With their new installations of Zetron’s MAX Dispatch system, three Pennsylvania PSAPs are preparing to share, access, and use each others’ radio resources.
What do you do if you’re an emergency communications center director, and a storm of Sandy proportions hits your county, wiping out your call-taking and dispatch operations just when your community needs them most?
Until recently, you’d have had to move your operations to a backup location equipped with the extra radio and phone systems necessary to resume your center’s activities. This assumes you had already funded, purchased, and set up the additional site this would require.
But with the advent of IP-based communication technologies, new, more-flexible, less-expensive alternatives are emerging.
As a result, several public-safety agencies in Pennsylvania are becoming equipped to back each other up from their own locations with just the click of a mouse. Thus far, the nine counties that make up Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier Regional Telecommunications Project (Clearfield, Jefferson, Elk, Cameron, McKean, Clarion, Warren, Crawford and Forest) are already able to answer 9-1-1 calls for each other if and when the need arises. And three of them—Elk, Clarion, and Clearfield—have just taken this a step further. They have each installed Zetron’s MAX Dispatch system. This will eventually allow them to extend their regional backup capability to include radio dispatch as well.
The challenge for public safety
The Northern Tier Telecommunications project began when nine counties in Northern Pennsylvania decided to confront head-on a problem that is common to many public safety answering points (PSAPs) throughout the United States. They need to find ways to fund and maintain their communications equipment and ensure that it can support emerging standards and technologies—even as their budgets decline.
Some communities have responded by merging their numerous smaller communications centers into a single, consolidated agency. Although this can increase efficiencies and cut costs, it can also reduce local responsiveness and eliminate jobs.
Michael McGrady had what he thought was a better idea.
The rationale for regionalization
The president of MCM Consulting Group, Inc., McGrady had been asked to help the member counties of the Northern Tier Telecommunications Project create a comprehensive strategic plan that would allow them to fulfil their respective missions and cut costs.
He proposed that instead of consolidating and reducing their number of PSAPs, the Northern Tier group create a regional, Next Generation 9-1-1 network over which they could share a variety of resources and provide backup for each other. Each member of the group would have the freedom to participate in the regionalization of any or all of the services a PSAP typically provides, from 9-1-1 call-taking and radio dispatch to mapping, computer aided dispatch, and call logging. This approach, McGrady reasoned, would keep the agencies current; improve the efficiency and redundancy of their operations; and reduce their equipment, maintenance, and network costs.
“This is about regionalizing technology, not consolidation,” McGrady explains. “When you regionalize, you not only create more redundancy and efficiency in your system, but you maintain the independence of your agency, prolong the life of your PSAPs, and preserve jobs.” He adds that state and federal 9-1-1 funds are becoming increasingly available to “…incentivize regional technology projects.”
The first step, but not the last
The entire Northern Tier group agreed to participate in what would be the first phase of their regionalization project. It involved setting up a fiber network and installing the updated 9-1-1 equipment needed to support the sharing of 9-1-1 call-taking operations across all nine counties.
This phase went live in mid-2013. Since that time, the participants in the project have indeed been able to answer each others’ 9-1-1 calls, and a tenth county (Erie) has joined the system.
This was a great first step. But it wasn’t the last.
Clearfield County Emergency Services 9-1-1 director Joe Bigar explains why: “With a multi-agency phone system, if Elk County is busy, we can answer and process their phone calls,” he says “but we can’t dispatch for them.”
The next logical step would be to extend the multi-agency capability to the Northern Tier counties’ radio dispatch operations.
The goal of this phase of the project would be to eventually access and use each others’ radio channels and other radio resources. If one of the agencies were to be evacuated, its dispatchers would be able to walk into one of the other agencies, sit down at a console, and start dispatching as if they were at their own center. Or the incapacitated center’s operations could be assumed by one of the other counties’ dispatchers from their center. Either way, the integrity of the disabled PSAP’s operations would be maintained.
Elk, Clarion and Clearfield counties lead the way
Elk, Clarion, and Clearfield counties were the first in the Northern Tier group that decided to install the new dispatch equipment necessary to regionalize their dispatch services. Regionalization wasn’t their only consideration, however. All three PSAPs’ dispatch systems had reached their “end of life.”
“The manufacturer of our existing system told us that we could continue to use it if we wanted to,” says Clarion County 9-1-1 director Lance Theiss, “but if we had issues, we were on our own.”
They all decided that not only would they install new dispatch equipment, but they would each purchase and install the same manufacturer’s equipment so it would be interoperable. They also agreed that new equipment would be IP-based and would have to support technology that would allow them to regionalize their dispatching.
‘The biggest bang for the buck’
Zetron’s IP-based MAX Dispatch system was not the only system considered for the project. But it was the one that would give them, as Bigar puts it, “…the biggest bang for our buck.”
It offered a host of highly desirable features and functionality. Its configurable screens could be laid out to mimic the screens of the previous equipment at each center. This would minimize the number of new things dispatchers would have to learn to operate the new equipment. MAX Dispatch is also inherently easy to use.
“It’s a top priority to make things easy for our dispatchers,” says Clearfield County systems administrator, Jeremy Ruffner. “We liked the MAX system because it would be simple for them to learn and use.”
Last but not least was the fact that with the MAX Dispatch system, the three agencies would be able to use Zetron’s newly released geo-diverse MAX Dispatch Portal.
The MAX Dispatch Portal
The MAX Dispatch Portal is a licensed software service that will eventually link the three counties’ systems and allow resource sharing and backup between them. Although the Portal is not being implemented immediately, it is the vital piece that will put the three PSAPs on the path to regionalization.
Installing MAX Dispatch
The three PSAPs installed their new MAX Dispatch systems throughout late 2013 and early 2014.
Elk County was first.
“We installed the new system in parallel with their old one and kept them both running until we had all of the details smoothed out,” says Greg Muhich, owner of Chestnut Ridge Radio Communications, the Zetron reseller who handled the project. “Elk County’s installation includes six regular positions—which is what they had before—and two on tablets,” Muhich continues. “So in addition to their fixed positions, they have two that they can use to quickly set up remote and mobile operations if and when they need them.”
Elk County’s installation went live in December of 2013. Shortly thereafter, Clarion and Clearfield followed suit, with Clarion’s installation of MAX Dispatch going live in January of 2014 and Clearfield’s going live in February.
“I really like the MAX system,” says Theiss. “My dispatchers like it too, and if our dispatchers like it I’m happy. Plus, it’s easy to administer. I can go in and change something easily and quickly if need be. It’s very user friendly.”
Muhich says his experience with Zetron was exceptional. He has particular praise for Maari Adams, the Zetron Territory Manager who worked with him on the project. “Maari is terrific,” he says. “She kept on top of everything, followed up beautifully, and was a pleasure to work with. So were Zetron’s tech support people and engineers. I really look forward to working with them again.”
‘We’re on our way!’
The three counties have completed their new installations of MAX Dispatch and are pleased with the results. They are also eagerly anticipating the additional benefits the MAX Dispatch Portal will bring.
“Our MAX Dispatch system met every expectation we’ve thrown at it,” says Elk County emergency management director, Mike McAllister. “Next will be the Portal and working with our neighboring counties to discover what we’ll be able to do with it, what features we’ll want, and how we’ll work together to implement it. It offers wonderful possibilities that we’re looking forward to. We’re on our way!”
“Many of the other counties in the Northern Tier are using the same aging dispatch system we just replaced,” adds Ruffner. “Those who will be replacing their equipment in the next few years are also looking at installing MAX Dispatch. When they do, they’ll be able to join us in a regional dispatch that could eventually include most if not all of the Northern Tier members.”n