When Max Machuta, owner of Traverse City, Mich.-based Municipal Services, was asked by the Orland Park (Ill.) Police Department in 1999 to guide them on an overhaul of the department's dispatch center, the task was pretty typical: take a system that was outdated and encountering reliability and expansion issues and bring it into the future.

“They asked me to review everything they had and tell them what they needed to do to move forward with the technology,” Machuta said. “Their old dispatch system had gone through years of modifications and re-modifications — it was the typical 9½ thousand miles of wires. They wanted to clear that up and create a current dispatch center that incorporated the newest technology at the time, basically moving from buttons and knobs to touch-screen capability, the typical thing you go through in an upgrade.”

Although the specifications required by the Orland Park Police Department were routine, the circumstances surrounding the upgrade were not, according to Machuta. “The network side brings a lot of information to the console that normally is not in a radio console, such as video inputs, so they can watch what's going on from selectable cameras. There's also a network-alarm interface, so they can view all of the activity that takes place on [the village's] water system. So, those two are onscreen all the time, blocked out as separate windows.”

Machuta solicited bids from four vendors for the project, but one solution stood out: a Windows-based solution developed by North Hollywood, Calif.-based Moducom. “I had talked to five or six of their customers, and everyone who had one was satisfied,” Machuta said. “It was relatively easy to install. It went in good — no glitches at all.”

One of the advantages of the system, according to John Patrizi, owner of J&L Electric in Blue Island, Ill., who installed it, is that it lets users modify it on their own.

“If they don't like where a button is located, or the size or color of a button, they can go into design mode, pull up the screen and move items around,” Patrizi said. “It also lets users make changes at one position and then input it to the others, without having to go around to each individual position. That's a big thing.”

Without that capability, users would need to hire technicians such as Patrizi, who charges $85 per hour, to rewrite their screens, a process that can take anywhere from an hour to several days, he said.

Mike Sikorski, communications director for the Orland Central Dispatch Center, which installed a Moducom system in 2004, agreed. “Administratively, we can adjust the screen, move stuff, change colors and set volumes for each frequency,” he said. “You can hide icons on certain screens because the average dispatcher doesn't need to work with everything.”

All changes can be made in drag-and-drop mode because the system is Windows-based. “It's very simple,” Sikorski said.

Perhaps too simple, cautioned Machuta, who advised administrators to keep access to the editing mode under lock and key.

“While you want the administrator to have the ability to readily reconfigure the system any way they wish, I'm not a proponent of letting dispatchers make changes,” he said. “What we purport is that you have multiple screens set up for different dispatchers. In other words, when a dispatcher logs on with their ID, the screen that they like to use comes up. But allowing dispatchers to move things around on the screen, and then have the next dispatcher sit down and try to figure out where everything is, is disastrous.”

Another advantage of Moducom's system, Sikorski said, is the ability to personalize screens for individual dispatchers, which helps to boost morale, but more important, saves precious seconds during an emergency call because the dispatcher knows where everything is on the screen. Another plus is the system's cloning feature, which allows administrators to rename and save screens rather than continually creating them from scratch.

These benefits are dwarfed by the system's dual-screen capability, which is a major plus given the amount of traffic and number of agencies handled by the Orland Central Dispatch Center, Sikorski said. The center currently provides dispatch services for the Orland Park Fire Department and six other surrounding departments and handles extra alarms for a total of 35 departments.

In addition to 911 call data, screens also display computer-aided dispatch and mapping information and let dispatchers control various building lock boxes — which can be opened by a radio tone, giving firefighters entry into the building without them having to carry a key for every business or municipal building in town — fire station doors and radio towers, letting them place the towers in and out of service as needed. The screens also display information that tells the dispatchers which radio frequencies are in use and how they're being used at any given moment.

“There's a lot to look at,” Sikorski said. “It would be impossible to work it all onto one screen. Moducom's system lets you put the two screens side by-side to create one large screen, and your mouse moves back and forth between the screens.”

Machuta agreed. “The typical reason that anyone would go to dual-screen is the amount of information,” he said. “If they have a lot of information — and a lot of departments that they dispatch to — or they want to have other technology on the screen at the same time, the density of the amount of information on one screen makes it too busy for someone to be able to sort out and manage it, especially in a concentrated environment. You want your icons and other indicators large enough so that you can press those without disturbing two or three other processes.”

There are several ways that the dual screens can be configured, but Machuta advised departments the size and scope of the Orland Central Dispatch Center to place information from their primary radio systems on one screen.

“These would be the systems they talk to all the time,” he said. “You could have 10 to 15 radio systems on the primary screen, and it wouldn't be too busy to see what's going on.”

Machuta suggested using the secondary screen to display surrounding departments and the secondary dispatch centers with which they communicate on a regular basis, as well as the local telephone interface.

According to J&L Electric's Patrizi, seven Moducom dispatch consoles currently are deployed in the Chicago metropolitan area, including dual-screen systems at Orland Central Dispatch, Countryside Police Department and Hickory Hills Police Department. The largest system in the area is scheduled to be online in February at Southwest Central Dispatch in Palos Heights, Ill., which serves agencies in three counties. The half-million dollar system provides six positions and is expandable to 10, Patrizi said.

Single-screen systems are scheduled for deployment in the villages of Northfield and Riverside in early spring, joining similar systems at Orland Park Police and in the villages of Stone Park and Alsip.

They might want to wait just a little longer, as Moducom is planning a system upgrade that will add a radio-logging capability “very shortly,” said Don Poysa, regional sales manager.

“Currently, the system has a server that permanently stores and logs all of the telephone calls from the 911 and admin lines and provides full reporting capability,” he said. “We don't have that on the radio side, and that's what we're going to be adding in a year or so.

“It's probably not a big selling point because most of the agencies already have [radio] logging recorders, but we've had some people tell us it would be nice to have that [in a single system] so they wouldn't have to go out and buy one because they cost from $20,000 to $25,000.”