Stopping the revolving door
Willis Carter, the incoming APCO president, started in his service in 1972 as a firefighter in Shreveport, La. Six years later, he moved over to the city’s communications division, where he worked for seven years as a call taker and dispatcher before being named chief of the division, which had 10 employees. Today, it employs 40 dispatchers and call takers who provide communications to a department consisting of 600 firefighters. Carter also is responsible for two IT technicians who ensure the fire stations can receive those communications.
Carter’s experience in the field and in the communications center makes him uniquely qualified to comment on the current state of public-safety communications, which he did recently in an interview with MRT.
What did you learn in the field as a firefighter about communications that is guiding you today?
When I started in this position, there was a tendency for dispatchers to wonder why firefighters weren’t answering them right away. But having been there, I could visualize all of the things firefighters have to do on the way to a fire and when they arrive that the average person doesn’t understand or realize. There’s a lot of work that goes on, and it’s very hectic in the early stages of suppression. I’m not advocating that a person needs to be a certified firefighter or police officer to be a good dispatcher or call taker, but I think you have to have some degree of knowledge as to what goes on in the field. It’s also a good idea for firefighters to have some idea of what’s happening in a communications center. The firefighters are dealing with just one event, and they don’t understand that the call takers and dispatchers often are dealing with multiple events. So, if a firefighter calls in and the dispatcher doesn’t answer right way, it’s not because he’s being ignored. Cross knowledge is very important.
What were communications in the field like when you first started?
When I came to work, we had no portable radios. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had terrible communications. We dealt with it.
How did you deal with it?
Looking back, it was pretty amazing. We used a lot of runners. Nowadays that’s all changed. Today, we operate an 800 MHz trunked system with seven sites and 15 channels that provides 95% percent coverage inside buildings, outside buildings — it doesn’t matter. We have multiple portables now on each unit, which is a little bit of a challenge sometimes because it creates more work for the dispatchers, but we can live with those kinds of challenges as long as there’s good, adequate communications.
As you look forward to your year as APCO president, how would you describe the state of public-safety communications?
We’re on the cusp of a technology boom. The real challenge is to analyze all of the technologies that seem to come out of the woodwork on a daily basis to determine what will be most meaningful to first responder communications. But aside from technology, we still face a lot of issues.
What are some of those issues?
Communications center operations are critically important. There are five pillars to the success of a communications center: You have to have the right people, you have to have policies and procedures that are adequate, you have to have appropriate training, you have to have proper supervision, and then you have to have proper disciplinary procedures in place to make sure everything works well. Those five principles will be a focus for APCO this year, as it has in the past. Project RETAINS also will be a very important focus for us … because that program helps communications center managers determine how many call takers they need to hire to handle the volume of calls they receive. Professional excellence is a priority of mine.
Of the five pillars, which is in the most need of improvement?
The biggest challenge communications center managers face is hiring and retaining good people. Selecting the right person for the job and keeping them on the job. Turnover in our nation’s communications centers typically has been pretty dramatic.
Why is that?
There are a number of reasons. The pay the dispatchers get, the training they get, whether the communications center has good policies — it all ties back together in a big circle. We’ve started to address that through Project RETAINS, which guides and directs communications center managers not only on how to select the right people but, more important, on how to determine the right number of people. That’s a big factor in turnover. The stress in communications centers is absolutely phenomenal, and in centers that are understaffed, there obviously is a higher stress level. Even good call takers and dispatchers, if they’re constantly working short or having to pull overtime, that additional stress will wear on them over a period of time. When that happens, two things generally occur: They either find another career or their performance starts to drop.
What are some of the technologies that are exciting you today?
Telematics technology is interesting, companies like OnStar and ATX. That is very exciting from the perspective of providing early warning and early information about automobile crashes. Also, next-generation 911 is going to be an exciting issue to talk about next year.
NG911 will be based on IP architectures. There are some in public safety who are very bullish about IP, and others who are wary. Where do you stand?
I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t think that conventional radio systems, or conventional 911 systems are going to disappear overnight. But I think IP-based networks are the wave of the future, and I think it’s something we’re going to embrace. It will take years to implement IP technologies — if they’re ever fully implemented — but it is a viable component and something we should give heavy and deep thought to.
Why will it take years to implement and what would prevent its full implementation?
An agency’s inability to embrace technology and the cost that’s involved would prevent implementation. A lot of agencies have tremendous amounts of money invested in their current systems, and if those systems are working well, they’re going to be reluctant to ditch them and go to something new. Also, right now there’s nothing to guarantee that public-safety answering points will continue to have a revenue stream. That’s a critically important issue, regardless of what happens with NG911. Right now there is no mechanism to collect 911 surcharges from VoIP subscribers, as there is for wireline and wireless subscribers.
Regarding PSAP funding, there has been some talk about letting that sector tap into the $1 billion that Congress has appropriated for interoperability. What’s your position on that?
I think that interoperability funding and PSAP funding are two different things. Interoperability means public-safety radio. I don’t believe it was intended to include access to 911. I’m a staunch supporter of PSAP funding — they need money. There is [separate] money allocated for PSAPs, and I’m certainly in support of them getting that money. But APCO’s position is that the money allocated for interoperability is for radio interoperability and not 911 access.
APCO 2007 Basics
When: August 5-9
Where: Baltimore Convention Center
Exhibits: Mon., Aug. 6, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Tues., Aug. 7, 9:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; Wed., Aug. 8, 9:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m.
Conference: Mon., Aug. 6, 1:15-5:30 p.m.; Tues., Aug. 7, 1:00-5:15 p.m.; Wed., Aug. 8, 9:45-11: a.m. and 1:15-2:30 p.m.; Thurs., Aug. 9, 8:00 a.m.-2:45 p.m.
Keynote: U.S. Coast Guard Captain Larry Brudnicki, a 30-year veteran of the service who led two rescues during the legendary “Perfect Storm,” Mon., Aug. 6, 8:00-9:30 a.m.
Special Events: Attendee Welcome Reception, Sun., 6:30-9:30 p.m.; Tailgate Party at Oriole Park at Camden Yards (below), Tues., 6:30-10:00 p.m.; Blue and White Gala reception and dinner, Wed., Aug. 8, 6:30-9:00 p.m.
More info: www.apco2007.org