|During the Board meeting on July 18, 2013, The Woodlands Township Board of Directors gave The Woodlands Fire Department approval to proceed with a project to analyze the concept of The Woodlands Township transitioning from a Secondary Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) to a Primary PSAP. In addition, the project considered the feasibility of the Woodlands Fire Dispatch Center also performing law enforcement dispatch functions for the Montgomery County Sheriff District 6 and Harris County Constable Precinct 4.
A Primary PSAP is a 24-hour, 7-day a week facility that initially answers 911 calls from the public. A Secondary PSAP receives calls that are transferred from a Primary PSAP. Currently, the Harris County Sheriff's Office is the Primary PSAP for the area of The Woodlands Township within Harris County (Creekside), and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office is the Primary PSAP for the remainder of The Woodlands Township.
A public safety Dispatch Center supports first responder agencies with radio communications and computer aided dispatch capabilities for delivering calls for service to responders and providing operational support for units in the field. In many cases, a dispatch center is also a PSAP, but these may be separate entities.
911 is controlled by Texas Health & Safety Code Chapter 772 which provides for the creation of emergency communications districts to fund and coordinate the provision of 911 system technology and call taking services. The current statutory language appears to allow for The Woodlands Township to be assigned responsibility to be the primary PSAP within its jurisdictional boundaries. This conclusion is based on the definition of a "public agency" within this code section and the requirement for emergency communications districts to obtain approval from jurisdictions within their boundaries as to PSAP configuration.
The majority of 911 calls from within The Woodlands Township are first answered by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office. Calls for service are handled immediately by a call taker or transferred to another agency based on the caller's needs. Calls may be transferred based on an assessment of the appropriate jurisdiction or the need for law enforcement, fire or emergency medical service responders.
In Montgomery County, the Hospital District is a Secondary PSAP providing dispatch services for emergency medical responses. In Harris County, the Precinct 4 Constable maintains a dispatch center independent of the Harris County Sheriff's Dispatch Center. Cypress Creek EMS is a Secondary PSAP and Dispatch Center for emergency medical responses in portions of Harris County, as well as supporting a number of fire agencies.
With respect to 911 calls, level of service can be considered the quantity and kind of service that is appropriate to the needs and desires of the caller.
There is general agreement that emergency calls for service are treated as the highest priority. However, when a call is found not to be an emergency, it is frequently terminated as quickly as possible. This follows a traditional technical limitation on the number of available 911 lines and preserving the availability of 911 call takers for the next call.
If an assessment is made that the call is not an emergency, callers may also be referred to the appropriate entity and requested to call a non-emergency telephone number.
Performance standards for 911 call taking tend to focus on the urgency in answering 911 calls and determining the nature of the call. National standards exist for 'time to answer' and 'time to transfer' metrics for emergency calls.
Because of the 24-hour nature of operations, many dispatch centers are also tasked with receiving non-emergency calls as well as supporting administrative or other operational requirements. These activities tend to provide the majority of the routine workload for dispatch centers.
The time spent with callers is the most important factor in determining staffing levels. The amount of time it takes to receive and resolve a call is the key factor in calculating call taker work load.
Quality assurance generally takes two forms: a) statistical measures of workloads, such as call volumes, geographic and chronological distributions, duration, and call patterns (i.e., call transfers); and b) a focused review for a sample of calls by a trained evaluator for conformance with established protocols.
Contemporary performance standards consider the quality of the interaction between the caller and the call taker. The time it takes to determine and correctly categorize the call is reviewed, as well as the ability to direct the caller through an interview process is evaluated.
The ability to set priorities and establish unique call handling protocols is hampered by the rotation of call taking and dispatching roles within an emergency communications center. A dispatcher may support a single jurisdiction for a portion of their shift and then transition to another role, such as countywide call taking.
Differences in jurisdictional preferences for call handling protocols will also impact the ability of an individual to utilize jurisdiction-specific procedures. A jurisdiction's focus on efficiency or the costs of providing services will certainly guide (explicitly or implicitly) the time spent with callers.
The conclusion of this analysis is that to provide residents and visitors of The Woodlands Township with a higher level of service, it is necessary to separate emergency call taking services from the aggregate countywide 911 call taking and establish jurisdiction-specific priorities and procedures. This approach provides the flexibility to establish and maintain unique performance requirements and staffing according to desired community standards.
The Woodlands Fire Department would continue to utilize existing technology platforms for 911 and computer aided dispatch.
The routing of 911 calls to The Woodlands Fire Department as a Primary PSAP is accomplished by database changes in the Harris and Montgomery County 911 systems. Connectivity between the Primary and Secondary PSAPs is already in place, i.e. emergency service number and 911 phone network.
Call takers at The Woodlands Fire Dispatch center would enter call for service information into the existing TriTech CAD system. Integration between TriTech and the Montgomery County Sheriff's EnRoute CAD system would provide a 'dispatchable' call for service that would be reviewed and acted on by a Sheriff's dispatcher. Further activity on the call would be communicated back to the TriTech CAD system to provide incident and unit status information.
Coordination would be necessary between the primary and secondary PSAPs to ensure that the call taking procedures meet the minimum requirements for both agencies. In addition, the procedures would provide for transferring a caller to the secondary PSAP as circumstances require, such as a crime in progress.
However, The Township should continue to publicize the availability of non-emergency telephone numbers and promote community resource information (i.e., print and Internet media) to guide requests for information and services directly to the appropriate entities.
The transition from Secondary to Primary PSAP could likely be accomplished within twelve to eighteen months.
As to the question of providing law enforcement dispatch services, the key decision maker is the executive of the respective law enforcement agency. They will necessarily organize and fund support organizations for the efficient and effective operations of their agencies. Any alternative to an existing emergency communications operation must certainly meet or exceed the capabilities of that dispatch center.
In particular, the key criteria that must be met includes:
• Coordination and interoperability with other precincts and adjacent agencies
• Compliance with the agency's policies and procedures
• Meet minimum standards of performance
• Provide for effective supervision and chain of command
• Support statutory mandates for training and certification
• Meet state requirements for information security and records management
• Provide efficient access to internal resources, such as records and warrants.
The issues associated with The Woodlands Fire Dispatch center performing law enforcement dispatch services are substantial, and would require considerable time and effort to resolve. Therefore, the recommendation is to not undertake law enforcement dispatching responsibilities at this time.
Further investigation to determine funding assistance from Montgomery County Emergency Service District (Montgomery County 911) is needed. In addition, more statistical information needs to be gained from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office on the amount of total calls for service (other than 911 calls). Depending upon these factors, possible consideration for recommended Board action could include:
• Approve continuation of the project to negotiate agreements with the appropriate emergency communications districts and sheriff's offices to plan and implement the Woodlands Fire Dispatch Center as a Primary PSAP for The Woodlands Township. This action would require interlocal agreements between the involved agencies to include appropriate adjustments in funding assistance potentially off-setting costs and to formalize operational procedures.
• Contingent upon successful development of the necessary interlocal agreements, approve funding for the hiring of five (5) additional Dispatch positions at The Woodlands Fire Dispatch Center (to 21 from 16 positions). $306,252 for this purpose is allocated in the currently approved 2014 Budget.
• Contingent upon successful development of the necessary interlocal agreements, approve proposed 2015 capital funding in the amount of $125,000 for the development of integration between The Woodlands Fire Department's TriTech CAD system and the Montgomery County Sheriff's EnRoute CAD system.