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Officials: Automatic vehicle locator system cuts response time

The automatic vehicle locator tracks first responders from more than 50 agencies throughout the county


By Giuseppe Sabella
The Charleston Gazette

KANAWHA COUNTY, W. Va. — A Kanawha County sheriff’s deputy used three letters to describe her dangerous foot pursuit: AVL.

The automatic vehicle locator tracks first responders from more than 50 agencies throughout the county, and it may have saved Cpl. Stephanie Adams’ life.

Metro 911 officials said the upgrade launched in September and has since helped law enforcement, paramedics, firefighters and county residents.

On Oct. 24, Adams approached a suspicious SUV during an early morning patrol. She said it happened at Dalewood Park, a troubled area in Cross Lanes.

Adams never had a chance to relay information about the vehicle or its driver, not to mention her own location.

The deputy triggered her radio, announced herself to dispatchers and then watched as chaos unfolded.

“As soon as I said that, he hits a trailer, jumps out of the car and we make eye contact for a couple seconds,” she said.

Adams screamed into her radio as she chased the man. Apart from a few words, her message was lost on the listening dispatcher.

That person was Christine Lawrence, a dispatcher of more than 25 years.

“I heard ‘big guy’ and ‘trailer,’” Lawrence said. “You could tell there was something going on with the way she was talking.”

Adams said a nearby resident watched the chase and refused to call police.

With help from the AVL system and a veteran dispatcher, the deputy’s cry for help was answered.

Lawrence pinpointed the deputy’s location, and backup arrived within two minutes.

“I’m running and I’m yelling on the radio, and just hearing those sirens was like angels singing,” Adams said.

A month before the chase, Adams trained more than 200 officers to use the new system. She said not everyone was excited about having their cars tracked.

“Some of the guys kind of grumble that it’s like a mother hen — that they’re watching us,” Adams said.

However, she said, the term “AVL” is becoming part of their vocabulary. Much like herself, many rescuers started their career with a street guide full of paper maps. She said the new system saves time in more ways than one.

More information is available to first responders, and that information is shared faster than ever before, said Russell Emrick, a deputy director for Metro 911.

“In 2011, when you called 911 you talked to a call-taker,” he said. “The call-taker took your information. They then sent that to a dispatcher. The dispatcher processed that information; sent it to a deputy.”

He said the new system updates everyone at the same time. The moment a report is started, information is relayed to people in the field.

The first responders can also access an updated map. Along with turn-by-turn directions, it provides detailed information about the rescuer’s surroundings.

It tracks the exact location of houses, fire hydrants, gas lines and possible hazards, Emrick said.

“Google can’t tell you if a bridge is too low for an ambulance or the street is too narrow,” he said. “We have that built in.”

The map also allows dispatchers to pair the fastest unit to an emergency, said Rick McElhaney, deputy director of operations for Metro 911.

Though dispatchers historically sent the closest units to an emergency, McElhaney said they now use more than just distance to make a decision.

He said there could be construction, traffic wrecks or even a funeral procession in the way of nearby rescuers. With obstacles ahead, the closest unit is not always the fastest.

The new program helps to identify road hazards and other factors, leading to what dispatchers hope is the quickest response.

“When time is of the essence for an emergency, these systems are more important than anything,” he said.

And some hazards arise with little warning. McElhaney said the new program uses a single button to combat sudden dangers.

If someone pulls out a gun before first responders arrive, the call-takers at Metro 911 can press a button and trigger a flashing alert on the screens of dispatchers and rescuers.

Multiple calls often fight for a dispatcher’s attention. The feature helps shift focus onto a critical emergency, helping Metro 911 address immediate dangers.

“You have confusing situations — very chaotic situations,” McElhaney said. “But you have systems that help, like this.”

Nearly 560,000 people called Metro 911 last year, said John Rutherford, the agency’s director and a previous Kanawha County sheriff.

He said this year’s upgrade is the next step in a process that started years ago.

The agency’s board of directors worked with the county commission to negotiate with companies that might offer a better system in 2011.

Rutherford said his agency paid Tyler Technologies about $1 million for its system, under one condition: The future upgrade had to be free. That upgrade came this year.

“When you shave 30 seconds to 40 seconds to a minute off each call, you’re talking a lot of time,” he said. “We’re getting first responders to the scene quicker than we used to.”

Copyright 2017 The Charleston Gazette

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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