Public Safety Dispatch Centers 101 – Terminology & Systems
Are you new to the world of public safety communications? Perhaps you’re familiar with the two-way radios commonly used in public safety, but don’t know much about public safety dispatch centers. If that’s the case, this 100 level series of blogs is for you! The first installment addresses basic terminology and the systems found within a typical dispatch center.
To start with, let’s cover common terms used to describe the dispatch center.
Public Safety Answering Point. This is the 9-1-1 centric name for dispatch centers, and can be used to describe the centers that answer 9-1-1 calls
Emergency Communications Center. ECC has become a relatively new term for public safety dispatch centers. These centers answer 9-1-1 calls or dispatches them, or both.
Types of ECCs
Primary vs. Secondary PSAP. A “primary” PSAP is an ECC who first answers a 9-1-1 call. If that ECC isn’t able to help the caller, they may transfer the call to a “secondary” PSAP who is more likely to handle the needed service. For example, in Redmond where Zetron’s headquarters are located, when we call 9-1-1 (which does happen on occasion), it’s answered by the King County Sheriff’s Office (KSCO) (our Primary PSAP here in Washington. If it’s fire or EMS that’s needed, KCSO transfers the call to the Redmond Fire Department (our Secondary PSAP).
Single Agency vs Multi-Agency ECC. Local government is made up of several agencies with adjacent and overlapping jurisdictions. In some cases, a single agency, like the Seattle Fire Department, for example might have its own ECC. In this case the ECC employees are typically employees of the agency. However, most ECCs are multi-agency, handling dispatching for multiple services (fire/EMS, police), and/or multiple jurisdictions, usually a combination of cities and counties. In such cases, the ECC is typically an independent agency whose board is comprised of the agencies they serve.
Roles within an ECC
PST – Public Safety Telecommunicator (formerly known as a TC). This is the person who answers 9-1-1 calls (Call Taker), or dispatches the patrolman (Dispatcher). In smaller ECCs, a Public Safety Telecommunicator is likely to handle both call taking and dispatching from the same workstation. In larger ECCs, the call taking and dispatching staff may be assigned to different PSTs working at different workstations.
Supervisor – They’re often the most senior PST on the shift who’s responsible for supervising and overseeing the training of other PSTs. It’s common for a supervisor to be an active PST themselves as well.
Administrator – Typically, one or two administrators run the ECC, manages all the ECC staff, interacts with vendors, and reports to the agency or its “Board” that the ECC serves. Sometimes, when call takers or dispatchers are in in a pinch, an administrator, who has come up from the PST ranks, can also help with call taking/dispatching.
Technicians & Specialists – In a modern ECC, there are also specialists and technicians to manage the various systems within the ECC, but they don’t take an active role in processing calls. In larger centers this may include dedicated IT staff.
9-1-1 Call Taking – This system is interfaced to the regional 9-1-1 network. Its purpose is to connect citizens with public safety personnel. It conveys voice (and in the case of Next Generation 9-1-1, text also), along with the caller’s phone number (ANI – Automatic Number Identification), and the caller’s approximate location (ALI – Automatic Location Information). Example system: Zetron’s MAX Call Taking.
Radio Dispatch (aka “Console”) – This system is interfaced with the LMR (Land Mobile Radio) system of each agency (there may be several). Its purpose is to connect the ECC with first responders in the field (Fire, EMS, Law Enforcement). It conveys voice, and in modern LMR systems, it can convey the ID of the caller’s (ANI), as well as the caller’s emergency status. In some advanced LMR systems, it can also convey the location of the field units. Example systems: Zetron’s MAX Dispatch and ACOM Command & Control.
CAD – Computer Aided Dispatch – This system is used to create events that require dispatching, often referred to as “incidents”events that require dispatching), and to track the availability of field resources (first responders, and specialty apparatus). Its purpose is to make recommendations for which resources to dispatch based on the location and type of incident. This system is the PST’s primary focus, and also the most expensive system within the ECC. Example system: Zetron’s MAX CAD.
GIS – Graphical Information System – This system is used to map the location of 9-1-1 callers, and can also be used to determine the location of the various field first responders/apparatus. This system helps assists the PSTs decision on which resource is best situated to respond to an incident. Example system: Zetron’s MAX GIS.
Archive Recorder – This system is used to record the voice traffic from 9-1-1 calls, as well as the LMR system, and often records “meta data” such as the ID and location of the talker too. The purpose of the system is to provide legal traceability, and to aid in continual improvement of responses (both PSTs and first responders). When a media reporter submits a FOIA (freedom of information act) request to an agency, the source of the information is typically the archive recorder.
A PST has to interact with most, if not all of these systems, using multiple PCs andvideo monitors at their Workstation (aka “position”). Today’s systems are all IP (Internet Protocol) based data networks with servers located in the ECC. These systems are designed with Five 9’s (99.999%) availability because lives depend on it.
Ok newbie, I know you’ve got plenty more questions, and I plan to get to them in subsequent installments of this blog. The next one will be Public Safety Dispatch Centers 102 – 9-1-1 Call Flow
If you have specific questions about Public Safety ECCs, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try to ensure we get that covered before this series is complete.
By: Randy Richmond
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