Software watches trends in 911 calls

Tuesday, March 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:52 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New software that analyzes 911 calls could help the Columbia/Boone County Health Department detect outbreaks of the flu or warn the department about a bioterrorist attack.

FirstWatch searches a database of 911 calls, looking for complaints or symptoms that the Health Department has identified as “triggers.” If the program finds an above-average number of those triggers, it notifies Health Department officials via e-mail or a pager number.

Combinations of 18 triggers are used for influenza, including abnormal breathing and clammy skin.

The FirstWatch software has been collecting data in Boone County since last summer, but it became fully functional in January. The software was purchased using money from a 2003 Homeland Security grant.

Heather Baer, public information specialist for the Health Department, said the department has recently received the first alerts from the new system. Although the alerts were only for an increase in reported flu symptoms, Baer said it is beneficial for the department to have as much information as possible.

“It’s not a diagnostic tool, but it gives us an idea of what’s going on,” she said.

Before the new software, the department could only track trends in 911 calls manually, said Public Safety Joint Communications director James McNabb. The FirstWatch system performs these searches automatically.

Baer said hospitals would sometimes call the Health Department and notify it about an increase in cases they were treating.

“We didn’t have something in a real-time response like this,” she said. “Whether it is 2 o’clock in the morning or 2 o’clock in the afternoon, it will give us an alert at that time.”

Having the system in place has not changed how dispatchers handle 911 calls because it searches information that was already entered into the system, McNabb said.

FirstWatch will require a minimal amount of maintenance, McNabb said. “It’s not something that would be problematic,” he said.

The system serves more than 14 million people in 16 states. It monitors trends in Kansas City, Independence and Des Moines, Iowa, along with some counties in eastern Kansas.

Baer said another benefit of the system is that officials can be alerted to trends in nearby areas that use the system.

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