Cities are devoting significant resources to prepare for an ever-growing list of disasters. In recent years, that has meant developing resilience and climate plans and deploying new technologies to better respond to the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather. Indeed, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the past three years have seen an average of 20 floods, tornados, winter storms and other extreme weather events causing at least $1 billion in damage each year.
It makes sense for cities to harden their power grids, municipal buildings and other infrastructure to withstand the disruptions of extreme weather. But it’s also essential to be prepared to respond to both damaging storms and the everyday natural and manmade emergencies public safety officials are charged with handling. Core to the mission of police, fire and other first responders is communication, both with dispatchers and between departments and across city and county governments.
Ensuring reliable communications can be challenging for reasons that go beyond the complex scenarios 911 and other public safety dispatchers need to help first responders navigate. For instance, most municipalities are challenged by constrained budgets. This often requires continuing reliance on legacy communications systems that don’t have the versatility and functionality dispatchers need.
Other public safety agencies struggle to communicate efficiently with sprawling networks of city and county governments that need to coordinate their responses to emergencies. The growing threat of extreme weather – where floods, hurricanes, tornados and other severe storms can destroy command center buildings or prevent employees from getting to work – demand communications solutions that are resilient and ensure continuous operations.
The central role of a configurable, reliable and scalable dispatch console
Addressing these and other challenges is only possible when public safety officials have a dispatch console that is configurable, scalable and reliable. For example, one of the hesitations that may prevent public safety agencies from updating an outdated console is concern that dispatchers will resist embracing a new user interface, even if the underlying communication system is far superior to what is in place.
“Because this is mission critical communication, dispatchers have to move fast,” said Mandy Martin Griffin, a sales manager for Avtec, the maker of the Avtec Scout™ dispatch console that is used by hundreds of public safety agencies across the country. Combine the imperative to move fast with inadequate training time to master a new solution and it is understandable why dispatchers may be leery of any change.
Avtec Scout offers a pathway for dispatchers to continue working with the user interface they already know while also benefiting from an advanced Internet protocol (IP) console that is able to consolidate radio, telephony and broadband/LTE into a single communications solution. “We can completely customize the screen and the user interface (UI) to be anything a customer wants. So, a lot of time people will buy our product and replace their old legacy consoles and then make the screen look exactly like the old legacy console,” Griffin said. “That way, there’s no transition, there’s no training time. The capability is much higher grade, and the features are different on the backend. Then you can slowly migrate new technology into the console as the dispatcher feels more comfortable.”
Always - on communication, the ability to collaborate and a future-proof solution
The benefits of deploying a console built on an advanced software platform has benefits that go well beyond a customizable screen. The reality of natural disasters is that the critical work of dispatchers may need to be done outside of a traditional command center. “If there was a natural disaster and your building gets wiped out in a hurricane, you can pick up your license, open it on a laptop computer and dispatch remotely from your house or from a car,” Griffin said. Continuous operations are also ensured because if one of the servers supporting Avtec Scout goes down, the system automatically switches to the backup server.
Collaboration between public safety agencies and across city and county governments is increasingly important. A big challenge with coordinating emergency responses is the mix of communication technologies and systems that municipalities have in place, some of which are cutting-edge while others are analog. Taming this complexity requires an interoperable communication system, which is exactly what Avtec Scout provides. “We can mix and match any system,” Griffin said. “When we dispatch, it can be to any radio brand, it can be to any phone line and it can be from any manufacturer. That capability can be very powerful when you have different cities and counties working together.”
What’s also important for public safety agencies is the flexibility to evolve their communications systems to account for available budgets and technology advances. For instance, one version of Avtec Scout manages four audio streams and eight channels; another handles eight audio streams and an equal number of channels; and another empowers dispatchers to monitor 50 audio streams and 2,000 channels. “If you know you’re going to have the budget to add positions later, you can upgrade easily,” Griffin said. “It’s all the same IP code base, you just pay for the additional software licenses and upgrade.”
The challenge and complexity involved with effectively responding to disasters and emergencies is likely to only increase. Even as the challenge increases, one ingredient of an effective response remains the same. Resilient, user-friendly and flexible communications will always be the foundation of the kind of robust response that keeps people and communities safe.