Communication: Central Station to PSAP
In demonstrations across the country, Bill Hobgood, project manager for the city of Richmond, Va.’s Department of Information Technology’s public safety team and Automated Secure Alarm Protocol (ASAP) project subject matter expert, begins by playing a recorded call between a central station operator and 911 or PSAP (public safety answering point) call center operator. The two parties have difficulty understanding each other: It takes more than two minutes for the call taker to figure out the correct location before moving on to take the rest of the pertinent information.
The majority of phone communications between central station operators and PSAPs go smoothly, but an average call is time consuming, taking approximately two to three minutes, and the alarm company may never know what came of the dispatch. Furthermore, that two to three minutes is a fairly general approximation, since depending on the type of alarm signal and information involved, as well as a host of other factors, a call can take anywhere from 60 seconds to 30 minutes or longer. An operator with a commercial video verified alarm, for example, may stay on the phone with authorities to guide them to where the suspect is hiding or give them updates on movements if the video is live. Or in other cases, call time may increase because of language barriers, verbal miscommunication, or low volume or static on one or both ends of the call.
“The response plan for the operator will be different depending on what type of alarm comes in, but [on the central station’s side] the exchange of information between the operator and law enforcement is based on two things: the training of the operator to correctly understand the information in front of them, and making sure [the alarm company] has the correct information in the system,” says Steve Walker, vice president of customer service at Stanley Convergent Security Solutions, Naperville, Ill. “That can really make or break whether the information going through is accurate.”
The actual data exchanged between the central station and PSAPs hasn’t changed much over the years: name, address, what type of alarm, zones triggered and locations of zones, live video or audio, etc. However, these days with so many different assigned priorities and responses on the part of authorities, making sure the operator is unambiguous and accurate with the information he or she has about the event is of utmost importance. “I hear stories that operators may be unclear in the choice of words they use to communicate with police and it’s really important to be as clear as possible,” says Robert Baxter, president/CEO of Radius Security, Richmond, B.C., Canada. “If you have a live video of a crime in progress, for example, don’t just say you have an account with video verification.”
Undoubtedly the biggest change in the last several years that alters the day-to-day communication between central stations and authorities is Automated Secure Alarm Protocol, or ASAP. With ASAP, alarm monitoring companies replace the traditional 10-digit PSAP phone call with a standardized automated transmission of alarm data sent directly to the appropriate first responding agency, transforming a dispatch request from minutes to seconds. An ASAP exchange won’t remove inaccuracies in a central station’s database, such as an incorrectly entered customer phone number or sensor information, but it does remove the verbal miscommunication that can happen just by virtue of two humans speaking
with one another.
“While a phone call to first responders works, it takes a fair amount of time for both the monitoring center and the PSAP, and it can occasionally result in an error,” says Jay Hauhn, executive director of the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA). “Having an electronic data transfer between the monitoring center and the PSAP brings us into the 21st century.”
The ASAP program is a public-private partnership initiated by CSAA and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO). The initial pilot, more than five years ago, connected the York County, Va. and Richmond, Va. PSAPs to Vector Security’s monitoring center. The ASAP ANSI-standard was renewed in 2014 as the APCO/CSAA ANS 2.101.2-204 Alarm Monitoring Company to Public Safety Answering Point Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) Automated Secure Alarm Protocol.
“Instead of making a typical phone call, with ASAP, it’s all automated within our [central station software],” explains Jason Bradley, director of central station operations at Guardian Protection Services, Warrendale, Pa., which went online with ASAP in August 2014. “You simply click, it prepopulates with all the pertinent information, there is a space to put in additional information manually if needed, and off it goes at the speed of light.”
At publication time, 12 alarm companies had active ASAP connections with an additional 13 companies either in testing or development for the program. (At the time of publication, Stanley Convergent Security Solutions was in its pilot testing phase with Richmond, Va. and ADT had just gone live with the ASAP program.) Additionally, 11 PSAPs were online, including Houston and Washington, D.C., along with 10 PSAPs in the testing, investigative or implementation phase, including Seattle and Boston, and more than 20 PSAPs seeking to enter the development phase.
“For the industry, this program is an overall win,” says Anita Ostrowski, vice president of central station services at Vector Security, Warrendale, Pa. “Everything is sent on the CAD board. Once an exchange has been initiated, operators can see all the actions on the part of the PSAP, such as when police arrived or when they closed the case. And any other information that needs to be exchanged can all take place without additional phone calls.”
An ancillary benefit to ASAP is the information — including the actions and updates from first responders — that it automatically provides to the central station, and ultimately, the end user. “It’s a game changer,” says Joe Sanchez, senior vice president of customer operations at Protection 1, Chicago, which has been a part of ASAP since July 2014. “Sharing all of this information with our customers... time stamps, responses, actions... it’s a win-win for everybody and creates value for the customer on the commercial and residential side.” Sanchez says Protection 1 makes this information available on its online portal for customers, leading to a higher level of communication between the two parties.
In addition to time savings and a more informed central station, another large benefit of the ASAP program was realized at the City of Richmond Emergency Communications Center a few years back when weather circumstances made call volumes particularly high.
“In August of 2011, we had an earthquake,” Hobgood recalls. “Our 911 center was crazy that day and we didn’t have enough people to answer the emergency lines, much less the non-emergency lines. Some of the alarm companies that called in that day didn’t even get an answer; but those using ASAP got answers within seconds.” A hurricane a few days later left the fully staffed Richmond, Va. call center in much the same position of not being able to keep up with call volume, but ASAP messages were delivered to first responders as usual. “It works and it works well,” Hobgood says.
Because ASAP’s most tangible benefit is reduced call time, organizations with large call volumes have been the first to feel the biggest impact of the program. The Houston Emergency Center reported current annual savings of close to $400,000 from reduced call volume to its 10-digit number. According to Hobgood, Houston has had a reduction of 75,000 calls to the center annually with the implementation of ASAP. With the addition of more alarm companies coming on board, such as ADT, they expect that number to grow even more significantly.
“The way they are structured at the Houston Emergency Center, they expect they could see savings close to $1 million annually as more alarm companies get on board with ASAP,” he adds.
With so many undisputed advantages to ASAP for both alarm companies and PSAPs, many in the industry expected the program to have grown at a faster pace. “It has been a classic catch-22,” Hauhn says. “PSAPs have been reluctant to connect until more alarm companies come on line and alarm companies have been waiting until their largest PSAPs are on board. Now that the national alarm companies are connecting, I believe we will see an explosive acceleration of both PSAPs and monitoring companies connecting and gaining value from the program.”
The industry impact from ASAP can only be realized as the density of central stations and PSAPs joining the program increases. “As more agencies deploy ASAP, it will be very beneficial to all of us,” Bradley says. “It behooves us as an industry to promote and drive ASAP in every market we serve for the benefit of all of us.” Indeed, as of publication time, eight out of 10 of the largest security companies on the 2015 SDM 100 list were active or soon-to-be active in the ASAP program, and their participation is expected to draw significant interest from the 6,500 PSAPs across the country.
“Some very large cities have reached out to us and asked us to let them know when we’ve implemented [ASAP] because that’s something they would like to do, says Steve Shapiro, vice president of industry relations at ADT, Boca Raton, Fla., which went live with ASAP in September 2015. “So we do believe there will be a lot of growth going forward.”
Another Game Changer: Verification
A separate shift in the industry over the past decade that hasn’t changed the actual communication between central station operators and authorities, but does change the when and if that communication takes place, is the industry-wide adoption of enhanced call verification (ECV) or two-call verification, along with verification technologies and other false alarm management techniques.
“I would say that about 25 percent of the systems out there are not using ECV,” estimates Ron Walters, director of industry relations at the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC). “ECV has resulted in a huge reduction of false dispatches. A large percentage of the industry has embraced ECV for what it is and others had to start because of requirements.”
For Radius Security, Richmond, B.C., Canada, monitoring operators employ a host of communications procedures to verify an alarm signal before dispatching authorities. This often involves enhanced call verification, video verification, and/or using audio to talk to a person in question at the scene. With 2015 statistics (Jan.-Aug.) that include 93 dispatches, a false alarm rate of 14 percent and an apprehension rate of 34 percent, Radius Security’s communications procedures have paid off.
“On average, the number of suspicious events (not a crime in progress) that our operators talk down [via audio] where the person leaves or confirms they are authorized or we dispatch a guard to investigate is about 30 times the number dispatched to police,” says Robert Baxter, president/CEO of Radius Security. “This is how we are able to keep the false alarm rates low.” Baxter adds that about 70 percent of the company’s monitoring station activity is video verified systems.
Alarm companies have come up with all sorts of other creative methods and procedures to confirm a false alarm before ever dispatching authorities as well. “From a communications standpoint, ECV and video verification have both made significant impact on reducing false alarms,” says Jim McMullen, president and COO of COPS Monitoring, WIlliamstown, NJ. “Even with the success of ECV people can’t always get to the phone before the call goes to voicemail and they don’t always answer the phone when they don’t recognize a number on their caller ID, so we offer our dealers the option to have a dispatcher call the same verification number more than once before notifying authorities.” Such a simple adjustment realizes even lower false dispatch rates, McMullen says.
Rapid Response Monitoring, Syracuse, N.Y., which has reduced false dispatches by 75 percent with ECV, offers a host of other techniques to further ensure accurate communications once an alarm signal comes into the central station, according to Morgan Hertel, vice president of operations at the company.“We use two-way, bi-directional SMS messaging, which provides subscribers that are unable to answer a phone call with the ability to receive real-time messages regarding alarms and the ability to respond via SMS to report a false alarm or to cancel a dispatch,” Hertel says. Custom-developed mobile apps also allow subscribers to instantly report false alarms or even request a dispatch, as well as access associated video to help in the decision process. In addition, the company’s automation platform “can auto-evaluate an account’s signal history for programmable periods of time to see if the same type of alarms have occurred
IMPLEMENTING ASAP: WHAT’S INVOLVED?
By Maggie McFadden Shein, SDM Contributing Writer
Implementing Automated Secure Alarm Protocol (ASAP) involves a software update for both the security company and the public safety answering point (PSAP) in order to comply with the APCO/CSAA ANS 2.101.2-204 Alarm Monitoring Company to Public Safety Answering Point Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) Automated Secure Alarm Protocol ANSI standard. While getting the software updated and compliant is generally not a huge financial drain for either side, there is a large time commitment involved, particularly on the side of the security company, including an extensive data-scrubbing process to make sure customer information is accurate and standardized, before ever going live with ASAP.
“Everything is set up prior to sending the municipality any info,” explains Joe Sanchez, senior vice president of customer operations at Protection 1, Chicago. “You have to go through your account base to make sure the addresses and all the pertinent data have already been validated.” Sanchez said that Protection 1, which implemented ASAP in July 2014, averages about 100 electronic dispatches per month and only sees that growing.
One of the reasons industry experts believe that growth on the side of the alarm companies in the ASAP program initially was slower than expected, is that the process to go live with the program can be time consuming and take up significant resources. However, alarm companies that have implemented ASAP agree that the initial data-scrubbing process is a huge positive.
“Before going live, it really helps improve the data set you have and pretty much requires it to be standardized,” explains Steve Shapiro, vice president of industry relations at ADT, Boca Raton, Fla. “We see all the address validation you have to go through before implementing the program as one of the benefits of ASAP. For example, street abbreviations differ from location to location and you may have the same house number and street name within a municipality, but one is a street and the other a terrace.”
With day-to-day time savings, potentially significant cost savings and eliminating the inaccuracies of verbal interaction, there is no debating the benefits of ASAP. “For our company in particular, getting our software modified to do the implementation was a technical challenge,” says Steve Walker, vice president of customer service, Stanley Convergent Security Solutions, Naperville, Ill. “Once that is complete, it’s a huge impact. Just because you have information correct in your system doesn’t always translate to the agency correctly receiving information on their end in the traditional way, whether a number is transposed or there is mistranslation of data. All of that goes away with automated communications.”
In addition, one of the powerful parts of ASAP is it allows for an integrated message exchange if further information is needed, Walker adds. First responders can ask questions and operators can add more information, notes or answer questions. Updates on the status of the signal are given to the monitoring center, so that the operator can see when the police officer responded and arrived at the scene, for example.
As of September 2015, across the U.S., there are less than 50 PSAPs (out of some 6,500) on board with the ASAP program. One of the implementation challenges on the PSAP side, according to Bill Hobgood, project manager for the City of Richmond, Va.’s Department of Information Technology’s public safety team and ASAP project subject matter expert, is that there is a large number of software providers for public safety computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems — about 75 to 100 — and therefore, it has been challenging to try to ensure all of the providers are offering an ASAP-compliant option.“On the public safety side, there are a lot of providers, so we are trying to focus on those software providers in the tier one and tier two markets to make sure their platforms are updated and ready to go,” Hobgood explains. “It’s too difficult to focus on all of them at once.”
Is Mandatory ASAP in the Future?
“I firmly believe that the day is coming when some locality, whichever will be the first, will enact an ordinance that alarm signals from security companies can only be delivered with the ASAP program, so I think we are going to see participation in the automated exchange of data, snowball even more.” — Bill Hobgood, project manager for the city of Richmond, Va.’s Department of Information Technology’s public safety team and ASAP project subject matter expert
For information and experiences from others in the industry that have implemented Automated Secure Alarm Protocol into their operations, read “Implementing ASAP: What’s Involved” at www.SDMmag.com/blogs/14/post/91755-implementing-asap-whats-involved.