Wanted: an office of the future for today’s dispatchers.
Every municipality in Schenectady County has finally agreed to join a centralized dispatch facility where all the county’s fire and police dispatchers would work together. But when the dispatchers finally wind up in their new office, they may find a very different job awaiting them — and many are looking forward to the changes.
Leaders want a modern nerve center, with streaming video from all security cameras in the county. They want commanders to be able to switch between cameras as easily as switching channels on a television.
Mayor Gary McCarthy envisions a supervisor gathering evidence from a camera feed while dispatchers are sending police to the scene. County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino wants commanders to be able to electronically patrol the city, flipping from camera to camera in search of criminal activity.
Rotterdam officials are eager to get in on the action, too, with hopes of setting up their own cameras that could also be viewed from the centralized dispatch center.
“We know they’ve certainly been helpful in the city,” said Rotterdam Deputy Chief William Manikas, “if money became available.”
Dagostino is using seized asset funds to buy cameras for the Bellevue neighborhood of Schenectady, and Manikas hopes that funding could be used to install cameras in Rotterdam, too.
It’s the wave of the future, Dagostino said. He thinks “live monitoring” of security cameras will become a key part of dispatchers’ jobs.
“Live monitoring allows us to realize an incident is taking place,” he said. “You will dispatch much quicker. Whereas, if you’re waiting on a resident to come across it or make a call, those are precious minutes lost.”
That urgency did not spur a quick decision on consolidation of dispatch services, which stretched out over years among the towns and city, with cost-sharing a major issue. A state deadline of March 2013 for a $1 million grant to help put together the center prompted the consensus now obtained; detailed cost estimates are not available.
The prevailing theory on response time is that police have a far better chance of solving a crime if they get there faster. The longer criminals have to get away, the harder it is to prove they were ever there.
While Dagostino wants to use cameras to catch them in the act, he said the cameras would still be useful after the fact. Currently, the city searches its recorded camera feeds for evidence after being notified of a crime. License plates, suspects’ faces and other evidence have been used to find and convict criminals.
“It really assists us in law enforcement investigations,” Dagostino said.
McCarthy wants the dispatch center to start using cameras to better dispatch appropriate resources. A call for a large fight could indicate a need for many officers — but the camera feed could help the dispatcher decide exactly how many officers to send.
Some dispatchers say they are too busy to also flip through camera feeds while taking information from a caller and then relaying that to officers. McCarthy said the supervisor ought to be available for camera work.
“If we get up to full staff, you could have a supervisor there who could better manage the response,” he said. “Right now, within the dispatch center, we’ve had problems where the supervisor is doing more front lines, answering the phones.”
Many of the local dispatch centers have struggled with staffing. One of the arguments in favor of a centralized facility is that it would eventually use fewer dispatchers, saving money while also making it easier to keep it fully staffed.
McCarthy also wants dispatch to be proactive — searching for criminal activity between calls.
“They see something going on in an area where there is no patrol car, they could dispatch a car,” he said.
But he also wants them to use the cameras for other emergencies. They could scan the city during snowstorms to see whether plows have missed a street, and then call that plow back, he said.
Much of this may have to wait for a centralized facility, where camera feeds could be displayed on a larger screen in a way that all the dispatchers could easily see.
Although the camera feeds can be seen in Schenectady’s dispatch facility now, the cramped office makes it difficult for everyone to see the screen. It was removed at one point, McCarthy said, but is being restored on his orders.
McCarthy said it shouldn’t cost much money to move the camera feeds to the new location. It cost just $50,000 to set up the display in the dispatch center, and it should be easily moved, he said.
Schenectady’s dispatch chief, Director of Communications Kevin Moore, said the city connects to its cameras through secure Internet lines. That allows them to watch the camera feed from anywhere.
The dispatch center does not even have to be in the city to connect to the cameras, he said.
“It can be located any place,” he said. “It does not have to be in a certain area. The network server would control access.”
With access virtually unrestricted, local officials are now searching for a location.
“They’ve looked at a number of sites,” McCarthy said. “Because of the slowness of the process, some of those sites are no longer available.”
But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. County Legislator Anthony Jasenski, who is leading the process, said one of the potential sites was flooded during last year’s tropical storms.
Jasenski plans to have a site before winter. The goal is for it to be operational by the end of 2013.
Emergency responders created a list of 20 criteria to grade each site — ranging from flood concerns to power issues. The site must have “redundancy of power” and should not be near a railroad or any other site that could force the dispatch center to evacuate.
Railroads are out because a tanker car could tip in just the wrong place, forcing out dispatchers who need to be calling for hazardous material assistance.
“God forbid, but if it happens ...” Jasenski said. “We looked at one place that had the railroad right behind it, and the guys said, ‘That’s not a good idea.’ ”
A site on the flood plain was eliminated, too — just before it was flooded by Irene.
Interior design will matter. Jasenski said having a space big enough for the camera feeds is crucial — he thinks that’s the trend for dispatching in the future.
Some dispatchers said they are hoping for a larger facility, citing cramped offices. They also want windows — Schenectady has no windows in its office, and Rotterdam has just one window.
“I want a big bay window,” one Rotterdam dispatcher joked.
But when asked about security cameras, he said seriously that Rotterdam needs more of them. The dispatch center has just one — a camera that overlooks the front door. Cameras in other locations would be a great improvement, he said.
Jasenski is enthusiastic.
“We’re hoping to have it monitored in real time,” he said, calling it a “real advantage” of the new facility.
He added that he’s heard many requests for windows. That’s not high on his list, but the need for more space is ranked very high.
He said the center needs an open floor plan that allows dispatchers to switch jobs in an emergency.
At each municipality’s center, dispatchers are “overwhelmed” during big incidents because they can’t put more people onto the task that needs the most work, Jasenski said. They might need to switch some dispatchers to taking calls, handling the dozens of calls that come in from witnesses. Or they might need to put some call-takers on the police and fire radios to dispatch more help.
“We need to be able to move people to other functions in big incidents,” Jasenski said. “We’re seeing now that they get overwhelmed in those incidents.”
Since the camera feeds and phone systems can be moved anywhere, he said he doesn’t care where the center is located. He has a list of sites in Schenectady, Rotterdam. Princetown and Glenville.
“Siting isn’t as important as the design, the actual functionality of it,” he said. “We’re only going to get one shot at this, so we need to get it right.”