In case of emergency, send text (fire crews will get there sooner)
Radio dispatching revolutionized emergency response in the 20th century, but like all technologies it has its limitations.
“Radio is reliable, but it’s not,” said Mark Mordecki, a firefighter with the Farmington, N.M., Fire Department, who manages the 911 transcript processing system. Radio transmissions can be hard to hear or understand and the airwaves can be crowded. “We’ve got 16 agencies on the same dispatch channel. When there are multiple calls, you have to wait minutes to get on the radio.”
The Farmington F.D. today relies on computer-aided dispatch, which allows operators at 911 call centers to deliver data digitally to a variety of endpoint devices. On one recent fire run, “we were en route five minutes before we actually got dispatched” by radio because firefighters at the station received the run information as a text message on their cell phones, Mordecki said.
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Farmington has been using text messaging as an additional channel for dispatching for about seven years. But the use of Remote Print Manager to convert dispatch data to cell phone text is still a new wrinkle to Dave Brooks, CEO of Brooks Internet Software, which created RPM.
“We did not conceive this solution,” Brooks said. He described the print server software as something of a Swiss army knife that can manage data for delivery to a variety of endpoints. Still, “it didn’t occur to us that anyone would do this with it. It was the fire department that figured out for themselves that this would work.”
Farmington adopted the technology because the department was looking for a fast, reliable and inexpensive backup to the computer systems that were replacing radio dispatch. The department has about 100 paid personnel plus volunteers serving a city of about 60,000 from six stations.
“We need eight, but we have six now,” Mordecki said. All county emergency calls are routed to a central 911 answering center, which dispatches for all of the departments. The center uses software from New World Systems to send dispatch data to the departments.
Beyond rip and run
In the initial stage of computer aided dispatch, dispatchers would enter the data from a call into the system by keyboard, and each fire station had a dot-matrix printer that would print out the information as a run card.
“They would rip the information off and run,” Mordecki said. “It was called a rip-and-run sheet.”
The dot-matrix printers have since been replaced with mobile data terminals in each vehicle that receive the run card data online. This usually is quicker and more reliable than radio and more convenient than a rip-and-run sheet, but it is not perfect.
“MDTs in trucks can go down, and then you don’t have any way other than what comes over the radio to know where you are going,” Mordecki said. A dispatch also can contain information about dangerous situations on a fire or ambulance run that it would be an advantage for each fireman to have. “We needed a second way of getting information.”
Cell phone texting was an obvious solution. The department used to provide cell phones for its full-time firefighters, but since they have become nearly ubiquitous it has become cheaper for the department to provide a small stipend for the use of personal phones.
“Text messaging is cheap at this point,” Mordecki said. “Almost everybody carries their own cell phone, and most have unlimited text messages.”
Getting the information out in a usable format was not as simple as it might appear at first, however. “There is too much information that comes across” with the dispatch for a text message, Mordecki said. Extra characters either would be dropped from the text message or multiple texts would be required, neither an ideal situation. “What we needed was a program that would look at a text file, remove certain characters, remove extra spaces, and replace some characters with others.”
That is the function carried out by Remote Print Manager, which massages text into formats appropriate for e-mail, attachments, or other output as well as for traditional printers. Brooks wrote the original version of RPM for the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s while working at what then was the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (now the Idaho National Lab).
“We play well with others,” Brooks said of RPM. It can handle data in a variety of forms and produce output for a variety of devices, using rules provided by the customer. “We work with government agencies a lot,” primarily in the areas of medical records and imaging.
The software required a “little bit” of customization to do the required dispatch-to-text translation for the Farmington F.D., Mordecki said. This was done with the help of BIS support staff. “RPM is pretty simple,” he said. “Any IT guy would be able to program it. It’s not rocket science.”
It does not cost as much as a space mission, either. “I think we got into it for about $500,” he said.
Although the texts often are the first notification of a dispatch the firemen receive, they are essentially a backup to the MDT channel and the radio. However, texting also is an effective way to notify off-duty personnel of runs without their having to rely on a radio or pager, including off-duty chiefs who are routinely notified of major calls.
Volunteer firefighters also can be alerted of calls this way rather than with a pager, which is a one-way communications channel. Volunteers can reply immediately to a text without having to wait until they arrive at a station to notify dispatch that they are responding. By using Exchange for distribution lists and as the mailer, the text system can easily scale to handle a larger number of groups if the department ever gets the two additional stations it could use, Mordecki said.