While the public may not have noticed, the Loudoun County Emergency Communications Center has seen sweeping changes in the past year. This means first responders can help county residents faster and more efficiently when they need it the most.
The computer aided dispatch (CAD) used in Loudoun hadn’t changed from the 1980’s and 90’s. Yet in 2011, the county began planning for an updated system.
When people call 9-1-1, they want someone to answer the phone and send help quickly, and that’s what we do.
Representatives from the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, Loudoun County Fire and Rescue, the Loudoun Fire Marshal’s Office, Loudoun County Geographic Information System and Loudoun County Department of Information Technology worked from 2011 to 2014 to design the new system. The planning group interviewed employees to see what people needed to better do the job, created requirements document, reviewed vendors and planned for vendor demonstrations and interviews.
Then the new system was slowly implemented over a span of two years, with the system going live September 2016, LCSO Lt. Craig Schleiden said.
“It makes it easier on dispatchers and units,” LCSO Dispatcher Jorge Mejia-Martinez said.
Mejia-Martinez has worked as a dispatcher since 2007. He said that while the new system took some getting used to, it has made his job of helping people much easier. Increased GPS capabilities and information processing helps get vital information out much faster.
Now, dispatchers have more control over what resources and personnel are assigned to calls. When a 9-1-1 call first comes in, dispatchers determine if the caller needs police or Fire and Rescue services. Depending on the answer, the call will be transferred to a LCSO or Fire and Rescue dispatcher.
Prior for 2016, LCSO dispatchers could only send units that were on a certain area’s beat. Now, with updated GPS technology, dispatchers can send the closest available units. Schleiden said the system was designed with efficiency in mind. Not only can dispatchers track units through their car’s GPS, they can also track mobile portable radios, so if a deputy has to leave their car, dispatchers can still get an accurate location.
“GPS-wise, the system works wonderfully,” Mejia-Martinez said. “We can track (the radios) and get them where they need to be.”
The new system was customized to look familiar to dispatchers but all the features were put in order based on dispatchers’ process.When dispatchers from either side receive a call, they ask callers a series of questions to determine the incident and location. The new system makes it easier on dispatchers to enter the information and dispatchers can now click on their map and create an incident with all the details the caller gives. Deputies can see this map and notes dispatchers enter in live time on their car computers, Mejia-Martinez said.
The incident shows up on a queue for radio dispatch with a priority depending on the type of incident. Dispatchers look for available units or apparatus with GPS and recommend the appropriate response. It can also identify a complement of units. Deputies click a button to answer the call on their car computers and once they’ve responded to the call, they update the incident and mark themselves available. The dispatch is also announced on radio.
“When people call 9-1-1, they want someone to answer the phone and send help quickly,” Combined Fire and Rescue System Assistant Chief Matthew Tobia said. “And that’s what we do.”
The new system also makes it easier to locate people calling from their cell phones. Another important feature is that the system can be tweaked over time as dispatchers and first responders need. Eventually, additional modules will be added, like automatic resource locating which communicates with emergency apparatus and identifies which are closest and sends that personnel based on hyper-accurate information, Tobia said.
Eventually, likely in the next one to two years, a CAD to CAD resourcing system will also be available. This helps share resources faster and more efficiently with surrounding jurisdictions like Police and Fire and Rescue from Fairfax and Prince Williams Counties and Dulles Airport. Right now, dispatchers from one center have to call the other, so this upgrade would be more direct, Tobia said. To be prepared for this more direct and automatic resources sharing, Loudoun had to switch CAD systems.
Loudoun residents can also now text 9-1-1. Dispatchers will text back similar questions to those residents hear when they call in order to get the most accurate information. However, unlike with calls, the system cannot yet accurately pinpoint 9-1-1 texts with GPS, so calls are preferred.
“We always say call if you can, text if you can’t. That human interaction is critical in getting the most accurate information we can,” Tobia said.
Tobia said the new system has better prepared Loudoun for expected growth. It helps first responders better serve current and future needs. Unlike before, Loudoun now has a surge capacity, so should the county be hit by a natural or man-made disaster, the system can handle an large increase in calls.
“We are in a much more proactively positioned to manage an ever increasing 9-1-1 service. This is where all our emergency interactions begin,” Tobia said.
LCSO and Fire and Rescue have shared the communications center since 1990 and moved to the new center off Sycolin Road in 2015. The larger center allowed for more dispatchers from the two agencies, and a designated training space, Tobia said. In addition to the new system at the Emergency Communication Center, the backup center has also been fully updated, so no matter what, Loudoun first responders are prepared to serve the public.
Tobia calls the new system an overwhelming success. Schleiden also said dispatchers are happy with the new system and he is looking to see increased efficiency in response times.
“This system brings us into the 21st century,” Schleiden said. “Each agency poured in a lot of resources to make this work. We really got the best.”