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A better way to dispatch

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A couple of days ago, I was thumbing through my notebook and came across a few scribbles that I made during last month's National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference in Long Beach, Calif. I meant to write about this at the time, but other more pressing things jumped onto the radar screen. The information still is relevant, so I'll share it with you now.

During a couple of sessions, the state of California's Routing on Empirical Data (RED) program was discussed. The program uses analytics to better understand the 911 emergency calls generated within the state. Calls are broken down according to a variety of metrics, including geography, whether they were wireline or wireless, time of day, call duration and call-transfer history.

By crunching data captured by the 911 Emergency Call Tracking System (ECATS) which monitors activity at the state's 462 public safety answering points, the RED project analysis is being used to help PSAPs make better staffing decisions, according to Karen Wong, director of the public-safety communications office within the California Technology Agency,

"We now have some fact-based, decision-making tools," Wong said. "The data will help us use resources more wisely, which is important, because they're getting scarcer."

Perhaps more important, the data are being used to reduce the number of transfers it takes to get the emergency call to the appropriate 911 center. In California, the California Highway Patrol's jurisdiction is the state's freeways, and it fields wireless E-911 calls made from them. But, by default, it also was fielding calls from sections of cities and towns that are adjacent to the freeways. When the CHP determined that call would be more appropriately handled by a local jurisdiction — often the case — it would make the transfer. But transfers take time, which is a precious commodity when lives are at stake.

This scenario is not a rare occurrence, because of the enormous number of freeways in the state, particularly in southern California. In 2007, the CHP fielded about three-quarters of the state's 11.6 million wireless E-911 calls. But, because it only had about 9% of the state's 911 work stations, 4.9 million (42%) of those callers received busy signals.

Something had to be done, and the RED project was initiated. In time, the data that had been crunched were superimposed onto various maps, something that was quite useful, according to Don Reich, vice president of Los Angeles-based Public Safety Network, which was involved in the project.

"It gave us a visual representation of where calls originated in each sector," Reich said. "We used the data to make changes on where calls should be routed."

Reich said that the RED project also identified several anomalies that caused 911 calls to be fielded by a PSAP in one town, when it should have been fielded by one in the adjoining town. This commonly occurs because the relevant cellular coverage area was not where they thought it was.

"There are several reasons why this would happen," Reich said. "One is that the radio technician simply pointed the antenna in the wrong direction — drive tests aren't always accurate."

The RED project has been credited with reducing wireless E-911 busy signals in California from 42% in 2007 to about 2% in 2011, and it resulted in local PSAPs fielding 6.6 million wireless E-911 calls in 2010, compared to 3.1 million in 2007. For these reasons, the RED project won a 2011 award from the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) in the category of cross-boundary collaboration and partnerships.

Statistics don't always tell the real story, but it's difficult to question these numbers. The RED project seems to be a great success, and it would be nice to see it replicated in other areas of the country. When you're having the worst day of your life, every second counts, so you don't want to be bounced from one PSAP to another — and you certainly don't want to get a busy signal.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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