By Justin Dennis
and JESS HARDIN
Mahoning County’s 911 dispatch system is unrecognizable compared to its first iteration 25 years ago.
Next year, the system will travel from what Sheriff Jerry Greene called “the Stone Ages” to the “21st century.”
County commissioners last week approved about $2.9 million in upgrades to software at each of the county’s eight public safety answering points, or PSAPs, including the computer-aided dispatch system, or CAD, and a new records management system, or RMS.
The upgrades are expected to make police work more streamlined and cohesive countywide.
A BETTER POLICE AGENCY
Austintown Police Chief Robert Gavalier said the county’s current CAD system has been in use since 2003. The new software will allow county law enforcement to, for the first time, share information in real time, he said.
“The current software does not support the changes occurring in the industry. … This current system that we’re going to purchase will bring us into the 21st century,” he said.
County Sheriff Maj. William Cappabianca, the member of the county’s E911 board who vetted the purchase, described a hypothetical traffic stop wherein a suspect is pulled over for a simple traffic-lane violation. The new records management system – which allows the deputy to access other departments’ incident reports immediately from their cruiser’s laptop – shows the driver is the No. 1 suspect in a rash of vehicle break-ins in Boardman.
Now, the officer begins asking different types of questions. He spots a pry bar and several different types of cellphone chargers in the backseat.
Without the new technology, that officer would simply be “in the dark on a lane violation,” Cappabianca said.
Evidence captured on officers’ phones using a proprietary app also can be stored directly to the system. In a domestic-violence call, that could be “the swollen lip on the victim … the kitchen that has a vase of flowers thrown against a wall,” he said. “Anything that could help in the prosecution of the case.”
Officer-collected statements and photos also will feed directly to prosecutors’ desktops, eliminating “redundant” data entry, Cappabianca said. The new system allows the sheriff’s office to go paperless.
The RMS also can track criminal complaints, build incident databases and show crime trends. It also will maintain an inventory of the departments’ equipment, cruisers, firearms, radios and other devices as well as a barcode system for the departments’ evidence rooms.
Each barcode can return the cases assigned to evidence pieces and the cases’ dispositions.
“It just makes us a better police agency,” Cappabianca said.
Software for each PSAP will be hosted on the same server, allowing them to talk to each other, Gavalier said. This also saved agencies from buying their own servers.
“This is what all major law-enforcement agencies have across the country,” Greene said.
PROACTIVE POLICE WORK
When a fire department buys a new truck, it’s easy to demonstrate the impact of the purchase, said Boardman police Chief Todd Werth.
Boardman’s $460,000 investment for its separate RMS upgrade “is not something you can touch,” Werth said, but it will drastically improve productivity.
“That time is going to be directed back to proactive police work, patrolling in our neighborhoods and shopping areas. I think that’s going to be the biggest impact we’re going to see,” Werth said.
When a 911 call is made, the new system will allow dispatchers to send officers detailed information, including a map with a suggested route to the call, notes from the dispatcher and a criminal history of the person or place.
The new system will use Mahoning County’s own geographic information system, “so everyone is the same across the board,” Cappabianca said. County fire departments also can access the same information, he said.
“What’s going to be a step above is all these entities now talk to each other,” Werth said.
The upgrades also will reduce the amount of time officers spend writing reports.
Werth provided the example of a traffic accident, which requires an officer to sketch and photograph the scene.
With current technology, an officer photographs the scene using a digital camera, uploads the photos to a computer and transfers them to a disk to add to the report. The officer also sketches the accident by hand.
Using the new system, an officer will take a photograph using a smartphone and upload it to the electronic report through the Spillman app.
“The intersections are already pre-loaded, so instead of me sitting there with a ruler making the intersection, that pops up,” Werth said. Instead of drawing the collision, the officer will position vehicle icons on an electronic map.
Lou Vega, director of the county Solid Waste Management District, was a county 911 dispatcher and supervisor when the system was first implemented in the early 1990s.
“In the past … a lot of the communities were their own little islands. Each one was a bubble unto itself – they had different dispatchers, different frequencies on the radios,” he said. “Everything had to be coordinated by phone call. There wasn’t any interoperability.”
The 911 call log printed one line at a time through a continuously fed dot-matrix printer, filling boxes upon boxes, Vega said. Metadata didn’t exist then. Reviewing a 911 call meant queueing, pausing and rewinding reel-to-reel tape and listening for responders as they called out timestamps.
When the pre-Windows 95 computers failed, dispatchers recorded officer movements by physically punching time cards, Vega said. “It was really cumbersome,” he added.
Cappabianca recalled hunting for the location of a vehicle accident based solely on information dispatchers received from 911 callers. Landline calls were easier – at least they returned an address. Then came cellphones, he said.
“They would triangulate the location of the cellphone off three [cell] towers. That’s really modernized us finding people,” Cappabianca said, though he added that was unavailable in the early days of cellular usage, and if a 911 caller hung up, it “could really throw you off.”
“Now we’re getting into the next generation – E911. Texting 911 is starting to develop.”
Gov. John Kasich’s administration has called for a reduction in the number of PSAPs statewide by tying a county’s population to the number of PSAPs able to receive revenue for 911 system upgrades from the E911 tax – the small fee found on wireless bills. In Mahoning County there’s only three: Youngstown, Austintown and Boardman.
The county 911 board began the consolidation process about a year ago, when the county formed the Austintown-Boardman-Mahoning County Joint Communications District, Cappabianca said. The county’s other five PSAPs are now funded solely with local government funds.
County PSAPs could continue to consolidate as officials lay the groundwork to support a centralized dispatch system, officials said.
“I think what you’ll see is it shrink down. To put everything in one basket is a little risky. In an emergency system like this, there needs to be that redundancy,” Youngstown police Chief Robin Lees said. “It enhances officer safety, the aspect of being able to query that system.”
Greene said officials aren’t soliciting for regionalized law enforcement, but the framework is there – it’s “certainly a decision for those departments,” he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
The county’s contract with CAD and RMS equipment and software provider Spillman Technologies of Utah, a Motorola company, costs a total of $2.9 million, the majority of which will be paid annually over seven years.
The total cost of the CAD is $1,453,008, which includes 10 years of maintenance and support at an average $76,246 per year, with the first year free. That cost will be financed at no interest from county E911 funds and 911 assessment fund reserves, which includes revenues from tax assessments on improved parcels.
The total cost of the RMS is $1,492,506, which includes 10 years of maintenance and support at an average $95,358.67 per year, with the first year free. New debt service paid from the county’s general fund at no interest will cover an initial $300,000 payment for the RMS.
The costs for the RMS will be shared between the seven law-enforcement agencies included on the joint-purchase agreement: Austintown, $227,728; Canfield, $135,087; Beaver, $94,252; Mill Creek MetroParks, $76,012; Poland, $67,382; Milton, $19,693; sheriff’s office, $872,353.
Commissioners also approved replacement of the county’s “antiquated” PSAP voice-logger system through a $237,588.20 contract with Sound Communications Inc. of Grove City. The system records the multiple call lines coming into 911 dispatchers at once and orders them chronologically for later reference or use in court.