The city of Boston this month will begin testing a new computer-aided dispatch () system that replaces a 30-year-old system. Huntsville, Ala.-based CAD vendor Intergraph I s providing the system, which is scheduled to go live on Sept. 23, culminating a project that began in 2008.
Next month, the city will launch a “train the trainer,” program and then go about the task of teaching 3,000 police officers, 1,700 firefighters and 500 emergency medical technicians to use the system, a process that will take about five months, according to Donald Denning, the city’s public-safety CIO and the executive project sponsor for this deployment.
“This is going to be a huge undertaking,” Denning said during an interview.
Indeed, it already has been a huge undertaking, as planning for the system began five years ago, while implementation began three years ago. It was worth the time and effort, as the system is considerably more advanced than the one that Boston first responders have relied upon for three decades, Denning said.
‘On the fire side, we’re going from telegraph, [where we] actually were counting bells and box numbers, and pulling cards out to dispatch fire apparatus to building fires—[a system that] has been around since the days of the horses—to using AVL [automatic vehicle location] to dispatch the closest available or most appropriate unit,” he said.
The initiative also will upgrade the police department’s records-management system, which is a big step forward, according to Denning.
“This will transform the way they do business,” he said. “We took their 90 home-grown, separate systems, and put them all into one COTS [commercial off the shelf] system. Having everything together in this big, single system will allow them to make use of industry-standard practices that have been developed by all of the users of the records system worldwide.”
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the project was something that Denning described as “change management.” He described the issues surrounding this aspect as “unfathomable,” and added that this aspect is one that often is overlooked—and is much more challenging to execute in the public sector.
“In the private sector, you don’t have all of these extra dynamics, like union negotiations,” he said.
One element of change management that wasn’t all that challenging concerned the police department, which will give up control of the dispatch system to a newly created agency that will manage the system and provide emergency communications for police, fire and EMS. Public-safety agencies often are reticent to cede control, but not in this case, Denning said.
“People recognize that these systems are substantially different than they were 20 years ago, and the skill set that you need to manage them is substantially different,” he said. “This was something that the business consumers—police, fire and EMS—all wanted. They wanted a central resource that had depth [to manage this system].”
One reason Intergraph was attractive as a vendor because of the work it does with utilities and financial-services firms, Denning said.
“We might think that it’s a big deal here in Boston to handle hundreds of thousands of emergency 911 calls a month, but then when you think of a large utility in the Chicago area that has an Intergraph call system, a good tornado is going to generate a hundred thousand calls in a day. … [And] in the financial-services industry, where a millisecond of downtime represents billions of dollars in transactional costs, they really understand mission-critical.”
Even as the deployment enters the home stretch of a long journey, Denning already is looking toward the future, because things tend to change quickly in public-safety communications these days.
“Every decision that we make today needs to keep in mind what our environment is going to look like in the next 10-15 years,” he said.