Fire EMS, Firefighter Training, Legal, Tech Zone

CAD: Is Your System Universal?


With phrases such as interoperability and data-sharing mentioned daily within public safety organizations, when is it justified to operate different dispatch systems for different incident types? Should one system be generic enough for law enforcement, fire, and EMS?

To bridge the communication gap among public safety organizations, many counties and cities have opted for a universal solution to all public safety dispatch, reasoning that one system equals interoperability. This approach may work well for some communities, but with vast differences in dispatch and response protocols, a universal system for all first responders could be a jack-of-all-trades or master of none. And what about training? Are dispatchers properly trained to provide quality assistance for all response types? That’s a tall order for a dispatcher.


Dispatch takes on many forms, from one person with a two-way radio system to complex centralized operations with automated solutions. Different emergencies require different priorities and protocols. In an emergency that requires a law enforcement response, access to regional, state, or National Crime Information Center databases is important. In the event of a fire, access to hydrant location and occupancy preplans is crucial, while an EMS incident requires additional training and certifications in emergency medical procedures.

Standards are in place for dispatch, but there are more than one and thus it is difficult to call them a “standard.” The Law Enforcement Information Technology Standards Council created a national standard called Standard Functional Specifications for Law Enforcement Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) Systems. This standard is designed to inform law enforcement about the basic functional requirements that all records management systems and CAD systems must have to achieve interoperability but offers little or no guidance in fire and EMS organizations.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1221, Standard for the Installation, Maintenance, and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems, fills the void by providing standards for fire and EMS dispatching. Neither standard addresses the unique needs of all public safety organizations; both reference subsystems.

In efforts to improve response times and facilitate data sharing, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility launched the Computer-Aided Dispatch Interoperability Project to prove that interoperability among CAD systems can reduce response time, increase personnel efficiency, and increase vehicle efficiency.

With technological advancements within CAD systems, such as automated number identification, automated location identification, automated vehicle locator, geographic information systems, geocoding, and mobile data systems, response times are immensely improved. Now, with CAD-to-CAD interfaces, open application programming interfaces, and standardized messaging, data transfer between CAD systems and third-party applications can be seamless and offer the necessary communication among public safety agencies.


Primary public safety answering points (PSAPs) receive and handle emergency calls directly. If the call is relayed or transferred, the next receiving PSAP is designated a secondary PSAP. Secondary PSAPs are often an EMS communication center with extensive training and certification on EMS communication needs. More fire rescue departments are becoming secondary PSAPs for their ability to handle both fire and EMS calls effectively.

For many secondary PSAPs, the dispatcher, following strict protocol, can start treatment on the sick or injured by giving the caller instructions over the phone. Dispatchers that provide emergency medical dispatching typically have completed additional training and have knowledge of emergency medical procedures to appropriately determine the nature of medical calls, mobilize the emergency response units and relay to them necessary incident information, and assist victims in need of medical attention before medically trained personnel arrive.

Offering prearrival instructions by telephone to people at incident scenes to assist injured individuals prior to the arrival of ambulances or first responders trained in first aid can be vital—especially in some rural areas, where the distance between emergency medical personnel and accident victims can be great. These services provided by the secondary PSAP or subsystem relieve primary centers from specialized training and staffing costs, added equipment/software, a medical Q&A program, and liability.


With different standards, different subject matter experts, and different funding, what is the best solution to public safety dispatch? All CAD systems should strive to meet or exceed interoperability standards. Different CAD system software does not negate interoperability.

If an all-encompassing system meets or exceeds your expectations in terms of usability, scalability, and all incident response times types, then one size just may fit all. But if your universal public safety CAD system requires cumbersome workarounds and quick fixes for certain incident types, and if response times for particular incident types need improvement, then multiple industry-specific solutions with open architecture and appropriate interfaces might be the wise choice.

TIM AUEN is the product manager for RescueNet CommCAD, a computer-aided dispatch solution for fire and EMS from ZOLL Data Systems. Prior to working for ZOLL Data Systems, Auen served as director of numerous emergency communication products at Intrado. He has worked for public safety for more than six years and has a B.S. in business administration and a master’s degree in international studies.