Top Questions We're Asked #1

We receive lots of questions during a year, by telephone, fax, e-mail and in person. Many of the answers end up on specific pages of our Web site, under a specific category. But sometimes the questions-answers just don't fit into a well-defined slot. So, we compiled a list of the most common questions and their answers and posted them right here.

Q. Is there an on-line forum where I can find help with technical or other questions about dispatching?

A. Both APCO and NENA have on-line Web forums where you can post questions on all sorts of dispatch-related topics, and collect responses from other visitors. Naturally, the quality of the help is dependent upon the other persons who visit the forums and their level of expertise. Perhaps just as valuable, you can view the questions and responses already posted by other visitors--perhaps your question has already been answered. Surf APCO's Exchange Forum or NENA's Forums on various topics.

Q. Is there a nation labor union that specifically represents public safety dispatchers?

A. No, there is not. And because of that, unionized public safety dispatchers generally fall into one of three categories of unions: they belong to a clerical union that has no connection at all to public safety, they belong to the law enforcement or firefighting union that represents their local officers and firefighters, or they belong to a electrical workers or or other semi-associated trade union (for example, the Communications Workers of America-CWA). The nation's two largest public safety organizations, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), were not organized for, and do not provide representation services. We have not heard of a serious effort to form a national dispatchers' union--the effort, time and money required to meet federal unionization regulations (decertification, certification, action 'windows', voting, etc.) seems to be a major barrier, and there just isn't enough time or money available from anyone to accomplish it.

Creating your own union is a rather complicated, federally-regulated procedure that can be politically tricky. Joining an existing union is more feasible, although it's not uncommon for many unions or local chapters to be unfamiliar with the job tasks of public safety dispatching and, therefore, unfamiliar with the dispatchers' needs and contract requirements.

However…the New York City fire alarm dispatchers are represented by the own, self-formed union that now represents some 200+ members--the Fire Alarm Dispatchers Benevolent Association (FADBA). The union gives them vastly more clout during negotiations--the city also deals with the 12,000-member fire department union and other huge unions. Massachusetts has a state-wide dispatchers organization, as well as New Jersey. However, neither of these latter two organizations provides collective bargaining services.

The AFL-CIO Web site has several pages about unions, joining one and forming a local chapter. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) also represents dispatchers and has information on their Web site. Lastly, the Communications Workers of America represents a wide range of personnel in communications, including telephone and wireless phone company workers.

Q. Is there a formula or other way to tell me how many dispatchers I should have per shift, or total?

A. No. There are too many variables in order to create a formula--or even a rule of thumb--for the number of personnel you should have on-duty at any given time: number of incoming phone calls, number of out-going calls that have to be made, number of radio channels, number of warrant/registration checks being made, other associated clerical duties, etc. The answer lies in doing a so-called "time-motion" study, which involves setting out what tasks each job title performs, then observing a representative of each position during different times of the day (variable staffing, you know), writing down how many tasks they perform, and how long it takes them. This would result in an approximate figure only.

There are, however, formulas for determining the number of calltakers required to handle a certain number of incoming telephone calls, for a given duration of call. Again, the result would be approximate only, since the duration of a public safety call can never be forecasted or limited. The formula is based on long-time telephone company experience and is easy to explain and understand. Our Web page on the subject has a selection of formulas and links.

By the way, there was a staffing study performed in the early 1980s by the Stanford Research Institute for the U.S. Department of Justice. Their report was titled, "The Design and Costing of 911 Systems--A Technical Manual." However, the report is out of print and very difficult to find. We did learn of one person who's willing to share the information contained in the report: Jean Best, operations manager at the King County (Wash.) Sheriff's 911 center. She says it's OK to call her at (206) 296-7500.

Q. I'm considering becoming a dispatcher. What preparation do I need?

A. We've prepared an entire page that specifically answers this question, and it has lots of links to other pages on our Web site--and others--to help you get a better idea of the job tasks, working conditions, necessary skills, etc.

Q. I have some ideas for stories...what can you tell me?

A. First, you should know that we're a news-oriented publication and infrequently publish feature-type material. We do not publish company-written stories, product testimonials or similar items. Our focus is on current events and dispatchers at a console. If you're still interested, e-mail us with your questions.

Q. I work for a public safety product company and want to send you press releases. What's the best method?

A. Simply send us e-mail with the press release text. As we noted above, we do not publish product stories, employee promotions, etc. in the printed edition. We do, however, cover major financial events, mergers, sales, IPOs and other company news. Our most active company news pipeline is the News Hound email newsletter, which is published three to five times a week (unless we're too busy finishing the printed edition).

Q. Do you know the number of 911 centers in the USA, a chart or map of their locations?

A. The best source of information about public safety answering points (PSAP) is the National Emergency Number Association's (NENA) PSAP Registry. However, their huge database covers only primary 911 answering points, and not the many, many other comm centers that dispatch public safety units (fire departments, transit police, university police, park districts, etc.). As you may know, every jurisdiction with 911 designates a single comm center to initially answer calls, and then transfer them to secondary agencies. Obviously, it also doesn't include regions without 911 service. The matter is made more confusing by on-going consolidation of comm centers. The figure tossed around by NENA, SCC Communications Corp. and others who should know is 25,000 primary PSAPs.

  • The FCC has compiled a PSAP Registry for assistance in implementing wireless E911 features (Phase I/II), as well as VoIP. You can download the entire 16 Mb file in Excel spreadsheet format.

  • SPAN Publishing offers printed and on-line directories of American law enforcement and fire agencies.

Q. My regional center is having an event...would you run a story promoting it?

A. Yes. Simply email us the details and we'll include it in the next edition, and send it out with our News Hound email newsletter. Just note that our publication deadline is the 15th of the month, and it arrives in subscribers' mailboxes no earlier than the 15th of the next month--plan ahead!

Q. I'm interested in better retirement benefits for dispatchers--how do I do this?

A. There are several state-by-state attempts to do this, some successful, some not, some in-progress. The process is entirely political and can take two or three years, even if you have support from your state legislators. Here's what we know now--also check our retirement survey page:

  • New Hampshire - introduced enhanced retirement bill in 1999-200 session, died

  • California - After the governor didn't sign an enhanced retirement bill during the 2000 session, another bill is moving through the House and Senate. Contact Loreé Camden, Sebastapol PD, email: LCamdenSPD@aol.com.

  • New York - Optional 25-year retirement bill now being considered by the legislature.

  • Alaska - The governor signed an enhanced retirement bill on June 3, 2000 to put dispatchers in same category as peace officers. Contact Gina Wheeler, Univ. of Alaska-Fairbanks PD, email: fngmw@uaf.edu. The state APCO chapter has posted some questions and answers about the new retirement plan on their Web site.

  • Utah - Possibly two years away from introduction in legislature. Now trying to pass mandatory certification-training for dispatchers.

  • Arizona - The legislature passed a 25-year bill in May 2001. Check the state's APCO Web site.

We'd be glad to post other actions here...just e-mail us.

Q. Is there a list of the public safety communications centers in the U.S.? updated

A. Yes and no. We can point you to various sources that might help.

First, NENA has compiled a PSAP Registry, which contains a list of 911 public safety answering points (PSAP) that members have contributed and keep current. It's available on-line under certain restrictions--check their Web site for access information.

This list is not exhaustive. This list is only of the first agency to answer a 911 line--usually the local police or sheriff's agency, but also consolidated comm centers. It does not include secondary PSAPs, that is, those agencies that are actually connected to the 911 system, but which received transferred calls. As you can imagine, there is a substantial list of secondary agencies, including mostly fire departments, but also EMS and perhaps rescue agencies. Contact Carrie Dratwa, NENA's database manager, for more details at (800) 332-3911.

Next, the National Public Safety Information Bureau publishes a set of two directories--law enforcement administrators, and fire-rescue agencies. Combined, the volumes provide the name, mailing address, county, number of officers (but not firefighters) and service population of virtually all the police, sheriffs, transit and university police, state police, government agencies (FBI, Secret Service, etc.), fire and rescue agencies--some 25,000 to 35,000 entries.

In August 2003 we heard that the NPSIB is collecting information on U.S. comm centers specifically. We have not yet been able to confirm this information, but it sounds reasonable.

Naturally, not all of these agencies have comm centers--in some cases dispatching is handled at the county level, or they've consolidated or contracted with another agency. But it's a good start on finding out about a specific agency.

Lastly, the two largest telematics service companies--OnStar and ATX--have lists of PSAPs they use to handle emergency calls from their customers. The OnStar list originated from the first NENA list, but since then they've performed substantial additions and revisions. We anticipate that neither OnStar or ATX would be willing to sell their lists for competitive reasons.

Q. I'm looking for some cities/towns that have successfully consolidated their dispatching.

A. Consolidation of communications is a very tricky subject, and has many obstacles, including mainly the local politics and merging technologies. We have these sources of information on consolidation for you:

  • The Valley Emergency Communications Center in Murray (Utah), managed by Terry Ingram. They formed a special governmental unit some 12 years ago and operate under watch of trustees from each of 18 participating jurisdictions.

  • Bob Nibarger of Sarasota County (Fla.) at (941) 951-5283. They combined dispatching under the existing county structure.

  • Pennington County 911 Emergency Services Communication Center in Rapid City (SD), where Ted Rufledt, Jr. is chief deputy director. In 1993 they combined county employed law enforcement dispatchers with city employed fire and EMS dispatchers, to provide service to agencies in three counties. He's at (605) 394-6794 or e-mail Ted@co.pennington.sd.us.

  • NENA has posted a collection of interagency communications agreements that provide examples of how consolidation or inter-working can be organized.

  • Rice and Steele Counties (Minn.) have a joint comm center. Contact Barb Brewington at bbrewington@mnic.net

  • Clay County (Minn.) and Cass County (ND) are in the process of consolidating. Contact Kathy Colvin at kcolvin@jointdispatch.com.

  • The Emergency Services Consulting Group provides for-fee assistance on comm center consolidation.

  • The Santa Cruz (Calif.) Consolidated Communications Center is an example of a stand-alone, self-administered dispatch operation cooperatively formed by several jurisdictions in 1996.

Q. My co-workers and I are looking for a new shift configuration to maximize our days-off. Do you have any ideas?

A. This is a very common question, and one that we don't have a standard answer for. Because of the large number of variables, we just can't compute an optimum schedule for all the types of comm centers out there.

We have compiled lots of information to give you a start on figuring out a schedule. It includes sample schedules and other resources, and a Web site that has a free, on-line days-off calculator.

Q. Where can I find resources on Spanish for public safety dispatchers?

A. We've seen lots of products for law enforcement, but few specifically for dispatchers. Here are some links to follow:

  • Partners In Training -- This Tucson-based company offers separate training courses for law enforcement and dispatchers (16 hours) in controlling and handling incoming calls. You can purchase their workbook ($8.50) and tape ($9) separately.

  • Dees Multilingual Services - two "Quick Spanish" books and CDs for first-responders and law enforcement that is very comprehensive (also available from Amazon).

  • Joe Blanco's Street Spanish for Telecommunicators on Amazon.

  • Command Spanish Inc. offers specialized training for public safety comm centers.

  • The Constable Group Inc. offers public safety Spanish instruction and materials.

    A collection of Amazon books on Spanish for law enforcement.

    Spanish On Patrol - Designed for law enforcement, fire, EMS and dispatchers.

    Wall Station Survival Spanish - Taught at Virginia region academies, it focuses on developing a basic understanding of the Spanish language, culture and practices through a highly interactive and engaging learning environment. Training includes phone scenarios to collect information assist officers, even if you use a interpretation service. Contact: Robert Romero at ricoman2751@yahoo.com.

Q. Where can I find some inspirational messages, prayers or other material pertaining to dispatchers?

A. Yes, try one of these sites:

  • the Bonnevile County (Id.) comm center for a "Dispatcher's Prayer,"

  • Jackie McElroy's Web site for another

  • the Hutchinson/Reno County (Kan.) personal Web site for a collection of prayers about dispatching

  • There are several prayers and poems at this private site and this private site.

  • If you're interested in some writing that is a little more humorous or tongue-in-check, check Ron Sequin's Web site.

  • Dispatchers at Cincinnati's comm center have posted this inspirational poem related to the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks (Acrobat, pdf format).

  • This site has an inspirational poem.

  • Anita Powers of North Las Vegas (Nev.) has penned this inspirational poem.

  • Mary Pat Murphy has written an inspirational poem

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Q. Where can I find a Web site that converts latitude and longitude to a visual map position?

A. Check these sites:

Q. Is there a standard list of questions for taking missing person calls?

A. There are no standards for dispatching any time of incident--local conditions, laws and procedures dictate the way reports of missing persons are handled by a dispatcher. Much of the Web material is devoted to missing children, and necessarily takes the point of view that they've been abducted first, and then moves in steps to eliminate that possibility, and then focuses on other areas. However, there are some resources (mostly from search and rescue agencies) that might be adapted for a dispatcher taking the initial call:

Q. Can you provide some on-line resources for TTYs and public safety comm centers?

A. Yes, here are some sites and pages:

  • Our own Web site has a check-list on TTY operations

  • The FCC has a Web page devoted to TTY issues

  • The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has a committee devoted to issues of public safety communications and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), including TTYs.

Q. Where can I find mission statements from comm centers?

A. We have a collection right here! If you have one that we haven't posted, please e-mail it to us.

Q. I want to consider new computer-aided dispatch software? Are there downloadable demo versions, or where can I find vendors?

A. You might know that CAD software can be pretty complicated in its most sophisticated versions--ANI/ALI, links to NCIC, etc. In addition, there are usually lots of configuration files to set up. All this means that only the most simple CAD program just can't be posted on the Web as a "free" demo.

On the other hand, we have found one such program--it's one that's been floating around the Web for years (and even before that) as shareware, cheapware, etc. It's available at several Web sites, try this one. Don't expect lots of bells and whistles, but it's a simple database set up for recording police or fire incidents.

OK, as for full-blown CAD programs, we suggest you browse two public safety software listings--the Law Enforcement Links site, and the Officer.com Web site. Lastly, you should understand that CAD software vendors, like many other products, are marketed in several tiers--nationally, regionally and locally. That is, there are perhaps 10 to 15 companies that are nationally known for CAD, perhaps 20 to 30 that market regionally (and which are not as well known), and then 50 to 100 companies that market locally (and which are barely known at all, except to their customer agencies).

Oh, we've compiled our own list of the national tier companies to help you get started in a search for CAD software, along with screen shots.

Q. Is there a Web site on the Internet where I can post my RFP, RFI or other bid solicitation and have it routed to several companies?

A. Yes, in fact there are three such sites where public safety buyers and commercial companies can make a cyber-connection:

  • ConnectRFP.com is a free site for buyers and sellers, specializing in all types of public safety products

  • Pro-Solve Technologies, Inc. uses its LocalStar program to bring buyers and seller together for all types of government products, but with an emphasis on public safety

  • The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) also has a page where you can post your RFP/RFI and have it viewed by a wide range of companies.

  • The GISbid.com Web site allows postings so companies can learn of your needs.

Q. Have you heard of the software program VIN Assist? What does it do and where can I obtain it?

A. Yes, we have. It's a free, small, simple Windows-based program that validates the format of Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN), those 17-digit numbers you find on the dashboard of all cars made since 1969 (in 1981 the location, length and format was standardized by federal law). That is, the coded combination of letters and numbers in a VIN indicate the year of manufacture, make, model and other equipment information. Knowing the code can help you figure out the year, make and model of a car (which helps when you have to enter it into NCIC as stolen). You can obtain the software from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (law enforcement agencies only, please). They're at 10330 S. Roberts Rd., Palos Hills, IL 60465, or call (800) 447-6282, or (708) 430-5697. We should also point you to the following on-line resources:

By the way, the NICB tracks VINs from their manufacturer, and their investigators work at the state and local level to assist in the identification of vehicles that haven't been registered or otherwise recorded in motor vehicle files. If you ever have a vehicle stolen from an enroute car carrier or some other pre-sale location, they're the ones to contact for help.

Lastly, in 1987 the federal government required that major component parts of high-theft car lines be marked with the vehicle identification number (VIN). So a VIN is also useful in identifying auto parts you find.

Q. Where can I find live public safety radio broadcasts on the Internet?

A. The most comprehensive listings of live audio from police, fire and EMS agencies are at PoliceScanner.com and the APBonline Web site. Also check:

Q. Does the full moon really affect the number of incidents, or is it my imagination?

A. You can't bend statistics, so we've taken some actual incident figures from an actual police-fire comm center to determine if there's any correlation. Decide for youself....

Q. What is accreditation and what does it mean for comm centers?

A. Accreditation is the process of being recognized or approved by a national group--in this case the Commission on Law Enforcement Accreditation (CALEA)--as having met certain requirements. More specifically, CALEA has established a standardized list of policies and procedures which accredited stand-alone comm centers must have in writing. CALEA does not specify what the policy or regulation must be, rather it simply requires that you have a written policy. The CALEA standards were originally developed for law enforcement agencies, but a separate comm center program was developed in 1996 in conjunction with APCO. The basis of the stand-alone comm center standards are those used for in-house law enforcement comm centers, with some revisions.

As of Oct. 2000, only three comm centers have become accredited--Northwest Bergen (NJ) Central Dispatch, the Rhode Island E911 Uniform Emergency Telephone System and the Rock County (Wisc.) Communications Center. Two agencies are expected to be accredited in late 2000, and some 30 other centers are reviewing the program for participation. You can find more information on the CALEA program at their Web site.

Q. Where can I find 911 public education materials and help on creating my own program?

A. The best source of information about this subject is the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and agencies that already have such programs. First, NENA has published a manual on the subject and it's available on-line for a $40. Second, NENA has a Public Education committee that focuses on the subject. The contact is David Jones of the Spartanburg (SC) Comm Center, (864) 596-2050, or e-mail him. I'm sure he could point you in the direction of several agencies with established public education programs who would be willing to share experiences, materials, etc.

Third, there is a program for children's 911 education started in California and now rolled out nationally. It's called "911 For Kids" and its mascot is Red E. Foxx. They can be reached at 355 Redondo Ave., Long Beach, CA 90814; (800) 208-6842. Also check the Ector County (Tex.) page for lots of interesting links and school visit photos.

Also take a look at the Fremont (Calif.) Police Department site, which has a "9-1-1 E-Mail Pal" program that links children and the dispatchers, and their "9-1-1 For Kids" artwork collection. Lastly, the McGruff Web site has a coloring book that teaches 911 skills for children, along with other logo materials.

Texas has been especially active in 911 education, and even has a state-wide group devoted to the subject--surf their Web page. And the town of Palm Beach (Fla.) [pop. 10,468] has a very well-developed public education program that includes dispatcher involvement (Bonnie Maney, Telecommunications Manager, 561-227-6460).

Q. Is there a list of state laws pertaining to public access to comm center logging recorder tapes?

A. Yes. In fact, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site has a complete state-by-state list of legislation that sets out public access to all types of records, including printed documents, audio or video tapes, electronic files, etc. Simply select a state, then scroll down the outline to the "police records" category--911 tapes is a sub-category. Note that the information was collected in July, 1997 and that several states, including Pennsylvania, are now working to revise and update their public access laws. In many cases, the proposed laws exclude logging tapes of telephone calls and radio broadcasts, mostly on the grounds that the involved persons (citizen victims, officers in peril, etc.) deserve some measure of privacy in their moment of emergency.

Q. Are there agencies that have on-line Internet reports for crimes, etc.?

A. Yes, there are agencies that allow on-line Internet entry of police reports, or view live CAD information. In some cases you enter information into a Web form and press the "Submit" button. In other cases you download a standard paper form, complete it, and mail it to the police department. University police departments particularly seem to support the notion of on-line reports, no doubt because of their broad campus access to the Internet. Note that the sites below are different from those that only display police reports or other information (accidents, etc.) on-line, sometimes for a fee. Surf:

Q. Are we required to transmit a station identification for our public safety radio system?

A. Yes, the FCC regulations require all licensed stations to transmit the callsign of the transmitting station, but there are several methods to comply. The pertinent section is 90.425 of Part 90 of the FCC Rules & Regulations, which says: "Stations licensed under this part shall transmit identification in accordance with the following provisions: (a) Identification procedure. Except as provided for in paragraph (d) of this section, each station or system shall be identified by the transmission of the assigned call sign during each transmission or exchange of transmissions, or once each 15 minutes (30 minutes in the Public Safety Pool) during periods of continuous operation. The call sign shall be transmitted by voice in the English language or by International Morse Code in accordance with paragraph (b) of this section. If the station is employing either analog or digital voice scrambling, or non-voice emission, transmission of the required identification shall be in the unscrambled mode using A3E, F3E or G3E emission, or International Morse, with all encoding disabled."

Most medium and large-size public safety radio systems are using the Morse Code option these days, which involves attaching a "black box" to your radio system, programmed to "dot-dash" every 30 minutes, but only when there are no transmissions on the channel. Further, if the Morse Code is in progress and a voice transmission begins, the black box stops, and then attempts the station ID again when the voice transmission ends--makes for some pretty interesting listening if you hear this on a scanner (the entire ID process isn't audible to the dispatcher or field units).

The direct links to the above FCC Rules and Regulations are here...[text version] [Acrobat pdf version]. If you'd like to see a complete list of the land mobile regulations, surf here.

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