By Alex L. Goldfayn
Copyright 2007 Chicago Tribune Company
CHICAGO — We don't think about it, but the numbers are mind-boggling.
There about 5.5 million 911 calls made annually in Chicago, according to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
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That's between 16,000 and 23,000 calls per day (more in the summer, less in the winter), handled by between 50 and 70 call-takers and dispatchers, 24 hours a day.
Every one of those calls is recorded to a hard drive.
So is every audio communication that follows: the dispatches to police, fire and paramedic departments, and every communication they make back to dispatch.
When you're stopped for a speeding ticket and the officer radios back to dispatch, that is recorded to a hard drive, too. So is the response from dispatch. Every single time.
There are many days in Chicago when more than a million audio communications are recorded.
We don't think about it, but a Rutherford, N.J., company called NICE Systems Inc., at NICE.com, has built a big business thinking about it.
NICE sells hardware and software that digitally handles, manages and catalogs these recordings.
"We capture unstructured data," said Chris Wooten, president of the public safety global business unit at NICE. "We capture and index it so a customer can go and find that info very quickly among a mass of data. Then we provide analytical applications so you can take disparate pieces of information and connect them together for holistic view of the incident."
That means, NICE can record video from camera, as well as everything taking place on computer screens. If cell-phone photos are sent to an emergency response center -- as they have been in recent situations, including the shootings at Virginia Tech -- the NICE database can integrate those into its system as well.
The city of Chicago only uses the system, called the NiceLog, to capture its audio data. Chicago is using another technology for its citywide cameras.
Here's how NiceLog works:
"A call comes in in Chicago," Wooten explained. "With that call is the auto-number identifier and the automatic-location identifier."
The bits of data, along with the date, time and call-taker are captured with the audio from the call. The NiceLog does not transcribe the call, which means the text of the conversation is not available.
"The  call may lead to dispatches to police, fire and emergency medical services all at once. Each of them is having a separate conversation," he said.
The database captures bits of audio, from the initial 911 call to each radio communication that occurs after. Every one-way interaction is stored in a separate file.
How many audio interactions might be produced in a single emergency?
"As few as 100 interactions," Wooten said. "But a major event like a five-alarm fire might produce thousands or tens of thousands of interactions, easy."
In one year, the audio might take up several terabytes of hard-drive space, Wooten said.
For clients who capture video as well, disk space is measured in pedabytes (one pedabyte equals 1,000 terabytes).
But the NiceLog's real value is in tracking down a pebble of audio within a massive mountain of captured data.
"We start with what we know about the incident," Wooten said. "Do we know the day it happened? The phone number it came from? The police officer's name who was on the scene? Then we search for it. It's kind of like Googling."
If a city investigator chooses, he or she can "organize the data and create a single incident folder" containing thousands of conversation pieces.
This can be put onto DVDs or e-mailed.
But to whom? Why does the city need to access audio from old emergencies?
The answer revolves around the legal system.
"Courts need access to it," Wooten said. "So do private attorneys. Domestic violence has been a big driver for our systems. It's very valuable for a judge to be able to listen to a 911 call before he arraigns the suspect. Usually the phone picks up a lot of the abuse."
Wooten added that "if you could get that call there quickly enough before the suspect is arraigned, the amount of remanding goes up substantially."
Additional reasons to access the audio include training purposes, internal investigations, media inquiries and liability protection, such as "private citizens saying the police didn't respond in time," Wooten said.
Although Chicago doesn't use the company for cataloging video from cameras, its software comes with some impressive capabilities. It acts, essentially, as a citywide home-security system.
For example, "if a camera records a person wearing a backpack taking it off, leaving it and walking away from it, that's a potential threat. We automatically detect that and notify the first responder."
Using artificial intelligence, NICE can detect people going the wrong way through one-way doors at airports and will automatically notify authorities.
The company's systems run from "a couple thousand dollars to several million of dollars, depending on the size and sophistication," Wooten said.