Like many jurisdictions in rural parts of the western United States, the Public Safety Department of Ukiah, California, is made up of a small staff that serves a large geographical area. Moreover, Ukiah serves a city whose population more than doubles over the course of every business day, as people come in from surrounding communities to work. Technology has always played an important role in helping the relatively small team of first responders in the field do more with less, but the department’s aging computer infrastructure—especially its 911 dispatch facility—needed a refresh. Ukiah’s city IT department has made the decision to standardize on Windows 7 to lay the foundation for a new generation of computing for the city’s first responders. The result: Ukiah’s 911 dispatchers are more responsive and productive than ever.
Ukiah, a city of 15,500 located about 120 miles north of San Francisco, is the seat of Mendocino County and a regional hub. Over the course of a typical business day, the city’s population swells between to 35,000 - 40,000, straining the ability for the city’s Public Safety Department to respond effectively. Adding to the stresses caused by the day-to-day demographic shifts, Ukiah’s police, fire, and emergency medical services personnel are often tasked with serving the rapidly developing areas just outside the city’s boundaries, including the vast surrounding rural area and neighboring development enclaves such as Calpella, Talmage and Regina Heights.
The city, like many others in California and across the U.S., is caught between increasing citizen expectations for quality city services, and shrinking resources such as declining sales and property tax revenues resulting from stagnant or falling real estate values, and decreasing state and federal aid.
One source of reliable federal funding for Ukiah’s public safety infrastructure, however, has been funding for 911 call and dispatch capabilities. With the growth in Ukiah Public Safety’s area of responsibility, and the proliferation of IT systems used to equip 911 centers – such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – the city found itself operating a cramped call center whose computers were straining to keep pace with the volume of 911 calls and the demands of an ever increasing array of new CPU-intensive applications.
The five-year-old system, which used the VisionAir suite of public safety applications on a 32-bit network, had begun to experience persistent stability problems.
Dispatchers, meanwhile, struggled to toggle back and forth across multiple display screens and windows to keep track of and support numerous open applications. The aging workstations couldn’t keep up with dispatchers who were becoming increasingly sophisticated users of technology, and who were dealing with the added discomfort of working in a cramped and careworn call center.
Ukiah made the decision to build an all-new facility for its 911 call center, and when the time came in 2008 to design a new IT infrastructure to support it, Steve Butler, the city’s Director of Information Technology, recommended going in a new direction by using Microsoft’s new Windows 7 operating system, which was at that time still in its beta testing phase.
Butler, a veteran of Pacific Gas and Electric and Lucent’s consulting unit, has always taken advantage of opportunities to beta test new technologies that may prove useful at home or at work.
“I have beta tested other operating systems at home and on a couple workstations in our office,” explains Butler. “In some cases there were just too many problems with drivers and application compatibility to move forward with deploying the new technology in a production environment.”
But it was a beta test in Butler’s own home that convinced him to try Windows 7 beta in an enterprise setting. “I actually configured a Windows 7 box as the sole entertainment unit at my house. We were even able to get rid of cable TV, it worked so well.”
To further investigate, he had his staff install Windows 7 beta on the Ukiah Information Technology Department’s internal network, which served to make believers out of his IT staff as well. The decision was made to try Windows 7 in the high-pressure environment of Ukiah’s new 911 call center.
“The dispatchers love their Windows 7 computers,” reports Butler. “They’re running all their VisionAir applications, our GIS program, as well as web browsers with Google Maps…all at one time. Dispatchers work the system across four monitors, plus a big 50-inch wall display, and we are finding it go be very stable.”
Ukiah’s public safety leaders already can see a difference in call center productivity. For example, dispatchers have replaced a separate call recording system and are now able to use a call recording system controlled within their workstations. This allows operators to play back calls immediately.
It replaces an older hybrid analog/digital call recording system operated separately and that couldn’t play back recordings immediately. These along with other capabilities allow operators to access recent calls quickly and accurately. This in turn is helping to reduce dispatching errors, which pleases managers, dispatchers, and patrol officers alike.
Moreover, the system is extremely stable. The new Windows 7-based network has been running since June of 2009. Butler and his staff report a sharp downtick in trouble tickets and support calls.
“I’m happy that we’re able to consolidate so many different platforms on our new system,” says Ukiah’s Director of Public Safety, Chris Dewey. In this role, Dewey is also the Chief of Police, and the Fire Chief of Ukiah.
“911 Dispatch works so much better when our people can see Vision CAD [Computer Aided Dispatch] and our GIS program all at once.”
Dewey is already looking forward to the next steps in leveraging the capabilities of the new dispatch center to further enhance the capabilities of patrol officers and believes the Windows 7 installation is his department’s “last big step” toward information integration at every level of his department.
Already, every Ukiah emergency response vehicle has a VisionMobile terminal. In the next year or so, Ukiah will deploy a GPS-enabled automatic vehicle locator system that will allow dispatchers to tie VisionMobile, VisionCAD, GIS, and real-time position data together. “Dispatchers will be able to glance at map of the city,” explains Dewey “and they will know where a patrol car is, what the officers are doing.”
Dewey also thinks that a handheld, PDA-type device is next. A PDA would allow police officers, fire fighters, and paramedics to access data wherever they are, even when not in their vehicles. “The potential is endless,” says Dewey. “I look forward to a day when our emergency medical technicians will be able to read a patient record before they even get to the scene of the call.”
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