Orlando fire, police depts. ask city for new $1.9M dispatch system

The new system would allow the two agencies to share one dispatch system in order to receive information from both agencies at once

By Caitlin Doornbos
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — To reduce response times and save money in the long term, the Orlando Police and Fire departments are asking the city for permission to spend $1.9 million in bond money for a new dispatch system.

Though police and fire dispatchers work in the same room at the city’s Emergency Operations Center, the agencies work on two call dispatch platforms that don’t share data, said Orlando Fire Department spokeswoman Ashley Papagni.

When a 911 call comes into the city’s emergency communications center, it’s assigned to either fire or police dispatchers, she said. But often, police and firefighters are needed to respond to emergencies.

Think of the new dispatch system like a group text message — everyone gets the information at the same time, eliminating the middle man. The new system would allow the two agencies to share one dispatch system: so during shared calls, they could receive information from both agencies at once.

With the current system, when information from a 911 call handled by the police department needs to be sent to the fire department, a communications worker has to call a counterpart at the other agency, who then has to type it into their separate system, OFD Deputy Chief Rich Wales said.

He says the new system could shave crucial seconds off response times.

“Imagine all that information at your fingertips the second it’s being typed in, versus waiting for that air time for the dispatcher to get on the radio and tell you what is happening,” Wales said.

A combined system will give 911 dispatchers one less job to do — a small stress reliever for the workers who see increasing call volumes each year, said Fire Department Communications Manager Matt King.

The new system would be paid for out of a $30 million bond approved in 2016 for funding current and future public safety projects, Papagni said.

She said the OFD bought their current system 17 years ago; OPD Deputy Chief Mark Canty said his agency bought theirs more than 20 years ago.

Papagni said if the city does not buy a new system, the costs to maintain the systems would be high. Maintenance on the current police and fire systems cost the city more than $415,000 in the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The maintenance cost for the first five years of the new program is about estimated to cost $642,000, she said.

Canty said streamlined communications would be especially beneficial during major incidents where there are multiple injured patients or many factors involved.

“The citizens would receive better service because we would able to talk more readily,” he said. “I’m able to take the info I received in the police system and immediately transmit that to the fire station.”

The system would also open up the possibility for the agencies to use new technologies, Fire Department Chief Roderick Williams said. They would be able to access drone footage through the dispatch system and update the GPS systems in Fire Department vehicles.

“We have to keep up with the times,” he said. “Situations are changing all the time, so how do we meet today’s new normal?”

Canty said OPD doesn’t have drones, but it might in the future. The OFD is expect to buy drones within the next two months.

The agencies also are interested in getting text-to-911 technology in the future, which is not possible with the current dispatch system. Text-to-911 capabilities allows citizens to contact dispatchers via text messages.

City commissioners will review the proposal Monday. If approved, it could take as much as 16 months for the system to be installed and fully operational in both departments, Papagni said.

Copyright 2017 Orlando Sentinel

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