911 service enhanced by digital mapping

Wednesday, March 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:28 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

The office that handles emergency dispatching for Columbia and Boone County has added real-time digital mapping to its arsenal of blinking and beeping gadgetry, integrating yet another expensive piece of equipment into a system that relies more on high technology than some might think.

The mapping program is the latest in a quickly evolving line of emergency tracking gizmos that help dispatchers pinpoint and display the origins of 911 calls, even if they come in on cellular phones. The whole package cost $197,000, about $161,000 of which came from the county’s phone bill surcharge for 911 service. The rest was covered by a grant from the Public Safety Foundation of America.

Since it was fully activated Feb. 6, the software has helped track down a child who was injured in a park and has helped thwart a suicide attempt by revealing a caller’s location when he dialed 911 and refused to leave an address, said Jim McNabb, director of Columbia/ Boone County Public Safety Joint Communications.

“It has helped us a lot,” McNabb said. “For one, if a caller can’t respond, we can find out where they’re calling from and send help anyway.”

You’d never know it, but dispatch work is becoming so high-tech that operators now answer calls by using computers, not telephone sets. The one-room dispatch center in downtown Columbia is even staffed with cross-trained dispatcher/technology specialists and houses one of the most exhaustive digital maps of Boone County on file.

“Right now, dispatch centers have to be tech-heavy,” said dispatcher Brian Maydwell, who is also the project manager for the mapping system. “... With the advent of all the technology, the citizen expects a kind of higher service.”

Dispatchers now are trained for six months or more to handle complex and often-updated computer-dispatch programs. Coursework that used to teach dispatchers about switchboards and radio frequencies now includes primers in global positioning systems and satellite phones, according to articles from the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch.

“In the communications field, dispatching centers have been at the forefront of a lot of these innovations,” McNabb said.

Joint Communications contributes to a city/county consortium that has invested in digital mapping during the past year. The technology can be used to track the origin of emergency calls, to show neighborhood maps or even to help define property lines.

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