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New system links four regional emergency partners on one system; upgrades 17-year-old technology

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - A view inside the Columbia 911 Communications dispatch center. Dispatcher and emergency responders will see upgrades to their computer aided dispatch system next year, after a years-long system development upgrade is rolled out in February which will link Columbia County directly to three other emergency communication centers in the region.Starting February, the Columbia 911 Communications District will launch a brand new emergency communications and computer aided dispatch system that will be linked to four regional emergency communication centers in Columbia, Washington and Clackamas counties and Lake Oswego.

The new computer-aided dispatch program, called the "Metro Area Joint Computer Aided Dispatch System," will go live in Columbia County and Lake Oswego mid-February.

The rollout of the system in Washington and Clackamas counties will follow soon after.

The technology upgrade will mean a more seamless emergency dispatch experience for first responders and law enforcement, and could ultimately mean faster response times to public calls for aid.

A key feature of the system, which was custom-developed by the four partner agencies over the past several years, will be the ability to pull latitude and longitudinal data from cell phone calls to 911 centers that cannot provide a physical address for their emergency.

Trish Hilsinger, Columbia 911 operations manager, said the new system will also work the same way for law enforcement personnel.

If a sheriff's deputy pulls up to a car crash on a rural road and uses his radio to call in, emergency dispatchers can pinpoint the location of the call and send help to those geographic coordinates, rather than relying on the officer to find the nearest building or recall the last milepost marker he or she saw on the roadway, she explained

Another feature is the ability to coordinate with dispatch centers across the four partnering agencies to reroute calls for service and send help quickly. If a call from the south side of Scappoose is routed through a Washington County emergency center for some reason, the dispatcher will be able to take details of the call immediately and instantly transfer the information to the Columbia County center, allowing that person to send responding units more quickly. Currently, when something like that happens, the call is transferred from one dispatcher to another in the appropriate agency before help is

sent.

When someone calls 911, the experience will be essentially the same — the dispatcher will seek info on the type of emergency, ask for details about the situation, and send the appropriate crews to assist, all usually in less than one minute.

However, the emergency responders themselves will see major upgrades in the dispatching system, which is heavily reliant on mapping and geographical information systems to pinpoint where first responders and people in distress are located.

Saving valuable time

Brian Burright, interim Executive Director of the Columbia 911 Communications District, said the new features will save valuable time when it comes to responding to life-threatening medical calls, fires and other law enforcement emergencies.

Fire Chief Mike Greisen, who oversees Columbia River Fire and Rescue and the Scappoose Fire District, said the updated system will allow the locations of firetrucks and ambulances to be updated in real-time using geographical information systems, which will provide updates about the location of each unit.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - A close up look at the new dispatch interface that will be used starting next year. Different windows and tabs that represent 911 calls, avalaible emergency units and other critical information will look different than previous systems, but will allow dispatchers to work quicker and more efficiently.Currently, firefighters are required to manually radio the fire station to provide coordinates while out on the road. With the new system, those locations are tracked digitally and with less room for human error.

For example, if a crash has been reported at Logie Trail Road and Highway 30, an ambulance that may be returning from a run to Portland, may be closer than a unit at the Scappoose Fire District. That unit can be identified as the closest responding unit, and be redirected to the scene quickly. At the same time, Multnomah County law enforcement can also be notified and sent to the scene to assist.

Down the road, the program will also offer the ability to display 3D maps and images of buildings when fire crews respond to calls. In rural areas, where address numbers can be difficult to view from the road, or in large commercial buildings, images of what a structure looks like can be helpful, Greisen explained.

Beneficial in emergency situations, natural disasters

While the new system will provide a helpful resource to emergency crews, the connection to a range of emergency agencies will also be a benefit in the event of a natural disaster, Burright added.

If an earthquake, fire, flood or other natural disaster were to cause a shutdown at the 911 center in Columbia County, dispatchers in Washington or Clackamas counties would immediately be able to take over, Hilsinger and Burright explained.

Additionally, two redundant servers for the new system will be housed at Clackamas and Washington counties. If something happens to one server in one location, the other will automatically switched on to maintain emergency services, which Hilsinger said provides a huge sense of relief when it comes to having backup support.

Columbia 911 currently doesn't have such an extensive server backup system. While the dispatchers can be physically relocated to an emergency dispatch call center in Deer Island, outdated technology at the site would be difficult to work with, Hilsinger added. Columbia 911 has identified upgrades to that facility as part of the district's long-term strategic plan.

Years of development, fiscal benefits

The system has been a seven-year project, spearheaded by the Clackamas County Communications and the Washington Consolidated Communications Center in 2010.

At the time, both agencies were notified that technical support for the CAD program they were using, called Status, would be phased out. Over the next several years, the two agencies began looking into upgrades for their system, according to Mike Fletcher of WCCCA. They were also joined by the Lake Oswego Communications District, which has technology that hasn't been updated since the 1980s, in the search.

In May 2016, Columbia 911 officially joined the regional partnership, although the district had expressed interest in joining the program several years prior, and were included in the contract negotiations started by WCCCA and CCOM, Fletcher said.

The joint program will also be a boon to the Columbia 911 District's budget. Buying in to the program cost the district $433,677.

Annual maintenance and service fees, however, will run roughly $36,000, just a fraction of the current maintenance expense of $110,000.

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