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Take a Tour of a Modern 911 Central Dispatch Facility
In North America, we take for granted the convenience and availability of our first responders. I recently had the privilege to tour the Johnson County Central Dispatch (JCCD), the primary Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) in Johnson County, Missouri, and I was highly impressed. It had been about 20 years since the last time I toured a PSAP—commonly called a 911 call center, so I was curious to see the technology progression.
In 2013—to overcome space limitations, aging infrastructure, and old technology—a new countywide communications infrastructure and 911 center was built on U.S. government-donated land. From the outside, the JCCD is a nondescript block building, built to withstand severe weather and to require low maintenance, built for functionality, not flair. Kimberly Jennings, executive director, generously gave her time to be a personal tour guide. A few things stood out to me as we walked through the building. The facility had a bunkroom so that if severe weather prevented someone from driving home, they could comfortably stay overnight; the kitchen provided a stove, refrigerator, and the typical necessities.
Inside, 32 certified full and part-time Emergency Communications Operators receive and process emergency and non-emergency calls for law enforcement, emergency medical, and fire service. The JCCD provides service to the 55,000 people in the communities of Centerview, Chilhowee, Holden, Knob Noster, Leeton, and Warrensburg, along with Whiteman Air Force Base and the University of Central Missouri. In doing so, the JCCD coordinates with emergency first responders, four separate police departments and one sheriff’s department, two fire protection districts, two fire departments, one ambulance district, and various emergency service agencies.
As a seasoned IT professional, I have seen many data centers over the years. This one at the JCDD was the most impeccable I have ever seen. It was larger than I expected, but there wasn’t a single cable out of place, not a stray box or tool lying around, and there was no evidence of anything out of order. A lengthy conversation with Operations Director Steve Ewing gave me comfort that security is strong and in place, retention policies are followed, and infrastructure resilience is of utmost importance.
I was especially impressed that Ewing has a background as a trained PSAP agent. He wears multiple hats, supporting the IT systems and general operations. It’s typical that in the IT industry, an IT professional is “born and raised” in IT, then throughout their career, learns how to recognize and meet the needs of the business the IT pro is supporting. In Steve’s case, the PSAP is in his blood, so he naturally matches the technology to meet the needs of the business.
The operations center—the heartbeat of the place—looked as I expected. The center was absent windows, the better to avoid sun glare and provide the best protection from the elements. Every agent’s desk had four monitors displaying data. More monitors covered the walls. Some played the news to track emergencies or severe weather. Others showed feeds from local cameras so agents could monitor the JCDD’s own building and its antennae array. Everything was carefully staged in-place for ergonomics, intuition, and efficiency, giving the agent exactly what’s needed at the moment.
The center recently upgraded the telephone system and adopted VOIP service. The agents have a touch screen that displays critical information and has a small physical call-control module with a few well-labeled buttons for call control. This module appeared to be a throwback to an operator’s console, but it’s built for an agent to control calls quickly when time is precious in emergencies. Naturally, the voice system was built upon a sound and stable local network with multiple internet paths for redundancy. Cellular was available as a secondary option. On top of that, local POTS lines were retained for an extreme, tertiary landline solution. As a seasoned telecom guy, the set-up had my stamp of approval.
I was surprised to see this 911 PSAP had cell phone geolocation capabilities. I didn’t expect this in our small county an hour outside Kansas City. But since this 911 center measured call data, they were aware that over 80% of calls to 911 are made from mobile phones. The tricky part isn't finding out where a caller is—Apple has been using its hybrid location technology since 2015—but passing that information to an aging 911 system built for landlines. This is a challenge throughout the PSAP industry. Johnson County realized this and implemented the technology to accommodate cellular geolocation. It isn’t perfect. A demonstration call put me across the street from the center. But this isn’t the fault of the center, but rather the limitation of the cellular system at the time of the call.
Equally impressive to me was the 911 center’s county CAD maps. Various maps of the county showed the locations of the fire stations and the districts of their areas of responsibilities. Other maps show law enforcement and medical responders. For me, reviewing all of these maps was dizzying. I have no idea how an agent can keep track of multiple first responding districts at the scenes of emergencies across multiple maps. It was somewhat overwhelming to me and I understand the reason for the intensity of the training required to be a PSAP agent.
Jennings said the biggest challenge she faces right is employee retention, a common issue during the Great Resignation. She shared with me the same story I’ve heard from dozens of other employers: burnout has taken a toll on some agents; work-from-home opportunities have become more attractive; and competitive salaries now lure agents away from the center.
Jennings and the board members are actively addressing these concerns. In July 2022, the board passed a market adjustment establishing a significant increase in employees' starting pay. They also approved a "No Wait Benefits and PTO Time" and approval of a 32-hour workweek for all full-time non-exempt employees when they reach the minimum staffing requirement of 24 Telecommunicators (including supervisors) to make this work and a $3 pay differential for trainers. During the August 2022 board meeting, the board passed an employee wellness policy to provide a gym membership.
“That which is measured improves. That which is measured and reported improves exponentially.” - Mathematician and statistician Karl Pearson, born 1857
This PSAP closely tracks various call center metrics, comparing trends, analyzing times, scrutinizing performance, and constantly seeking opportunities for improvement. I found it curious that calls for law, medical, and fire rose steadily over the last three years, despite stay-at-home orders during COVID. The numbers confirmed my suspicion that police are busier than other agencies. Law enforcement calls crossed 20,000 from January to May, while there were about 4000 medical calls and approximately 2000 fire-related calls.
The PSAP training program is an intense, six-week work period in a classroom following strict coursework, testing and practical exercises. Not everyone makes it through the program. It takes a special person who can juggle the complexity, manage the technical aspects, compartmentalize the emotions and focus on detail. In addition to these high expectations, they must also be humble and willing to review old calls and look for ways to improve themselves and perform even better the next day.
Just like first responders in the field constantly train for medical, fire, or law enforcement scenarios, everyone in the JCCD center undergoes regular training either to keep skills sharp, learn new technology, and improve a process. In addition to all of that, JCCD employees must know the nuances of the county. For example, in the city of Warrensburg, there’s a duplicate street name in town. Dispatchers must be sure of the caller’s location and be clear with the first responders. They also track road closures due to construction or floods, an active parade, or congestion from a Saturday game at the University of Central Missouri. If there’s a call for an ambulance on the north side of town, an ambulance on the south side of town will relocate to be in a better position to respond.
PSAP operations are complicated. As a 25-year veteran of telecom, I was very happy with the center, and I was also impressed at the forward-thinking nature of the leadership and state-of-the-art technology. It requires very specific skill sets in each role within JCCD. We are all grateful for our first responders—and should be mindful that it all begins with the local dispatch center.