Responding To A Pandemic: Technology Considerations for Public Safety Answering Points


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. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) recently interviewed the Northeast Emergency Communications Center (NECOMM) Director Mike Hall to discuss these solutions and lessons learned. Highlights of the interview are summarized below.

Deployable Remote PSAP Case
Deployable Remote PSAP Case

HOW THE NORTHEAST EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS CENTER IN MISSOURI IS PROVIDING INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS TO ADDRESS PANDEMIC RELATED ISSUES

To address this challenge, NECOMM in Hannibal, MO developed a standard PSAP toolkit allowing employees to work remotely.

CISA recently interviewed Mike Hall, the Executive Director of Marion County Emergency Services, to discuss these solutions and lessons learned. Highlights of the interview are summarized below.

Prior to the current pandemic you put together a remote solution for your PSAP. Describe your approach.

Mike Hall: NECOMM provides 9-1-1 services to three counties in Northeast Missouri, serving an area of approximately 1,500 square miles and 50,000 residents. We sit along the Mississippi River and border Illinois, approximately 90 miles north of St. Louis. Our center has five positions available, and we normally staff three. Currently, we have 16 employees.

Historically, our Continuity of Operations (COOP) planning has focused on preparing for a natural disaster event, such as an earthquake along the New Madrid fault, or a tornado, which would require us to deploy our backup dispatch resources into the field.  The pandemic is unique that our planning quickly evolved into answering the question “how can we maintain dispatching services in the event that our staff or the PSAP facility itself become infected?” and more specifically, with a small number of staff,  how can we utilize those who may need to be quarantined, but are able to continue to work, just not physically inside the PSAP or around other employees?” My intent was to create a flexible solution that would not limit us to a single backup location. The requirements support all three PSAP functions: 9-1-1 call handling, computer aided dispatch (CAD) and radio. Three laptops, each running one of these critical applications, was the goal.

NECOMM Remote PSAP Set Up

NECOMM Remote PSAP Set Up

Our local vendor, A&W Communications, Inc., worked with us to put together the solution for call taking and radio using Zetron® Max.* Together, we built portable kits that allow the laptops to remote-in to the call handling and radio consoles. The laptop radio console provides staff the same experience as sitting in the center.  We believe that this presents a much better solution than simply using a handheld radio. We purchased a universal serial bus (USB) footswitch for each radio laptop and USB headsets for the Zetron® Max call taking. These additions provide the same dispatch-to-first responder functionality in use today. For CAD, we use the Lawman system and connect via the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP).  We also installed ProQa software for emergency medical dispatch (EMD) and emergency fire dispatch (EFD) on these laptops, allowing us to continue providing pre-arrival instructions.  Our geographic information system (GIS)/automatic vehicle locator (AVL) provider is ThinkGIS®, a Where Technology Happens® (WTH) product from Indianapolis, IN. These deployable boxes can be dropped off on an employee’s front porch and be configured and online within minutes. With this solution we feel that we can effectively provide virtually full-dispatch service capability outside of the traditional PSAP environment, with no noticeable loss of functionality to the agencies that we serve.

Network connectivity is a critical component, what is your approach?

Mike Hall: We are located in a more rural area, so providing consistent network service is important. We currently use a combination of staff’s home network and wireless from our local providers.

Do you have a technology wish list?

Mike Hall: Obviously, first on my list is the development and completion of a statewide or regional Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) Emergency Services Internet Protocol Network (ESInet), which is still in only in the early planning phase here in Missouri.

As far as technology itself, our four deployable kits to support off site dispatching services in the event our PSAP becomes compromised depends on the availability of our back-room server-based equipment remaining operational. During the pandemic, this has not been an issue, as long as we have solid IP connectivity back to our PSAP. As we plan for future situations whether natural or man-made disasters that may affect our PSAP equipment or infrastructure, I would like to see vendors migrate more to web-based or “cloud” type solutions. This would allow for less dependency on connecting to the traditional “back room” equipment. It would also allow for more flexibility with “bring-your-own device” remote operations, such as your daily use laptop, rather than the burden of maintaining a cache of dedicated deployable hardware that requires ongoing software updates and upgrades in order to be available at a moment’s notice when a disaster strikes. Additionally, more web-based options would make it easier for rural PSAPs to provide backup services to each other using their existing computers. Lastly, the availability of a regional brick-and-mortar back up PSAP on “hot-standby” would be of great value as currently none exist in our 16-county region here in rural Northeast Missouri.

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

ABOUT MIKE HALL

Mike has served as executive director with Marion County Emergency Services since 2002 and has been active in public safety since 1984.  He is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale and has served in leadership positions with the National Emergency Number Assoiation (NENA) and the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials (APCO) at the state and national levels.

Interview Series

Upcoming interviews addressing a remote 9-1-1 center environment includes the use of Emergency Services Internet Protocol Networks (ESInets) and an automated call distributor (ACD) model in the State of Indiana. Continue to follow the SAFECOM Blog for more stakeholder interviews.

 

*This blog is not an endorsement of any vendor's equipment or products by CISA*