Creating a regional public safety network

By Ken Shuler

For quite some time, we’ve all watched budgets dwindle in U.S. cities and counties, while government workers are challenged to do more with less. As a fire chief and former 9-1-1 director, I can certainly relate. And as an account manager for a 9-1-1 solutions provider, I’ve seen how advances in technology bridge the gap by connecting municipalities in ways that improve operations and reduce costs.

We’re beginning to see more and more public safety agencies regionalize by uniting across their geographical boundaries to share resources and become more efficient. Regionalization also helps them keep pace with the latest technologies needed to protect and serve. Being in both worlds—as an emergency communications user and supplier—provides me a unique perspective on the entire regionalization process and the steps needed for effective implementation.

One recent regionalization successes is the Northern Tier Regional Communications Project — a group of ten counties in Pennsylvania including Clearfield, Jefferson, Elk, Cameron, McKean, Clarion, Warren, Crawford, Forest and Erie. The Northern Tier counties set out to replace their aging 9-1-1 systems in 2011 with the state’s first regional public safety network, which went live in 2013.

Mike McAllister, director of Elk County Office of Emergency Services, would tell you that undertaking the project was daunting, particularly in the beginning, but only because of the “fear of the unknown.” Nevertheless, the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania successfully navigated the process and now has a network capable of providing even greater safety to citizens and peace of mind to its users. Mike McAllister and his colleagues are glad they pushed through the unknown and are thrilled with the result.

Below are five important takeaways from this project that may help you in developing your own regional network.

  1. Weigh the pros and cons  

The previous 9-1-1 systems used by the Northern Tier counties weren’t interoperable and had no overflow capabilities. This meant that in times of high call volumes, an overloaded emergency call center had no way of receiving backup from nearby call centers. This was one of the many benefits of regionalization, so the counties discussed what they would gain and lose by banding together.

According to McAllister, “The gains were ten-fold over the losses. It was a win across the board, even from our commissioners’ standpoints. Not only was there a tremendous amount of money saved in initial costs ($2.3 million), but we’re also saving more than $250,000 a year in maintenance fees. More importantly, we have multiple points of redundancy to ensure all 9-1-1 calls are received, which allows us all to sleep better at night.”

  1. Look outside for guidance

“A project of this size truly needs people who can look at the big picture, as well as every detail, and work with every involved agency and partner,” explained McAllister.

For Northern Tier counties, this “someone” was the team of Pennsylvania-based MCM Consulting Group, Inc., led by company president, Mike McGrady. McAllister added, “Our consultant played a huge role in this project and took a lot of burden and pain off of our shoulders, while keeping us up-to-date on what was happening and ultimately eliminating any fears we had.”

Close involvement by product vendors was also essential to ensuring every possible benefit was realized from the new system.

  1. Know the funding sources

Few agencies are fortunate enough to obtain grants for the purchase of a new 9-1-1 system, so they must work with their local and state agencies to get the funding needed. McGrady noted, “Each county applied for individual funding. And because the counties are saving so much money per year by moving from standalone systems to a regional system, the state of Pennsylvania was willing to allow the counties to reallocate 100% of their individual funding to this regional project, including the fiber network, customer premise equipment and the first year’s maintenance.”

  1. Develop policies for success

While each county’s emergency call center had its own policies, a regional 9-1-1 system required them to think outside their own walls and plan for the greater good of the group. “A regional system is better and safer for our residents calling in, but the county call centers have had to adjust to these changes,” remarked McGrady.

“We developed an intergovernmental agreement that follows Pennsylvania county code and the state 911 law, and there’s a whole series of policies and procedures in place, incorporating not only the individual municipalities but service providers too,” said McGrady. “When changes need to be made to the system, the policies address who has to be notified of the changes and how they are made. We’re doing things more holistically as opposed to in individual silos, and it has improved communications among the counties in general.”

  1. Be one team

No matter the project, getting an entire group of people to agree on one thing is a major hurdle. And countless details for consideration only add to the complexity. If you ask Mike McGrady how they overcame the challenges to make this project so successful, he attributes it to communication and teamwork.

“On day one, we formed a project team — each county’s 9-1-1 director and coordinator, Cassidian Communications, Verizon, landline operators, wireless and VoIP providers, my team and our engineers. We kept our elected officials updated and held weekly conference calls and regular meetings to ensure everyone was on the same page. Every single county had a seat at the table and worked together as one team to make this a success.”

McAllister added, “All counties involved work very well with each other and always consider how doing something will affect one another. We meet on a regular basis, and at the end of the day, we’re coming up with new thoughts and ways to build upon this foundation.”

For projects of this size, the devil is definitely in the detail, but that doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. The experience of the Northern Tier team sheds a bright light on the process to follow and serves as a model for those looking to build a regional public safety network. 

A comment from Mike McGrady says it all about the future of 9-1-1 call centers: “This is where technology is leading. It’s going from a standalone silo to a regional model—no matter the type of system—to promote diversity and redundancy in the event of any emergency. At the end of the day, calls are answered; police, fire and EMS are dispatched; and money is saved initially and on-going—it’s the best of all worlds.”

Ken Shuler is a regional account manager for Cassidian Communications, an Airbus Defense and Space Holdings, Inc. company. Shuler is also the Fire Chief of Limerick Fire Company in Pennsylvania and the former director of 9-1-1 and emergency dispatch for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.


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