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ERMA – Something is terribly wrong.

A loved one experiences severe pain in the upper arm and chest and has difficulty breathing. Or, we wake up in our house to a thick, acrid smell; when we open our bedroom door, a wall of flame and smoke seems to jump up out of nowhere.

We come home from school early just in time to see someone climbing out of our bedroom window carrying a bulging pillowcase; is there still someone inside?

We immediately call 911. By now, time seems to slow down so much that seconds feel like hours as we await the arrival of needed help from emergency medical technicians, firefighters, or police. Time is a precious commodity in a crisis.

Systems to communicate alarm in hopes of receiving assistance began in the 1770s when Town Watch members used their voices, and later wooden ratchet noisemakers to give the alarm in large cities and towns.

Since that time, we have used whistles, sirens, and police “call boxes” with electronic buzzers and sometimes telephones to spread the alarm. In the early to mid-20th century, the two-way radio was the communication device of choice.

Now, since the late 1960s, computers, cell phones, and digital messaging terminals have begun to manage emergency and routine public safety communications in an attempt to improve efficiency by reducing response times through centralization of dispatch capabilities. This emerging technology has, at its core, the mission to reduce elapsed time between the frantic 911 call and the arrival of needed assistance.

Taking An In-depth View

An in-depth look at the inception and implementation of a centralized dispatch system for Cape May County will be published over the course of several weeks, the Herald will present stories on this $5-million, multi-year project.

The issues to be examined will fall into these categories:

•    Central dispatch system concepts and benefits.

•    Financial issues and challenges.

•    Local acceptance and participation by municipalities.

County Emergency Communications Comes of Age

Life in Cape May County has become more complex; we want to live our lives as safely and simply as possible. Part of the challenge of feeling safe is getting the right police, fire, or emergency medical professionals to help quickly in time of need.

Reliable and accurate communication in times of trouble is critical to meet the public safety challenges faced daily. To that end, central dispatch and CAD technology may be viewed as the "brain" and central nervous system that coordinates public safety resources such that appropriate, skilled assistance can be delivered to the problem in the shortest period.

According to Cape May County OEM (Office of Emergency Management) Coordinator Martin Pagliughi, centralized command and control can help focus government resource allocation decisions on critical incidents that need immediate attention by first responders.

Timely communication and coordination among first responders will also eliminate duplication of effort and enable the right remedy to arrive at the right location just in time to do the most good. Central coordination also reduces costs per dispatch over the deployment of scarce resources.

According to Pagliughi, central dispatch has been a part of his thinking for 20 years, but implementation has been difficult.

He recalls that many years ago, the Cape May County Fire Chief's Association voted to seek countywide dispatch system, but that symbolic vote led nowhere.

In 2008, a study commissioned by the freeholders also recommended they pursue a central system, but nothing happened after that.

Cape Issues’ Interest

Cape Issues is “a group of concerned citizens who meet monthly to identify issues such as education, taxes, and other areas of concern in a non-partisan manner.”

After Cape Issues member Robert Jackson addressed central dispatch at a freeholders meeting, the group decided to make central dispatch a permanent agenda item.

Cape Issues recognized the work of Pagliughi and Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton as champions of the effort to modernize county emergency communications.

“I was a supporter of centralized dispatch going back 30 years when I was first elected to the board,” said Thornton. “About eight years ago, I learned that municipalities needed to change dispatch frequencies and upgrade equipment throughout the county and that we also needed a new county emergency management center.”

Thornton related that during that period, Lower Township was considering a new public safety building and it occurred to him that it would make sense to combine those two needs with new dispatch technology that would benefit everyone operationally and financially.

Thornton noted that Pagliughi, other freeholders, and county leaders had similar thoughts.

Central Dispatch Concept

According to Pagliughi, the “2014 PSAP Consolidated Dispatch Study” conducted by Intertech Associates for the county concluded, “It is clear that combining dispatch points (separate dispatch systems) in a regional center will yield financial benefits and for most communities, there can be a significant operational benefit.”

Pagliughi explained that there are 12 PSAPs or Public Safety Answering Points (dispatch systems) serving 16 municipalities in the county.

He and the other leaders of the concept are convinced that the new system would improve safety, permit expanded coordination of resources, and save the taxpayers money.

Pagliughi noted that the new system consists of a $250,000 CAD (computer assisted dispatch) by INFOSHARE RMS that includes the software to support mapping, a Records Management System (RMS), and other modules that will enhance the ability to analyze calls for service demand patterns, and even do crime analysis.

The concept also includes a $1.2-million 911 system provided by Motorola that includes all hardware (radios and computers) required to operate the CAD and will utilize the existing microwave “backbone” to connect all this technology.

The consolidated EMCC, Central Dispatch, and Lower Township Public Safety building represents a significant saving to taxpayers.

Through a coalition of leaders in the county that includes freeholders, Cape Issues, the Office of Emergency Management, Lower Township, and fire and emergency medical personnel, the county seems to have entered a technological era that may significantly improve the capability of our first responders and decision makers, while saving money in the longterm. Next, the Herald will explore the issue of costs of the new system, versus the benefits, both operational and financial.

Part II will address the question, “Will I be safer because of central dispatch, and what will it cost me?”

To contact Jim McCarty, email jmccarty@cmcherald.com.

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