Responding to a Pandemic: Technology Considerations for PSAPs


Dave Mulholland During a pandemic, Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) around the country must be prepared for reduced onsite staff due to social distancing measures and increased sick and family medical leave. To learn more about unique solutions to this complicated challenge, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) recently interviewed stakeholders who shared their approach to managing a remote 9-1-1 environment.

HOW AN EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS CENTER IN VIRGINIA HAS PROVIDED REMOTE SOLUTIONS TO ADDRESS PANDEMIC RELATED ISSUES

To address this challenge, the Emergency Communications Center (ECC) in Arlington County, Virginia has implemented the use of a virtual private network (VPN), laptops, and additional monitors to allow for remote call handling and Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD).

CISA recently interviewed Dave Mulholland, the Arlington County Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management Administrator, to discuss these solutions and lessons learned. Highlights of the interview are summarized below.

What are your plans regarding PSAP operations with the unique technology challenges brought on by A PANDEMIC?

Dave Mulholland: Recently, we began a trial to look at ways for telecommunicators to work remotely. As you may know, PSAPs operate with a number of different systems.

Break it down by systems/functions. Let’s start with call taking.

Motorola Vesta Command PostDave Mulholland: We feel that cooperation between neighboring agencies is key. Arlington County and the City of Alexandria have jointly purchased a system to handle our 9-1-1 calls. By having a shared 9-1-1 system, in addition to cost savings, we have the ability to support each other during times of high call volumes or any event that affects power, facilities, etc. The Motorola VESTA® system* architecture allows for both the audio and 9-1-1 caller location to transfer between jurisdictions. The jointly purchased 9-1-1 system also allows a call taker from either of our organizations the ability to relocate to any physical site that is equipped with a Vesta® workstation and login, providing additional options for back-up.

Our intention is to replicate the five or six screen configuration that Telecommunicators use in the PSAP today. We use VESTA® for call handling and purchased six laptops (with an additional six being shipped at the end of the month), the VESTA® Command Post product from Motorola. The VESTA® software operates on a hardened laptop and is delivered in a Pelican case. This is clearly overkill for our use case, as it is meant for a mobile deployment, but it is the product they currently offer. Each system is deployed with a Verizon® or T-Mobile® MiFi unit as well as a FirstNet device built by AT&T® to help ensure they have both the speed and reliable connectivity required for 9-1-1. 

The system is configured with VPN software to allow the remote laptop to securely access the VESTA® server. One issue quickly became apparent: recording 9-1-1 calls. Our NICE Ltd. system records at the device level and not the server, so this results in remote 9-1-1 calls not being recorded at the enterprise level, although the VESTA® Command Post computer does save the recordings locally. We are currently working with our vendor to understand the available options to address this issue. Once this solution is deployed, a total of eight call takers will have remote access.  

Can you please describe your telework screen configuration plan?

Dave Mulholland: Our approach is to provide the same number of screens that are used in the center. There is a concern however, that the remote locations might not have enough space for all of the equipment.

The proposed setup has:

  • One 26-inch screen for VESTA® plus the screen on the laptop
  • Two 26-inch screens for CAD plus the screen on the laptop
  • One laptop screen for access to other ECC resources such as text-to-9-1-1, law enforcement records management, etc.
     

How DO YOU PLAN TO PROVIDE CAD remotely?

Arlington Remote CAD Visual Dave Mulholland: For CAD, we can deploy a separate PC running a desktop application that remotely takes control of a CAD workstation in the center. We will have to place a sign on these CAD workstations, noting they are being used remotely. It is a typical remote desktop application. 

Are there any restrictions on running CAD in a remote location?

Dave Mulholland: Legally, CAD cannot run the National Crime Information Center/Virginia Criminal Information Network (NCIC/VCIN) outside of Virginia. This is a policy of Virginia State Police, which manages the Criminal Justice Information Service. This requires employees to be teleworking in Virginia, and we are working with the State Police on this issue. However, our call-takers could conduct queries using the same mobile data computer software and hardware that are used in the police car. Meanwhile, we have created an additional CAD user ID for each call-taker which denotes they are operating in remote mode and removes the access to VCIN from within the CAD system. This really only places a restriction on the remote worker only being able to process calls and not being able to dispatch which would necessitate running VCIN queries in CAD.

What are a few of the operational specifics that you are working on to overcome technological challenges?

Dave Mulholland: Where to deploy the remote stations is an operational concern. We do not have enough for all of the staff, so we still need to develop some guidelines. We will also need to update our Continuity of Operations plan to list trigger points for usage of remote sites. The first lesson learned for us was to identify where we get the best value in the placement. For example, putting them in a location where two employees live gave us expanded use of one device.

In regard to alternative locations, we are beginning a conversation with the local public television station. Public television stations have call centers that are used to do fund raising campaigns. There is a public safety component within the public television station mission, and there could be substantial opportunity to leverage this component. These stations have significant infrastructure and redundancy capabilities that would efficiently enable connection to the systems necessary to conduct emergency communication center business. While there currently is no way to dispatch calls from these centers, we are looking at setting up FirstNet equipment built by AT&T® that would allow dispatch. We are also looking at what apps might assist in providing the radio voice service. However, each of these solutions involves some loss of capability such as toning, instant recall (playback), subscriber ID, etc. Of greatest concern is a loss of ability to efficiently and effectively manage a subscriber emergency activation.

CISA pandemic guidance for 9-1-1 centers can be found at cisa.gov

ABOUT DAVE MULHOLLAND

Dave Mulholland is currently the Arlington County, Virginia Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management Administrator. Dave was formerly the Statewide Interoperability Coordinator for the District of Columbia where he facilitated and enabled the daily sharing of information between the many disciplines, jurisdictions, and levels of government and key non-governmental organization stakeholders and partners in an all-hazards public safety environment. The Arlington County ECC serves a dense population of over 220,000 persons in just 26 square miles. It handles approximately 99,000 9-1-1 calls and 220,000 public safety non-emergency calls per year.

Interview Series

Upcoming interviews addressing a remote 9-1-1 center environment include the use of Emergency Services Internet Protocol Networks (ESInets) and an automated call distributor (ACD) model in the State of Indiana, and the development of standard technology toolkits for remote emergency communication center (ECC) workers in Northeast Missouri. Continue to follow the SAFECOM Blog for more stakeholder interviews.

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