Remote dispatching gives Arlington ECC an edge in operations, staffing
Remote desktop units have enabled an ECC to maintain operations during large-scale emergencies even when employees are unable to report to the 911 center
Last month, the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center (ECC) became one of the nation’s first centers to activate remote dispatching, allowing staff to work when necessary from a remote location, including from home. This allows the ECC to maintain operations during large-scale emergencies that could compromise its ability to maintain operational readiness, even when employees are unable to report to the 911 center. Here’s how they did it.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Emergency Communications Center (ECC) managers have been concerned about their operational systems becoming overwhelmed by record numbers of calls, but what happens when the COVID-related emergency isn’t just a call from members of the public? What are the pandemic’s effects on staffing within the ECC if dispatch center staff are quarantined or otherwise prevented from reporting to work?
In an April 2020 survey of 911 PSAPs entitled “Initial Impacts of COVID-19 on 9-1-1 Centers,” members of the National Emergency Number Association wrote: “Despite the technical feasibility of a work-from-home telecommunicator or dispatcher in the modern era of cloud services, remote desktop, and broadband internet, few Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) responding to the survey have the ability to operate PSAP functions remotely at all, let alone from a telecommunicator’s home. 64% of respondents reported that their PSAP had no capability for remote PSAP operations, only 30% reported they can work remotely from a separate public-safety or government facility, and only 7% indicated the ability to do so from home.”
Arlington County, Virginia, was one of the first PSAPs to adopt the concept of remote call-taking last year, and this year became one of the first to deploy remote dispatch and supervision, giving a significant edge to telecommunicator staffing, safety, supervision and stability during these trying times.
Developing remote operations
Arlington County’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC) management began considering a remote call center concept during table-top exercises that involved multiple simultaneous major events coupled with staffing shortages.
“It was the pandemic that forced the issue, but it was the compounding factors of all these other things that were going on as well,” said Dave Mulholland, Arlington County’s ECC administrator. “We’re a mid-sized center and at any given time, like the rest of the country, we have significant staffing shortages. So, what do I do when people can’t come to work? The first natural step was remote call-taking.”
Arlington County’s PSAP shares a 911 system with its sister city of Alexandria. In November 2019, Alexandria rolled-out remote call-taking, an implementation closely watched by Mulholland. In Arlington County, he had recently installed the Motorola Solutions VESTA 9-1-1 call handling system, and with it had purchased a remote desktop product called VESTA CommandPOST, which hadn’t yet been put into operation. It took the reality of the COVID pandemic to realize how these remote desktop units could be used in the event his ECC’s staffing was significantly reduced by the pandemic.
One of the Center’s staff had been showing symptoms of COVID-19 while at work and in contact with about 75% of the center staff. The employee turned out not to have the virus, but if they had been infected during the time the employee had been at work, it could have been very problematic.
“How do I run a center if I have to quarantine 75% of my people?” considered Mulholland. “So, we looked at different options. Do we split the center operation between the regular center and our back-up center to help keep people safe? But then what if somebody went symptomatic at both centers? We didn’t have a safe place to go to.”
Arlington’s ECC rolled out remote call-taking during summer 2020, and the program has matured to the point where it is now deployed in 12 locations with 16 dispatchers who are capable of taking calls remotely.
“In a couple of these situations, it’s a husband and wife, or two family members who work for us, and in other locations are folks who have coworkers who live close by and they are gracious enough to say, ‘Hey if I’m at work and you need an extra call taker, that person can come over to my house and use the equipment,’” Mulholland said.
The remote call-taking system turned out to be a boon during the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
“We started to get a massive influx of calls from people who were concerned about those folks coming back across the river to the hotels where they were staying,” said Mulholland. “So rather than having people come into the Center through the crowds, we were able to have six dispatchers log in from home and process 911 and non-emergency calls for us.”
Launching remote dispatch and supervision
From remote call-taking – dispatchers answering 911 calls and routing an event for response to the radio dispatcher in the ECC – the next logical step was to include radio dispatch in the process. Arlington’s back-up remote dispatch, along with remote supervision, was launched on January 13.
“Dispatch has a lot more challenges, primarily because it’s more interactive, so when we rolled it out, we had many safety nets in place,” said Mulholland. “We chose fire dispatch because there are too many inherent issues on the law enforcement side, the primary one being Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) security requirements; our criminal information network in Virginia is very stringent about what can be done and where it can be done from so that toolset is not available to us from home.”
When remote dispatch went live, Arlington’s fire dispatcher at home had another fire dispatcher sitting in the ECC – just in case there was a disconnect, the ECC dispatcher could instantaneously take over. Likewise, the person supervising fire operations from home had a counterpart sitting in the center.
Each remote dispatcher worked off a specially installed home network connected to the ECC’s radio system. For backup, a cellular hot-spot is also installed at their home – either AT&T/First Net, Verizon, or T-Mobile-Sprint depending on their coverage area – and can contact the ECC in the event of a connection problem.
“When we did the roll-out last month the dispatcher began on his home network, and then we switched over to the AT&T/First Net hot spot, and both systems worked flawlessly with no issues and no disconnects whatsoever,” Mulholland said.
The launch was supervised and communicated through a Microsoft viewing session, which allowed for face-to-face interaction. The session was recorded, giving Mulholland and his technical team plenty of suggestions to further enhance the operation.
"This was not a cheap venture," admitted Mulholland. "But what we want to do with both remote call-taking and remote dispatch and then supervision, is to create the same experience for employees as when they're sitting in the center, minus a few screens. That requires a lot of equipment. They're sitting in their houses with six computing devices right now, so we had to figure out where they’re putting either six monitors or a combination of monitors and laptop screens.”
The team is now looking at how they can streamline the number of screens. Options like replacing six separate screens with a single 42” curved screen that can "sense" where the user is looking and activate that particular process on the screen and other modernizations to optimize space are being evaluated.
Mulholland is also the vice-chair on the Integrated Justice Information Systems (IJIS) Institute’s Emergency Communications Response and Advisory Committee, a working group that has focused on remote call-taking.
“I’m not aware of any other agencies that have yet implemented remote dispatch or remote supervision, but just being able to get some insight into what this group has learned through the whole concept of remote working has been extremely beneficial to us in deploying the concept in Arlington.”
Recognizing that the heart of the PSAP, despite these remote enhancements, is still a single point of failure, prompts Mulholland and his partners in the county public safety organizations to continue following new trends and technology.
“If whatever we’re doing in a remote capacity is because something has happened geographically and it’s taken down my center, I’ve potentially lost my CAD, so remote desktop doesn’t do me any good,” he said. “So, our next iteration of CAD will be something that is not dependent upon my physical location. One of the things we love about our combined 911 system with Alexandria is that our system now has servers that sit in two different jurisdictions, and it's comforting to have that redundancy. Knowing that there are capabilities for us to have alternate pathways is huge. That's the other thing that has forced us to re-think our actual architectures for how we run and how we get to our systems."
That Mulholland and his team have done something they’d probably never thought about doing in the past, and it went as well as it did, has worked in his staff's favor.
“They're now realizing it's ok if we take a step outside of the lane that we normally walk in, and we're ready now to maybe take that next step outside," Muholland concluded.