published Monday, November 12th, 2012

Walker County 'Big board' tracks emergency vehicles

Lisa Pless, foreground, and other dispatchers work Thursday at the Walker County 911 Center, where a new system shows  greater level of detail on calls for dispatchers and responders through computers in the vehicles.
Lisa Pless, foreground, and other dispatchers work Thursday at the Walker County 911 Center, where a new system shows greater level of detail on calls for dispatchers and responders through computers in the vehicles.
Photo by John Rawlston.

ROCK SPRING, Ga. — A good chunk of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film "Dr. Strangelove" was set inside a fictional Pentagon war room that had "the big board" -- huge maps on its walls to track nuclear attacks.

Walker County just installed a similar setup in its 911 call center: a giant map of the county projected on a wall that has icons showing the location of sheriff's cruisers, firetrucks and ambulances. When someone calls 911 seeking help, an icon of a phone pops up on the map with the caller's address if it's a landline phone and rough location if it's a cell phone.

That way, a dispatcher can send the emergency vehicle that's closest -- an important consideration in the hilly, rural, 446-square-mile county.

"This guy can go a mile and a half and get there. This guy would have to go 20 miles to get there," County Coordinator David Ashburn said, as he pointed to emergency vehicle icons on a smaller version of the map on a monitor at a dispatcher's desk. It's these smaller maps that dispatchers mainly use during their 12-hour shifts.

The real-time map showing the county's emergency responders is one feature of an automatic vehicle location system that went online Nov. 1. The $1.7 million computer-aided dispatch software is made by New World Systems, based in Troy, Mich.

Only about 5 percent of emergency service providers nationwide have such a vehicle locator system, Ashburn said.

Walker's system puts all the county's emergency responders on the same system because it includes the county's firefighters, ambulances, sheriff's deputies and the four cities' police departments that the county dispatches for: Rossville, Lookout Mountain, Chickamauga and LaFayette.

"It puts everybody on one page," said Sgt. Anthony Gilleland, the sheriff's office's information technology administrator.

'Pen and paper' to laptop

Funding to install the system comes from a $1.50-per-month fee on landline phones and a $1-per-month fee on cell phones as well as the county's general fund, Ashburn said. The county dispatches its four cities' police cars free of charge, he said.

The sheriff's office had an older information system that it dropped so it could join the county's new computer-aided dispatch software. And it installed laptop computers using the new software in its 50 patrol cruisers.

"They've gone from the pen-and-paper age to the computer age," Gilleland said.

Previously, deputies wrote their reports by hand and passed them off to secretaries who would type in the information. Now, patrol deputies will enter information on their laptop computers. If they're not good at typing, the system allows for the use of voice-recognition software, Gilleland said.

The end result is "a lot less paperwork," he said.

For example, once a suspect's name is filled out during a traffic stop for say, driving under the influence, it will flow into other documents such as the DUI form, arrest booking report and jail commitment form, Gilleland said.

"It doesn't have to be done six or eight times," Gilleland said. "You don't have somebody entering 'John Smith,' 'John Smith,' 'John Smith.'"

County firefighters have laptops in their vehicles for the first time, too, and one handy piece of information the new system provides is an engine's exact distance from the nearest fire hydrant.

"It gives you exact numbers in feet," Fire Chief Randy Camp said, allowing firefighters know if they've got enough hose to reach the hydrant.

Firefighters also will be able to use the laptops to call up buildings' floor plans so they can figure out how to best access the structure. Currently, fire vehicles carry paper copies of buildings' floor plans.

"We've had the drawings for many years," Camp said. The advantage of the digital system, he said, is, "you change it one place, and everybody has it."

Now that the sheriff's department is on the same system as the county, the SWAT team could access a building's floor plan if need be, Camp said.

Sheriff's deputies have "panic buttons" they can press when they're in danger, but the shortcoming has been that dispatchers didn't always know the officer's location.

"Now that we have the [automatic vehicle locator system], it shows us exactly where they are," Ashburn said. "It provides additional safety."

The Chattanooga Police Department experimented about five years ago with an automatic vehicle locator system, an official there said, but abandoned the pilot program because of software issues and other problems.

But an official in a North Carolina county with about the same population as Walker County is happy with the way its automatic vehicle system has worked.

"It's just a very efficient way to provide service to the public" because the system lets dispatchers send the closest deputy to a call, said Chief Deputy Neil Godfrey, of the Moore County Sheriff's Office.

Situated in the middle part of the state, Moore County is about 700 square miles, much of which is rural, typically patrolled by half a dozen deputies.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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