50 Years of Change in Public Safety Emergency Response

I’ve been retired now for about a year, and the time away from my career has given me time to reflect on the changes to public safety dispatching that have occurred over my nearly 50 years of involvement.

It started for me in the early 1970’s when I joined the Law Enforcement Explorer post of our local rural county Sheriff’s department. At the same time, I started working for my father in his two-way radio sales and service business serving virtually all of the public safety agencies in the county. Consequently, I spenta lot of time in our local city/county dispatch centers as both a volunteer and a contractor. On top of this, two of my sisters-in-law were dispatchers in those same dispatch centers.

Shortly after I graduated in the early 1980’s as an electrical engineer, I took a job with a startup company called Zetron,where I was tasked with using my public safety communications experience to help develop products for dispatch centers. In order to do that job, I was given the opportunity to visit many more dispatch centers and assess their needs.

Many things have indeed changed in that time, here are just a fewhighlights from what I’ve witnessed over the years.

50 Years Ago Today
A dispatcher’s role was as a “general clerk,” taking care of office paperwork, dealing with the public at the front desk, helping book prisoners, answering admin and emergency calls, and dispatching. Dispatching and Call Taking are true dedicated professions, requiring special qualifications and ongoing training.
Most agencies did their own dispatching. Most agencies dispatch through a joint multiagency Emergency Communications Center (ECC).
Nearly the only universal emergency number was “0” (operator) with no way of automatically identifying the caller’s number or address. 9-1-1 is now the universal national emergency number in the US and many other countries, now almost universally providing a call back number and wired/wireless caller location.
Emergency calls for help as a percentage of constituents were relatively few. Emergency calls for help are relatively high due to media attention, 9-1-1 education, and the proliferation of personal cell phones.
The Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and wired alarms were the only means of citizen-to-agency calls for help. In addition to phone calls and alarms, many ECCs receive requests for help from cell, text and social media.
Emergency Medical Services (EMS) consisted of on-scene basic first aid and transport by independent ambulance companies. EMS uses highly trained paramedics affiliated with local hospitals and/or fire departments. Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) enables call takers to talk callers through pre-EMS-arrival lifesaving procedures, such as CPR.
The method of selecting a responding field unit was by the use of paper wall maps and index cards (e.g.,fire “run cards”). Responder welfare checks were up to the memory of the dispatcher. Selecting and tracking responding units is now handled by Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD).
Dispatchers had to be very knowledgeable about their jurisdiction’s local geography in order to dispatch the correct units. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provide mapping of callers and often times field units.
Criminal checks were done via teletype to a state center. Local license plate checks were done from index cards. Criminal and vehicle records are via state and federal databases with CAD as the conduit.
Nearly every agency had their own dedicated analog conventional Land Mobile Radio (LMR) system for communicating with field units. Dispatchers usually had to have special knowledge of the LMR system to know how to use it properly. There was no way for dispatchers to automatically know the location or ID of the calling units. These disparate systems made LMR interoperability very difficult. More than half of the agencies share use of a county-wide or state-wide trunked radio LMR system (many of the Project 25 digital), and some of them are now using prioritized cell phone services to augment their LMR system. Both solutions automatically identify for the dispatcher the calling unit’s ID, and many of them provide the calling unit’s location.These shared systems make interoperability much easier.
Security of the dispatch center’s systems was managed by limiting physical access. Security of the dispatch center’s systems is highly reliant on good cybersecurity practices, covering both physical and remote network access.
Agencies rely on city-wide sirens and local broadcast media for real-time mass citizen notifications. ECCs are able to use geographically targeted cell phone text, amber alerts, and broadcast EAS for mass notification.

For the most part, these changes have been for the better. However, over the past 50 years there are a few things that have either not changed or have changed for the worse. Here are a few of those.

50 Years Ago Today
The longevity and retention of dispatch staff was relatively lengthy. It is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain qualified dispatch personnel.
Dispatcher exposure to incident trauma was somewhat mitigated by the limited communications available. Dispatchers face far more trauma exposure due to the increased use of rich media (from citizens and responders), and from the ability to receive citizen notification from virtually every location via cell phones. Also, emergency medical dispatch procedures providemore intimate contact with medical incidents.
Agencies with neighboring or overlapping jurisdictions had very little data sharing. The lack of data interoperability between neighboring ECCs, agencies within the same multiagency ECC, and between systems within the ECC persists. This often requires dispatchers to perform “swivel chair” interoperability by manually transferring information between systems, or requires dispatchers to attempt to do their job with incomplete data.
Agencies largely relied on outside contractors for the maintenance of their systems. ECCs, in addition to using outside contractors, usually have several support positions dedicated solely to the ECC (e.g., admins for CAD, GIS, LMR, Network/Cybersecurity).
Due to the limited capabilities and complexities of the technology, the cost of equipping a dispatch center was relatively low. Due to the significantly increased capabilities and complexities of the modern day ECC, the cost of equipping a dispatch center is significantly higher.

Indeed, things have changed in 50 years. Public safety agencies have inarguably improved the timeliness and accuracy of their response to the public. For the most part, citizens experiencing a medical emergency have a much better outcome. All of this despite a much higher rate of emergency calls. Much of this can be attributed to automated ECC systems that replace much of the original manual procedures. Yet staffing and system cost are bigger problems than ever.

The challenge for today’s providers of ECC technology is to continue to make the call taker’s, dispatcher’s and support staff’s jobs easier through improvements in ergonomics, user interface, visualization, cross-system integration and data sharing. And today’s challenge is to help mitigate the rising costs of complex ECC systems by allowing those systems to be shared between multiple agencies within a region.

Randy Richmond first joined Zetron in 1983 as an engineer and retired in 2021 after holding positions as Public Safety Engineering Manager, Call Taking Product Manager, Dispatch Product Manager, Standards & Regulatory Specialist, and Product Cybersecurity Manager. He now enjoys retired life volunteering with his local Amateur Radio Emergency Services team in North Bend, WA.

By: Randy Richmond

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