Phoenix`s high-tech dispatch center
BY TIM SIMMONS
The secret of effective emergency operations response is to be prepared for anything. With that in mind, the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department built its $4.2 million, state-of-the-art Regional Dispatch Center (RDC). The three-story building has 6,272 square feet per floor, totaling 18,186 square feet, and is ready for any emergency, including any traumatic occurrence to the building itself. A double roof with lightning rods and double-pane windows ensure a quiet and energy-efficient environment. Although the building is under the flight path of Sky Harbor Airport, the occupants can`t hear the airplanes.
The security system includes an electronic gate and card reader and voice-operated access systems that allow access to the parking lot, the building, and the elevator. The gate also includes a closed-circuit TV monitoring system.
POWER AND DISPATCH BACKUP SYSTEMS
There are no copper communications into the building, just two fiber-optic lines that are never closer than 15 feet from each other. A wayward backhoe operator won`t put the RDC out of business. Three power sources include Arizona Public Service; two 275- KVA generators, each with its own fuel supply; and a 100-KVA UPS (uninterrupted power supply) battery. “Everything is duplicated at least once,” according to Technician Jeff Brookins.
In the unlikely event that even these power sources should be disabled, the building has a connection that will allow the fire department`s utility trucks to hook up and supply power. If all else fails, everything can still be switched to the old alarm room and then to its predecessor. Finally, the system can be moved to the Phoenix police alarm room. There isn`t any way the Phoenix Fire Department`s alarm room can be completely disabled.
The unique phone system, which cost $1.3 million, is the first with 18 consoles that have a total capacity of 300 lines. The computerized phone answering system has only six wires that provide 300 lines, and all data are wired for category five, which is the best industrial data capacity rating. There is also one satellite dish and two completely mobile satellite phones. When stationed at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the Phoenix USAR team used these phones to communicate with the department.
Technicians Lance Strong, Brookins, and Andy McFarland received national recognition from the Association of Public Safety Communications Officers International as communications technicians of the year for their contributions to the building.
“It`s one of the most advanced systems in the United States,” Brookins says. “We prepared and planned two years for this building.”
The RDC`s first floor comprises administrative offices, a switching room, a conference room, a reception area, and an exercise room. The department has found that dispatchers work far more efficiently if they are able to work off some steam. The building also has kitchens, carpeting, plants, a quiet room, windows, a barbecue, an exercise room, a locker room, and a sleeping room for long-term emergency incidents.
The second floor includes the technicians` offices and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which functions 24 hours a day. Presently, the RDC dispatches for 13 municipal fire departments. Each is part of an automatic aid system that has no boundaries, and all operate using the incident management system (IMS: Operations, Logistics, Administration, and Planning), which allows easy deployment and emergency operations. The Phoenix RDC also communicates with other agencies such as the Red Cross and the Department of Public Safety, to facilitate all needs in an emergency operation. As soon as it is apparent an incident is or will become a major disaster operation, all functions are either set up in the EOC or moved from the Dispatch and Deployment Center on the third floor to the EOC on the second floor.
The EOC is also set up for IMS. Operations, Logistics, Administration, and Planning each has its own color-coded section; personnel working in each section wear the appropriate color-coded vest. Operations is orange; Logistics, yellow; Administration, green; and Planning, purple. Red designates the public information section, and blue designates the emergency center operations director.
Other EOC features include five 32-inch color TVs to monitor news coverage and 30 phones with speed-dial functions and headsets. A separate radio room has new fire, police, and municipal dispatch units. Backup cellular phones can be checked out, too. Each table has computer, fax, modem, and data line hookups. A new computer local area network (LAN) system has specialized software.
The third floor contains Technical Services, which includes the computers that operate the center; the Dispatch and Deployment Center (the alarm room); a break room; and a kitchen. A computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, which cost $2.2 million, sends the closest units for an assignment through an automatic vehicle locator (AVL) system ($700,000), using a global positioning system (GPS) to track vehicles by satellite. More than 220 vehicles in the department`s fleet are equipped with GPS devices.
The Deployment and Dispatch Center replaced consoles with touch-screen computers fed by fiber-optic cables. Star View, part of the AVL, is a four- by eight-foot computer-generated map that shows the department vehicles` location and graphically represents emergency vehicle movement in real time.
The RDC dispatches an average of 500 calls every 24 hours and currently has 40 full-time and 35 part-time dispatchers. A customer service function takes nonemergency calls during regular business hours, freeing dispatchers for emergencies. The new equipment in the RDC did not affect staffing.
To prepare for the move and the new technology, dispatchers practiced manual-mode drills four times. They also spent 520 training hours learning the new radio and the new phone system.
The biggest problem was switching from the old facility to the new one. To accomplish this without disrupting emergency dispatching, the department used IMS. Many people involved didn`t necessarily speak the same language all the time–firefighters, computer technicians, radio technicians, and dispatchers. Using IMS allowed communication and a smooth transfer.
Two months of planning preceded the move. Every contingency plan that could be brainstormed was developed. Command for the move was set up in the RDC, which was already functional along with all four sections of the IMS system. The big transition took place as planned–even with a two-alarm high-rise fire in progress–and the move was made without losing a call.
During the switch, a test call was planned. A real call for a heart attack came in instead. The call was handled without a hitch because of the extensive preparations.
It is comforting to know the IMS plan worked so well; it`s the same plan the RDC will be using in the EOC for years to come. It`s good to know the RDC is housed in a facility that is on the cutting edge of technology, where planners considered every possible situation and provided rock-solid backup. The RDC is truly prepared for anything. n
(Left) The Phoenix Fire Department Regional Dispatch Center (RDC) is near downtown Phoenix and its multitude of high-rise and official government buildings. It is also right under the flight path of airplanes leaving Sky Harbor International Airport. However, with a double roof and double-pane windows, building occupants never hear the planes. (Photos by Elaine Hutchings.) (Right) Touch-screen computers and mouse-driven programs fed from the fiber-optic cables have made the dispatchers` job easier.
(Left) Dispatchers can easily see the Star View system`s four-foot by eight-foot monitor. This computer-generated map shows the location of and graphically represents emergency vehicle movement in real time. (Photos by Elaine Hutchings.) (Right) Closeup of Star View. Green signifies available units, red signifies unavailable ones. Each box is a station. Triangles pointing right are engine companies; triangles pointing left are ladder companies. Triangles pointing up represent battalion chiefs; triangles pointing down represent rescues (ambulances).
The Phoenix Fire Department Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which is laid out according to the incident management system (IMS). (Photo by Timon Harper.)
n TIM SIMMONS is a fire prevention specialist assigned to the corporate communications division of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. A 12-year veteran of the department, he has been an EMT and is a volunteer with the Nogales, Mexico, Fire Department. He has a bachelor`s degree in mass communications from the University of Arizona and has written numerous articles on the fire service.