Lesson Plan: Computer-aided Dispatch System
How members of a volunteer fire department made technology work for them.
The expanding role and size of the Bellevue (Neb.) Volunteer Fire Department (BVFD) necessitated the development of a comprehensive pre-fire/medical emergency plan that would provide vital technical assistance in all operations.
It was necessary for the fire preplan to contain such information as quickest route of travel, nearest hydrants, availability of sprinklers and standpipes, and hazards on locations. The medical preplan would have to contain information on the medical problem, medications, the hospital containing patient records, primary physician, and the last call made to the address.
Several options were considered for collecting, storing, and retrieving this information. Most were labor-intensive, involved additional efforts for dispatchers, added response time for firefighters, and could not be readily updated. A computer-aided dispatch system (CADS) was finally chosen for the job.
Bellevue is situated along the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska, south of Omaha and north of Offutt Air Force Base. Two-thirds of Nebraska’s population resides and works in the greater metropolitan area. The Bellevue Fire District encompasses 45 square miles and serves approximately 57,000 people. There are more than 1,000 commercial structures, apartment complexes, and multifamily dwellings.
As parts of the county were incorporated by the city, BVFD and Eastern Sarpy County Fire District combined in 1970, and added a third Bellevue station in 1986. Time of dispatch to first truck/ squad out is approximately 3 to 4 minutes. The department has 25 vehicles: 7 engines, 2 brush, 1 aerial, 1 snorkle, 1 tanker, 5 rescue squads, 5 utility trucks, and 3 support vehicles. The department handles approximately 1,200 fire and rescue/medical calls per year. It’s manned by 147 volunteers, all firefighters. State certified EMT-A training is a basic requirement for rescue squad membership.
Prior to CADS, firefighters and rescue personnel arriving at the fire station had to telephone the dispatcher, at a different location, to get information on the call. Unless firefighters were familiar with the structure or medical problem, information about hazards or medical history was not available. Location of hydrants, availability of a sprinkler system, or quickest route of travel had to be manually researched by using loose-leaf binders and maps. Generally, the first unit arriving—usually law enforcemerit—would provide additional information to the responding unit(s) through the dispatcher. This added to radio traffic.
A thumbnail sketch of CADS
In the CADS scenario, an emergency 911 call is answered by a dispatcher at the joint police/fire dispatch center. Because Bellevue subscribes to Enhanced 911 (E911), the caller’s telephone number and address is displayed within one second on a small screen, along with a listing of police and fire districts. If additional information on the address displayed on the E-911 screen is stored in the computer’s data base, the dispatcher is alerted by a flashing alpha character. With a two-alpha character keystroke and a return, the information stored in the computer’s data base is sent to a larger screen and keyboard the size of a personal computer.
Vital technical information on the address is displayed for the dispatcher. Using the keyboard, the dispatcher will enter the reason for the call (whether it’s a fire or medical emergency) and additional information provided by the caller. An “enter” keystroke will send the information along dedicated telephone lines to all fire stations while the operator is dispatching the call. The firefighters arriving at the station remove the information from the printer, record the information on the chalk board, and take the printout with the first engine or rescue squad.
Planning through operation
A fourteen-step sequence was operationalized to consider and implement a comprehensive prefire/medical emergency plan:
- Initiate discussion on whether or not to preplan for fire/medical emergencies.
- Decide affirmatively to develop a preplan.
- Select among alternatives:
- loose-leaf binder,
- computer printout,
- interactive computer-aided dispatch system.
- Decide affirmatively to implement interactive system.
- Review software and hardware options/companies.
- Outline financing options and plans.
- Select, purchase, and install hardware and software.
- Test hardware and software.
- Begin data collection.
- Begin data entry and install external hardware in stations.
- Conduct operator training.
- Conduct evaluation of system and outputs.
- Add software and hardware upgrades and updates.
- Operate system as intended.
Steps 1 and 2 —Preplan Decision: According to data supplied by the city’s planning department, Bellevue’s population increased by 47 percent from 1980 to 1984. It’s expected to grow another 10 percent by 1990. Parallel to population growth has been an increase in both residential and commercial building permits.
From 1985 to 1986, residential permits increased by 120 percent, and commercial permits increased by 66 percent.
This spirit of growth has commercial enterprises viewing the Bellevue area as a desirable location. Government contractors seeking locations near to Offutt Air Force Base have constructed highly secure, computer-automated facilities. These buildings pose unique entry and firefighting problems.
Accelerating residential/commercial growth and the firefighting and related problems that go with it (indoctrination of new personnel, added subdivisions, streets and hydrants, increased hazards on locations) made a pre-fire/medical plan a necessity.
Steps 3 and 4—Alternatives and Selections: Several preplan options were available. BVFD considered loose-leaf binders and computer printouts. Both options were static, labor-intensive, and difficult to manage and update. The third option was an interactive system. After considering costs of maintaining a non-interactive system, BVFD decided to go with CADS.
A second problem was how to control data. The solution was to use a system based on telephone numbers, not on addresses, subdivisions, or family names. With E911 available for purchase and installation, the interactive system acquired would have to work with it. Using computer software, the address displayed on the E-911 screen would be used to activate information stored in the computer’s data base. BVFD was assured a weekly update of telephone numbers by the telephone company.
Step 5 —Hardware and Software: Factors influencing the decision on what to buy from whom included:
- selecting a company with a history of working with fire departments;
- visiting departments using the company’s software and hardware;
- writing specifications following a requirements analysis; and
- choosing software that would be compatible with existing hardware, future hardware upgrades, and software which would interact with an existing E-911 system.
Step 6 — Financifig: Financing was a problem. The city was not in a position to finance CADS. Although Bellevue’s tax base was growing, actual dollars would not be realized for 5 to 10 years, yet CADS was needed immediately. The solution was for the fire department to finance CADS using a traditional yet creative approach.
Bellevue’s cost for CADS was $18,000. The entire cost was covered by contributions from two areas. Donations were given to BVFD by individuals who realized the value of CADS to the community. These were generated through public relations and educational programs, speaking engagements, and advertising campaigns.
Businesses that supported sales of raffles and lotteries at their establishments also helped bring in donations. These forms of legalized gambling are available to nonprofit groups in the state of Nebraska. The activity is monitored by the state Gambling Commission. The stipulation is that groups can raise money in this manner if the profits are returned to the community for betterment projects.
CADS would effect the entire community; therefore, it was important to publicize the event. CADS was highlighted through write-ups in newspapers and a formal dedication with print, radio, and television media present. Publicity focused on the dispatchers and the dispatch center and highlighted the benefits to the community at no cost to the taxpayers.
Steps 7 and 8—Acquisition and Testing: BVFD concluded that technical support throughout the acquisition and testing phases was critical. Several questions regarding strategies were raised:
Should testing be completed by technicians supplied by the vendor or by city employees? BVFD decided on city employees because, firstly, the vendor was geographically too far removed from Bellevue; secondly, city employees would have to input data later on and would have to be familiar with the equipment; and, thirdly, financial considerations so dictated it.
Flow much time should company representatives remain in Bellevue to assist the department? Company representatives were on call, and made several trips to Bellevue, but time required of them was minimal because the city and the fire department lv.d individuals who were already computer-savvy.
What costs would this entail? Costs for this phase and the training phase approximately matched the initial outlay for the CADS system.
Should company on-site visits be included in the contracts? Bellevue realized that this is a very important contractual item, and made provision for it.
Step 9 —Data Collection: What information is needed about a structure and how is this information to be collected? A one-phase, one-sided data collection form was drafted when the software was acquired. BVFD worked closely with the software company on the data collection form.
The data was collected professionally, with firefighters wearing Class A uniforms and driving BVFD vehicles. Firefighters on data-collection duty visited buildings in which obvious fire code violations existed. These were reported to the fire marshal. Fire prevention education was also conducted.
Firefighters met with representatives of businesses and assured them that information was being collected only for emergency purposes—for the benefit of the community. Confidentiality was maintained though out the data collection, entry, and storing process.
Step 10—Data Entry: The adage, “Garbage in, garbage out,” applies here. Data entry is not a problem unless information is inaccurate or incomplete. Data entry personnel were not familiar with the places visited; therefore, they relied on the information provided on the data collection form. The need for accuracy in data collection was therefore a must; firefighters were made aware that the success of the project rested with how well they performed this task.
Step 11 — Training: “Fear” of computers is widespread; thus, training had to be success-oriented. It had to be a team effort. The solution was to train persons internal to the organization (senior dispatchers) who would train others. The first cadre of dispatchers trained was selected based on enthusiasm toward the system and interest and availability to train other dispatchers.
Step 12—Evaluation: Evaluation occurred throughout the plan. Accuracy of data collected and overall system integrity were checked. Two problems arose: Existing telephone lines and modems resulted in contaminated information and computer-to-printer difficulties. The solution was to upgrade the modems and install dedicated telephone lines to each station.
Step 13 —Update and Upgrade: Realizing that software and hardware is revised and upgraded often, BVFD anticipated additional costs. Soon after installation, firefighters and rescue personnel felt they needed two additional items to assist them in responding to emergencies: more information about the nature of the call and additional listing of response times. The software developer was working on these two upgrades while BVFD was installing its system. These software updates were added.
Step 14 —Operational: When does one begin operations? Could a partial system be used, or should the department wait until the system is fully operational? Because various elements were critical, the decision was made to wait until the system was fully operational^ before going on-line.
Fire departments interested in implementing a CADS program should consider the following recommendations and strategical suggestions:
- A thorough requirements analysis should be made at each step in the plan. Can the municipality support CADS? What are the alternatives? What hazards necessitate CADS?
- Financing should be considered. CADS have a wide range of
- costs, and costs are not necessarily indicative of how good or how bad a system will operate. In addition to software costs, associated hardware costs should be considered. Updates and upgrades will add costs to a system already in place.
- Acquisition should be evaluated by a qualified technician who’s not associated with the companies involved, but highly familiar with computer hardware and software in general. An outside consultant who’s familiar with the existing
- system should be hired early.
- Persons interested in CADS should visit other departments who have operational CADS. Objective input should be used in decision making.
- Data collection should be thorough and confidential.
- Train all involved, including firefighters, officers and dispatchers. Training may need to be done by an outside vendor and should seek to minimize computer-related fears.