," said TRW's Greg Poldy, a former Atlanta project manager and now a project manager for a Los Angeles Police Department emergency system upgrade. "We bring a lot of lessons-learned from project to project. We were very pleased with how successful the Atlanta project went and have taken a lot of those lessons-learned and taken the next step in subsequent programs."
Those programs include the city and county of San Francisco, where TRW has been working on a $17 million contract since last September to update 911 and automated information systems for the police and fire departments as well as emergency medical services. TRW's performance in the Atlanta project contributed to San Francisco officials' decision to use the systems integrator.
"Something that struck me from the TRW side in that project was that you had an excellent customer interface; they got along very well with the city," said Mike Martin, a San Francisco project manager. "This is a complex project, and there's lots of room for contention, and we were anxious to have the same sort of relationship with a contractor."
So far, so good. San Francisco's new system is slated to go online next year.
Origin of the Atlanta Plan
Atlanta's public safety center was already in the works when the city won its bid to host the Olympics, which wound up expanding the plan and putting pressure on the project timetable. The major objectives of the new system, dubbed the Atlanta Citywide Radio System (ACRS), was to move to an 800 MHz radio frequency and consolidate into one facility all of the city's communication requirements for police, fire, public works and corrections departments.
"All of them had aging communication infrastructures that needed to be updated," said Deputy Chief Louis Arcangeli of the Atlanta Police Department's Technical Services Division. The police CAD and radio systems, for example, dated to the mid-1970s. The idea was to gain "economy of scale, a single point of maintenance and service, and the opportunity to move all of those facilities into a new and improved facility."
A city team was put together along with an outside consultant to formulate the requests for proposals, which resulted in six bids ranging from $34 million to $62 million. All involved a radio system from Motorola Inc., Schaumburg, Ill., off-the-shelf CAD software, a new 911 telephone switch and conversion to the new facility.
TRW was chosen in February 1994. "Considering price and quality, TRW came out ahead," Gordon said. Personalities also played a part. "One of the great things was that it wasn't 'us against them,' like I've seen in other projects," he said. "The other factor was that TRW had never done another public safety system, so they needed to prove themselves. I think those were the key factors that made it a team concept."
The city's own team was crucial as well. "As we look back, one of the things that really made the project a success was the fact that we had a commitment from the finance department and the law department and all the affected parties that they would work together," Arcangeli said, noting that formal conflict-resolution procedures were established. "And given that the radio facility still had to bridge governmental entities, the committee was particularly important because it allowed people to have a vote whenever issues of intergovernmental communications arose."
Benefits of a New Facility
An old Sears catalog distribution building was retrofitted to become the new joint communications center. Within its walls are the dispatch center for 911 calls, a training center and an emergency operations center. Sixty consoles are available to process calls, and an additional nine consoles in the training center can augment the dispatch center as needed. The system was built to handle up to a 50 percent increase in caller volume.
"The Fire Department and Police Department [communications] being [located together] has been a real benefit for us in terms of our ability to work closer together on not just operational issues but also finance, planning and personnel management," Arcangeli said. "And because of the Olympics, there was a change in our design, and we have an emergency management center that we use for all our respective agencies during special events. That includes the transportation and corrections departments, [and] the Georgia Emergency Management Agency as well as nongovernmental agencies.
"So much of emergency management is intergovernmental and [involves] private-sector coordination. By creating an emergency operations center for that purpose, we can reconfigure and dynamically reprogram phones and have people in a central area where they can get information simultaneously. It's just been invaluable in the incidents and events we've have managed."
Even though police and fire communications are at a joint location, it is not the same as integration. Police and fire emergency response needs are different, and they largely remain separate operations even when using the same space and technology. "Even when they are [located] in same center, they are not integrated as far as people go," TRW's Poldy said. "It's a cost-cutting measure as much as anything else."
Technology Winners and Losers
At $24 million, the most expensive of the new components was the Motorola analog radio system. (At the time, digital systems were not far along enough to be an option.) Radio coverage could be spotty in the past, and available channels were becoming scarce. With the new system, the city has virtually 100 percent coverage with a six-site, 27-channel, 800 MHz trunked simulcast radio system that handles simultaneous communication among police, fire and other city services.
"I look at surrounding agencies that have much smaller systems with fewer sites that paid much more than we did," Gordon said. "And we have a digital backbone, so we can migrate to digital just by buying the radios." The only drawback to the Motorola system is lack of encryption-something Gordon assumed came with the system because it was billed as encryption-capable. But because the project as a whole came in at a lower cost than expected, money was available to acquire limited encryption capability.
BellSouth was selected to install a new 911 telephone system using a Northern Telecom Meridian switch and Positron Industries Inc. automatic number identification/automatic location identification (ANI/ALI) controller, which supplies a caller's phone number and address to city call-takers. The Meridian features an automatic call distributor (ACD), which manages tasks such as queues and reporting.
Gordon pushed TRW to use BellSouth based on previous experiences with the company, but he has some regrets about that decision. The primary difficulty? The use of the Meridian switch. "I'm still not pleased with what we are getting out of our ACD," Gordon said. "Meridian is not designed for 911. It handles the volume fine, but it's just not functional for an emergency operations center. It only takes in one call at a time, so if you are talking to someone who needs a dispatch, but it's not an emergency, and you have calls backing up, you can't place that first call on hold. There were some problems with the transfers and [other problems]. If it were up to me, I'd throw it out and go with a whole new system."
For its part, BellSouth chose the Meridian switch because "it was the most robust, widely used, ACD system in the world," said Robert Jenkins, BellSouth's 911 account manager at that time. "And even though it's not so-called 'set up to be a 911 switch', it has the technical design features that any 911 equipment needs to have, [which] are redundant processors, so you don't have a single point of failure."
BellSouth came through during the initial phases of the program, when the telephone company's central office experienced a failure, which put the city's 911 service out of commission. "We dealt with BellSouth to get them to provide an alternate solution to their network to improve their 911 service delivery," Poldy said. "As a result, we engineered a system that provided a redundant ring where two central offices served the center."
City officials took some heat for a delayed response in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, which occurred at 1:20 a.m. July 27, 1996. Poldy said the new system was not at fault but rather the process of collecting information, which has since been corrected. Because the 911 caller who reported the bomb called from a pay phone away from the park, the ANI/ALI information was of no use, and the just-opened Centennial Olympic Park did not yet have an address listed in the database. "It slipped through the cracks as part of the process, and they were left with the reactive process," Poldy said. "It was fixed immediately, but it didn't help the response for that specific incident."
Otherwise, the migration to the new system went flawlessly, city officials agreed. "The dispatchers and call-takers are just as happy as bugs in a rug [because] they were very involved in the process, and the migration was very, very smooth," Gordon said.
TRW has been selected to enhance the system with a two-channel mobile data network. From data terminals in the patrol cars, officers can connect to the CAD system for field data capture and field reporting online. The initiative is being predominately funded by a $2.7 million federal community-oriented policing grant. The mobile network should help cut down on the paperwork load to increase officer time in the field.
"Atlanta was only able to do query checks to the local, state and national crime information databases," said Lee Steinberg, TRW's project manager for the mobile data network. "Now they are going to be able to communicate through their CAD system." In addition to computerizing incident and accident reports, the system will also provide "silent dispatch," meaning that instead of voice communication, all information can be transferred from a call-taker to a dispatcher to a cruiser terminal via the network.
About 1,100 officers will be trained on the mobile data terminals, currently Panasonic CF 25 rugged laptops using every module of UCS Inc.'s PoliceWorks application suite. "I don't think there's another customer in law enforcement in the [United States] that is going to deploy all of the modules," Steinberg said. "Atlanta got funding to buy it all and contracted with a systems integrator make sure it's done with a turnkey approach. That was one of the lessons learned from the original project."
-- Jane Morrissey is a free-lance writer based in Denver. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Should You Buy Off-the-Shelf CAD?
Lanham, Md.-based Public Safety Systems Inc. delivered the off-the-shelf CAD software that was customized to suit Atlanta's operations. The software provides a graphical interface with integrated maps (a citywide geographic information system extension was developed by TRW) and 911 and radio system interconnects. It runs on Hewlett-Packard Co. HP 3000 servers with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT clients.
The CAD performs functions such as validating a caller's address and identifying the caller's police district. It also provides special-premise information. For example, if there are recurring calls, the call-taker knows what types of calls have been placed in the past. For the fire department, the CAD database may, for example, provide special instructions on hazardous materials. The call-taker then transfers such information via PC to the radio dispatchers. (The new Emergency Command and Control System for the LAPD, Poldy said, goes even further by giving radio capability to call-takers to handle high-priority calls, such as burglaries in progress. Radio, CAD and telephone capabilities will be consolidated within a Windows NT workstation. The LAPD also rejected an off-the-shelf CAD system in favor of enhancements to its existing custom program.)
Gordon said Atlanta's decision to go with an off-the-shelf program regardless of the provider was a mistake. But given the tight schedule-22 months from start to finish-compromises seemed unavoidable. "I would never, never buy an off-the-shelf CAD system," he said. "I really don't think there's a CAD system you can buy that will do the things the way you want it done. You build a CAD system in-house, one that leads to your records management system rather than trying to bring things together later. We are having all kinds of problems now."
From a call-taker and dispatcher perspective, the system works fine. But in some ways the new systems have made Gordon's job more difficult as a manager. "Some of the reports I got off the old CAD system let me manage better, and the old ACD let me manage better. And that's why I'm so frustrated. These are things that I clearly identified that I wanted as part of the new system, and [they] didn't happen."
San Francisco's Plan
BY JANE MORRISSEY
The teams developing San Francisco's 911 upgrade are starting off on the right foot, with everyone involved working under the same roof.
Sue Biester, TRW's assistant program manager for the San Francisco project, visited the Atlanta communications site to get a sense of the environment and learn what worked and what didn't. "A couple of things that really hit me was that they had dedicated teams on the city and contractor side, everybody was co-located, worked together closely, and it worked very effectively," she said. "We offered to the city that we'd work in space they provided because we believed that would be crucial to the level of interaction and understanding and to work out issues."
San Francisco's public safety predicament became most visible in the wake of a shooting in 1993, said Mike Martin, a San Francisco project manager. As a result, a couple of voter initiatives funded various aspects of the 911 system, including a new 800 MHz radio system and the creation of a new combined emergency communications center.
"The impetus of all that would be that we'd get better radio communications, and we needed to do a better job of delivering emergency services equipment and people," Martin said. Hence, the city is replacing its whole 911 infrastructure in one fell swoop: the radios, computer systems and a new building--built to withstand an 8.5 earthquake--that combines the physical operations.
"This is a very ambitious project, and [it is] different than any of the other operations in this arena that I have tracked," Biester said. "San Francisco is not only going after an entire new dispatch system complete with a new building, but [the city is] also doing a completely new information system for both the police and fire departments at the same time." Those new systems will enable better access to local, state and federal records to better coordinate efforts.
"We expect response times to be significantly improved, but we can't quantify that at this point," said Dorothy Greg, a project manager for the city. The system will also have automatic route generation, which will enable dispatchers to determine which units can reach the scene fastest.
The combined dispatch is critical. Right now, dispatch is being handled in three locations by the police, the fire department and the paramedics. "When a 911 call comes in, it goes to the Hall of Justice and then is switched to one of three possible places," she said. "Having them all out of one place should be more efficient, and we should be able to keep track of the calls a lot better. Also, it gives us the advantage of doing some cross-training for the dispatchers and call-takers so we gain a lot more flexibility in the operations side of this."
Biester added: "No matter why you are calling 911, one call-taker will take that call, understand the nature of the emergency and put information on the computer where it will get sent to multiple dispatchers. So, you can simultaneously dispatch police, fire and paramedics when you need all three in a major situation." The dispatchers' terminal interface will be replaced with Windows NT on two monitors: one will map the location of units, and the other will be for entering information. The system will also preserve the command line window for those who prefer it. There are 10 full-time TRW employees working on the project, which will involve 1,000 new PCs, a Motorola digital radio system and records-management and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software from Tiburon Inc., Fremont, Calif. For the police, the records-management system will serve as a repository for all incident history, while the fire department database will include fire incidents, medical incidents and fire-prevention data. That system will also have a mobile computing component which will allow, for example, building inspectors and paramedics to fill out reports from the field.
The CAD software will run on a Stratus Computer Inc. primary server as well as IBM Corp. RS/6000 servers, all connected over 100M switched Ethernet local-area networks, an Asynchronous Transfer Mode backbone and probably T-3 links to other centers and T-1 lines to district police and fire stations. The police system is scheduled for rollout in the first quarter of 1999, followed by the fire department's by the third quarter, and the complete dispatch system is due by November.
Again, these systems avoid the bleeding edge. "That's kind of the main worry right now, trying not to get too innovative all at once here," said Rick LaPado, director of TRW's information systems line of business. "Once we've got half a dozen of these programs under our belt and a bunch of happy customers, then we'll look at trying to be cute with the technologies."
"I think most of the challenging situations are on the city's side," Biester added. "Any agency that has gone from limited mainframe computer support to putting PCs on everybody's desk is going to be looking at a lot of major changes in how they operate. What we are doing I don't mean to say is simple, but it is a large-scale system-integration job--TRW's bread and butter."