Fla. 9-1-1 Call Center Looks Ahead to Advancements
Feb. 14—When Stephanie Spell started her 31-year career in law enforcement as a dispatcher for the Collier County Sheriff's Office in 1987, computers would frequently crash, forcing her to scribble notes onto "run cards" and hand-deliver them to colleagues.
"Sometimes we'd have to write things down really fast on three different cards and then deliver them to the police dispatcher, the fire dispatcher and the ambulance dispatcher across the room," she said. "In the early days, it was multiple times during the week."
During the day, the seven or eight dispatchers crammed into the window-less, dimly lit room, fixating their gaze on the dark screen and its glowing green letters and flashing rectangular cursor.
In the early morning hours, the two call-takers on duty carefully coordinated each bathroom break. When one had to head to the lavatory, radio traffic was turned over to the other. The restroom user—headset and cable still attached—stretched the cord some 40 feet across the room and gently closed the door on it while still listening to the transmissions.
"There was some interesting logistics of just working with two people for four hours in the entire county," Spell said. "If you were the other person—that wasn't in the restroom—you hoped and prayed that it would be a quick break."
Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of the first 911 call made in Collier County on Feb. 14, 1978. The new system enabled residents to forgo having to dial a 10-digit number to reach law enforcement or a fire department directly.
Four decades later, the agency's communications center boasts about 75 dispatchers who monitor an average of just over 21,000 radio transmissions per day and take close to 1,200 emergency and nonemergency calls per day in season.
With cellphones in everyone's pockets, call volumes have significantly increased over the years, said Bob Finney, the Sheriff's Office's director of communications.
"Now whenever anybody sees an incident, like a car crash or something like that, so many more people call," Finney said.
"Back in the day when people had to find a landline or a penny phone, of course, there were much fewer calls," he said. "But now everybody has access to a phone wherever they are."
And in the foreseeable future, it might not even take a human caller to report an emergency.
Your dryer, connected to the internet, might be able to alert first responders to a fire if it overheats, Finney said, and a health-tracking wristband could call 911 when its wearer suffers a seizure and relay medical data directly to paramedics.
Technological advances also could enable callers to snap pictures of suspects or large incidents and transmit them into the 911 infrastructure, he said.
Medical data sent from devices to authorities and information relayed from vehicles involved in a crash also could help first responders prioritize calls and decide which crews are needed.
"I think things are going to be very interesting over the next 18 months to three years," Finney said. "Things are really going to start changing."
The Sheriff's Office plans to switch its 911 system from its current legacy analog circuits to an Internet Protocol-based network by summer or fall. Finney likened it to going from a dial-up modem to Ethernet connections or fiber-optics.
He said the switch will make the Sheriff's Office system faster and more reliable.
"When you have a copper line that's basically connecting the caller that's calling 911 through copper circuits to the 911 center, if something were to happen to those circuits the service is basically down," Finney said.
"Where with IP technology there's redundant communications lines. Or there's different ways that a phone call can be delivered from Point A to Point B, and if one of those circuits were to go down, then it kind of heals itself or the phone call can follow another circuit. It's much more resilient."
With the help of cellphone manufacturers, the Sheriff's Office hopes to soon be able to more accurately find a caller.
As more and more tourists flock to Collier, being able to pinpoint where a call is coming from is even more important, Finney said.
"When they have an emergency, they may not know exactly where they're at," he said.
At times, Florida's hurricane-proof dense buildings make accurately predicting a caller's whereabouts a challenge.
"It's hard for signals to get in and out," Finney said. "So then what the cell carrier does is maybe try and triangulate it or something to that effect. And it can be way off in those cases."
To be sure, today's communication center, housed in a hulking building behind the county's south regional library, has come a long way from the days of "run cards" and two-person shifts.
"It's really changed a lot," Finney said. "And it will continue to change."
Spell, who worked her way up to become chief of community engagement for the agency, still remembers her days as dispatcher fondly.
"I always thought it was absolute front-line community service," she said. "I still contend that dispatchers are the first first responders."