When an earthquake hit the eastern United States in August 2011, public safety answering points (PSAPs) in multiple states were inundated with 9-1-1 calls.
“Everyone wanted to call 9-1-1 to say the building shook,” recalls Bill Hobgood, the project manager in charge of the public safety team in the information technology department of the City of Richmond, Va.
When phone lines are overloaded, PSAPs give priority to 9-1-1 calls before calls that come in on the seven-digit administrative lines used by central station operators to report alarm signals from their customers. And that meant some central stations experienced long waiting times or even may have seen calls go unanswered.
The Richmond PSAP, however, was one of the first to support the automated secure alarm protocol (ASAP) to PSAP program. Through that program, two central stations were able to send alarm information to the PSAP through a secure data feed, eliminating the need for a phone conversation between the central station and the PSAP.
That feed eliminated the first step in a two-step process, enabling alarm reports from customers of the participating central stations to go directly to a dispatcher. “For those central stations with ASAP it was business as usual,” Hobgood observes.
The Status Quo
Richmond is one of a relatively small number of the nation’s 6,500 PSAPs that currently support ASAP-to-PSAP. Other PSAPs that currently support this capability include Houston; York County, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Tempe, Ariz.; and James City County, Va.
In addition, three counties in the Portland, Ore. area — Washington, Clackamus and Columbia — are close to coming online, notes Ed Bonifas, who is vice president of Aurora, Ill.-based central station Alarm Detection Systems, as well as co-chair of the Central Station Alarm Association’s ASAP steering committee.
Thirteen central stations have signed contracts to participate in ASAP-to-PSAP, including several that are already connected. Twenty more central stations are in “various stages of considering getting connected,” Bonifas shares. “We will see a steady stream of people coming in.” Some central stations, including ADS, are ready to participate but do not yet have any PSAPs participating in their area, he adds.
One hundred central stations signed on as charter members with the CSAA to participate in the ASAP-to-PSAP program. Charter members paid membership dues that helped build a gateway to enable authorized central stations to connect to the Nlets interstate justice and public safety system.
The gateway was required to prevent unauthorized users from connecting to Nlets, which has a connection to all state police networks and through those, to PSAPs nationwide. Eventually the ASAP-to-PSAP program will be opened up to central stations nationwide, but the top priority is charter members.
The ASAP-to-PSAP program doesn’t have a specific goal in mind for the number of participants this year on either the central station or PSAP side. However, Bonifas says, “I would love to see 30 alarm companies and 30 PSAPs working together. It’s probably a bit of a pipe dream, but it wouldn’t be impossible.”
The PSAP Perspective
According to Hobgood, at least 100 PSAPs are interested in participating in the ASAP-to-PSAP program.
“Some are waiting for their CAD [computer aided dispatch] provider to offer a solution — and if their CAD provider offers an ASAP solution, the PSAP has to have the budget to help fund that,” Hobgood explains.
Hobgood says there are at least 100 suppliers of CAD systems, including what he calls “10 to 12 Tier 1 companies, 15 to 20 Tier 2 companies, and 100 or more mom and pop-type shops.” He believes some of these companies will not upgrade their systems to support ASAP-to-PSAP, which means any PSAPs that use those companies may have to purchase new CAD systems before they can be ASAP-to-PSAP participants.
Another issue is education, Bonifas observes. “First, PSAPs have to know that this exists. Then they have to show enough interest to ask questions. Then they might have to upgrade their CAD system,” he comments.
The CSAA is in the process of creating an outreach program to educate the public safety community about ASAP-to-PSAP. As Bonifas explains, a range of support materials have been created, including white papers, Powerpoint slide presentations and a PSAP readiness survey.
Two of the major PSAP automation companies are working with the CSAA to get the word out to PSAPs that use their systems. In addition, the CSAA has identified the top 200 PSAPs, measured by the number of people they support, and has begun to personally contact the top 50.
Making contact with the PSAPs will be a volunteer effort from the central station community. “We’re looking for people in each region to reach out and talk to them,” Bonifas explains. He adds that central stations interested in volunteering should contact Joe Carr at San Antonio, Texas-based United Central Control (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Mary Jensby at San Jose, Calif.-based RFI Communications & Security Systems (email@example.com).
Initial results from PSAPs that are already participating in the ASAP-to-PSAP program should help persuade other PSAPs to participate.
Hobgood estimates that when an alarm report comes in to a PSAP through the ASAP-to-PSAP interface, it saves between one-and-a-half to three minutes.
“If the police are there faster, there is a stronger likelihood that they will catch somebody,” he observes. “And if a fire department gets to the scene two to three minutes faster, it could mean that the fire will be quickly extinguished. And for a person with a heart attack, it goes without saying what a two- to three-minute response time will mean.”
The city of Richmond has hit the 20,000 mark on ASAP-based alarm notifications since an initial pilot test in 2006, Hobgood says. “This is 20,000 less telephone calls that had to be handled by a 9-1-1 call taker.”
Houston has seen a 13 percent drop in the volume of calls to its seven-digit number since it began supporting ASAP-to-PSAP, Hobgood also notes.
In the future, ASAP-to-PSAP could further enhance PSAP operations. The ASAP-to-PSAP specifications include an option to send a Web link to the PSAP. As Bonifas explains, that link could be used to send surveillance video to police or even to give police the ability to control door locks during an emergency. The latter could be set up to expire after a specific time period.