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Access point

Public aafety dispatcher Cheryl James with the Directorate of Emergency Services watches screens at the Public Safety Access Point (or dispatch center) during regular operations April 6 at Fort McCoy. The Fort McCoy Public Safety Access Point recently upgraded its 911 equipment to link all components under one computer system.

New equipment at the Fort McCoy Directorate of Emergency Services' 911 and dispatch center is helping keep Fort McCoy community members safe, officials at the installation said.

The new 911 phone system was funded and installed by Army Emergency Management Modernization Program and Installation Management Command.

"The EM2P has been a big project in the Army," said communication division chief Alan Blencoe with DES. "IMCOM picked up the whole project ... They already had all of the technical people and project management. I've done installations like this before where I did it mostly myself. This time was way easier."

The new system at the Public Safety Answering Point or dispatch center provides a quicker visual of where an emergency call is coming from by plotting on a map immediately upon answering the call. Previously, the 911 operator would have to obtain data from the call and enter it into a Computer Aided Dispatch system to see where it is. The new system also has the Military Grid System, which was not available before.

For example, if the phone system provided data about the location of a call, the dispatchers would have to manually plug it into their system to find on their maps.

"If Range Control would call us and say we've got a grass fire at an eight-digit number, we'd have to write down the eight-digit number; go over to the wall where our map with the grids on it is; extrapolate it; find it on the map; then come back to our automated mapping, plug in the location, and find it on the map," Blencoe said.

Under the new system, the computer will take the coordinated information from the phones and automatically interpret it and map it. It cuts down on time and the possibility of human error, he said.

The new computer system is also designed to help Fort McCoy stay poised for future changes. The current 911 system was developed in the late 1970s and uses databases to locate and route emergency calls. It can't handle many newer types of communication that people use today, such as texts, photos and video. There is a lot of national discussion about how to implement these types of messages into 911, Blencoe said.

The newly installed system at Fort McCoy, however, is compatible with these formats, so when next-generation emergency management is implemented, the post's new system should be compatible, he said.

EM2P also funded two additional workstations that are the first parts of a backup PSAP at the airfield, which will be used if a weather or other emergency makes the main dispatch center inaccessible.

Blencoe said the new technology helps, but the people running the system are still the key to success. It takes a certain mentality to be a successful operator and dispatcher, he said. They have to be problem solvers, counselors and authority figures. They also need to have a good working knowledge of laws, regulations, geography and medicine.

"We surround ourselves with a lot of technology, and the technology helps us do our jobs, but the key is the people," Blencoe said. "Getting the job done is much more complex than just answering the phone. A dispatcher has to know a lot about being a cop. A dispatcher has to know a fair amount about being a fireman. A dispatcher has to know a fair amount about physical security (and) things like that," he said.

A dispatcher with a good handle on these topics can save a lot of time figuring out where to send a call or by advising personnel on the scene who'd have to take time to look up or request a regulation, Blencoe said.

"We have administrative rights to iSportsman," he said. "My people look up who hasn't checked out and call them to ask if they're still hunting at 3 a.m. If they're not at home and they're not where they're supposed to be, that's when we start looking for them."

Even during quiet times when the phones aren't ringing off the hooks, the PSAP staff keep busy.

"A piece of the puzzle that a lot of people don't know about is what I refer to as electronic investigation," Blencoe said. "When an investigator or officer has a question about something, the dispatchers are able to assist by doing research."

His staff members compile and update useful information, including points of contact at other organizations, to make sure it's easily accessible to dispatchers when it's needed.

"Electronic investigation is a very, very useful way to fill (slower) times," Blencoe said. "The people on the desk don't know everything, but they learn to know where to find it."

Blencoe said it's helpful when people let the dispatchers know about changes in their offices, whether it's new personnel or changing rooms or building numbers. Up-to-date information saves precious time in an emergency.

"During an emergency is not the time to be learning about a change," Blencoe said.

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Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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