The Technology Behind: 911 Police Communications and Dispatch

Maximum PC Staff

Before the advent of the rotary-dial telephone, people whose houses were burning down around them had it easy. All calls were placed with the assistance of an operator. If you needed the police, you’d pick up your phone’s handset and tell the operator to get them on the line. Dead simple. Once we were empowered with the ability to dial out to other telephone users without the assistance of an operator, things got a little more complicated. The method for requesting emergency assistance varied from state to state, and in many cases, even from city to city. The minutes lost to figuring out what number to call for help often lead the victims of crime, medical and fire emergencies to a tragic end. In 1967, AT&T and the Federal Communications Commission sat down to hammer out the details of the national standard for requesting help from emergency services that we still use today—dialing 911. While dialing this simple three digit number may seem like a no-brainer to us now, when 911 was first introduced, it was a paradigm shift in emergency communications that allowed, for example, an individual in Toledo on a business trip to call for an ambulance the same way he would have back home in San Francisco. Kind of a big deal, right?

Today, 911 isn’t just the gold standard of calling for help in the United States, it’s also used across Canada. In Ontario, should you need the assistance of the Guelph Police Service , your 911 call will be taken, processed and dispatched by an impressive collection of personnel, equipment and software handpicked to fit the city’s emergency needs. It’s a communications and dispatch system that Jonathan Green, the Guelph Police Service’s Information Systems Coordinator, is pretty proud of. Green and a team of in-house IT professionals are tasked with the daunting role of keeping the flow of information moving 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, ensuring that the public and Guelph’s police officers have clear lines of emergency communications available to them when they are needed most.

“Most people end up dealing with the police on some of the worst days of their lives”, says Green. “Making sure that we make things as easy as possible for them when they need police assistance is a priority for us.” Green added that with the world getting more dangerous by the day, keeping clear lines of communications open to convey data to officers in the field is more important than ever. How do they do it? Well, due to security concerns, Green couldn’t give us all the details behind how the Guelph Police Service fields incoming emergency calls, but in general, the technology behind a police communications and dispatch system will be similar no matter where you go in North America.

In most situations, when you dial 911 from a landline, the 911 dispatch center, also called a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), that answers your call is determined by your phone number. Each PSAP has a list of numbers that are pre-selected to be taken by a specific dispatch center. If you use a mobile phone to call for help, your handset transmits your call data to the nearest cellular tower, and then, based on that tower’s geographic location, routes it through to the appropriate PSAP. Sometimes, a tower might reside in an area where the lines of jurisdiction are muddled. While this can result in a call being sent to the wrong PSAP, the dispatch operator who answers your call is trained to connect you with the correct PSAP as quickly as possible. Even where communications barriers exist, most PSAPs will have you covered. Hearing impaired callers are able to communicate with dispatch operators through the use of TTY software or a device like the one pictured below.

If English isn’t your first language, you’ll find that the majority of PSAPs can provide translation services to their clients. According to Green, the service employed by the Guelph Police Service offers communications in over 100 languages to ensure that callers receive the assistance they need. More often than not, translation services are farmed out to companies such Language Line Services . In the event that a PSAP becomes incapacitated due to a systems failure or zombie apocalypse , most municipal, state and provincial police, EMS and fire services have agreements in place with other nearby centers to cover for one another, ensuring that the flow of requests for emergency assistance can continue without interruption.

Many of the pieces of hardware used in a typical PSAP are off-the-shelf consumer-grade solutions. We’re talking middle-of-the-road Dell and HP rigs rocking Windows XP here. The cutting-edge goofery you see in an average big budget Hollywood cop flick? It’s all nonsense.

“We tend to steer away from cutting-edge tech in favor of more stable solutions that have a long history of reliability”, says Green. “When we do upgrade our systems with new hardware or software, we aim to do so at times of the year that have shown a trend towards less incoming calls.” While the software needs of most PSAP dispatch centers will be similar in nature, the applications utilized are typically customized to meet the requirements of the region that a specific PSAP services. A handful of companies such as Amcom Software , 911 Inc. and Priority Dispatch provide the bulk of the software utilized in most 911 dispatch centers across North America.

Much like the hardware the applications run on, the software is frill-free, dependable, and features built-ins such as telephone/cellular location mapping, case entry fields, and built-in situation-specific question keys for dispatch operators to ask callers. Utilizing Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) software, PSAPs can funnel preparatory information pertaining to an emergency call to responding officers in the field. While no two CAD systems are likely to be the same, this wiki article offers a very respectable overview of how a typical CAD system operates.

The information sent out to officers can include call history for the address being responded to, past charges for known persons involved, whether or not the call involves weapons or violence of any sort - even biohazards or the presence of a dangerous animal. Having this intelligence on hand ensures that when the police arrive on scene, they’ll have all the information they need in order to deal with whatever they’re walking into as safely as possible.

Speaking of dispatching information to officers in the field, let’s talk about how the information gets from the PSAP and into the hands of the police on the street. If you said via radio, you get a cookie.

Despite the communications options available to emergency service workers today, radio transmission is still the primary method for shifting information from the PSAP to officers in the field, with cellular data communication to in-cruiser computer equipment coming in as a close second. Green explains that like many smaller municipalities, Guelph’s emergency services all share the same radio system, albeit on different channels. In much the same way that the PSAP is backed up, a number of redundant communications systems, including a secondary radio system and cellular radio technology are installed in the back of each emergency vehicle in case they’re needed.

“We try to stay away from using the cellular hardware in an emergency though”. Says Green. “As soon as something big happens, the networks get completely clogged up. Everyone calls home at the same time to make sure their loved ones are all OK.”  When asked to provide some deeper specifics concerning what equipment was used on the dispatch side of things to make the communicative magic happen, Green became mum once again, citing security. He was however more than ready to speak to what other hardware could be found in a typical police vehicle.

“We really like the Panasonic Toughbook ”, Green admitted. “The officers are hard on the hardware sometimes. Coffee spills, rain water; just general wear and tear can see equipment taking a lot of downtime. The water resistance and and general ruggedness keeps the hardware in the field where it belongs. Green explained that all of the in-car computers in use by the Guelph Police Service operate using mission-specific touch screen-enabled software, allowing access to dispatch and call information, criminal records, location data, and vehicle information—all the data that patrol officers need to do their job safely and effectively.

Outside of their vehicles, Guelph officers could rely on the same data relayed from dispatch to a handheld radio system or a Blackberry handset, bought off the shelf from local providers and stripped of its OS before being loaded up with—you guessed it—software that Green was unable to comment on. “Research in Motion wanted to provide us with handset hardware they’d specialized for law enforcement ”, said Green. “We turned it down and went with stock Blackberry phones instead. If the bad guys got to know the difference between the police and regular handsets, it really wouldn’t work out well for our undercover guys.”

We’ll admit it, the frustrating amount of security surrounding police communications technology is well… frustrating. We'd loved to have been able to show you more of what goes on behind the scenes with police communications and dispatch systems. That said, it’s comforting to know that North America’s emergency communication systems is so closely guarded. After all, if it ever turns out that we need the police on what Green would describe as our “worst day”, we’ll want to see our local 911 system running like clock work—mysterious systems and all.

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