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Boston’s overhauled 911 system launches

Upgrade aims to shorten response times

Steven Campbell, a call taker for 19 years, took the first call of Boston’s new 911 dispatch system at 10:12 a.m. Tuesday. The call: a car was parked at a fire hydrant. Campbell said the new system has “been good; it’s been easy. I like it.”

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Steven Campbell, a call taker for 19 years, took the first call of Boston’s new 911 dispatch system at 10:12 a.m. Tuesday. The call: a car was parked at a fire hydrant. Campbell said the new system has “been good; it’s been easy. I like it.”

For the first time in 20 years, Boston’s 911 dispatch system is getting a major overhaul that officials say will shorten response times and increase officer safety.

The $17 million upgrade went live at 10:12 a.m. Tuesday with an otherwise-mundane call for a car parked in front of a fire hydrant. The system uses geospatial technology to create a real-time map of the city that includes the position of every police car, ambulance, and fire engine, as well as the location of every 911 call and ShotSpotter, which alerts police to gunfire.

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Instead of dispatchers directing traffic by typing hundreds of coded commands, they can now quickly drag and drop virtual responders onto the scene with a few clicks of the mouse.

“Today is a big day,” Deputy Superintendent John Daley, the Boston Police Department’s chief technology officer, said outside the 911 center Tuesday, minutes after the dispatch system went live. “Our old system was set up in 1994 . . . which is an eternity in technology terms.”

Boston police, fire, and Emergency Medical Services all will use the new system, which was created by software provider Intergraph.

The switch has been in the works since 2008, Daley said, and it is budgeted for $17.1 million.

So far, he said, the city has spent $11.7 million. A records management component has not yet been installed, he said, and the whole system could possibly come in under budget.

“This modern system will assist in the efficient delivery of police services, like faster response times, while enhancing officer safety,” Police Commissioner William Evans said in a statement.

Daley acknowledged that a similar Intergraph system rolled out in New York last year faced criticism about lost information and long response times. A city investigation attributed issues to human error and to “discrete hardware failures,” The New York Times reported.

Daley said Evans had traveled to New York on a fact-
finding mission and found the problems were not related to the system itself. The system in Boston has been extensively tested, and Boston call takers, dispatchers, and first responders have been specially trained to avoid similar issues, he said.

Every 911 call is mapped and then sent to dispatch centers for Boston fire, Emergency Medical Services, and police. Under the old system, Daley said, dispatchers kept track of calls in a text database: a list of addresses and attendant codes that indicated the status of the response. Police dispatchers knew where each unit was, based on their last check-in, so a unit that checked in at one location and then moved would be listed at the old address.

And police dispatchers needed good memories: In addition to memorizing codes, said veteran dispatcher Natasha Levarity, who helped roll out the new system, dispatchers had to hold crime-scene perimeters in their heads and remember to pass along any ongoing alerts to the next shift.

But now, Levarity said, all that is computerized. Dispatchers still need to know codes, but dispatching a unit is easier. Dispatchers can see where units are in real time, and crime-scene perimeters appear as red lines.

“There’s a lot of new functionality that we didn’t have before,” she said. “We can still do everything that we used to do, but there are a lot of nice-to-haves.”

For firefighters and EMS workers, too, the new system promises quicker and better-
informed responses.

“The new [dispatch system] gets the firefighters out the door faster with more information,” said John Henderson, the superintendent of fire alarm dispatch. Now, he said, instead of notifying each fire company individually in a process that takes 30 seconds to a minute, the system alerts them within seconds, a big difference when every moment matters.

“It’s faster and more streamlined,” Henderson said.

Officials also expect the new system to allow them to index calls more easily by time of day, weather, and location to determine how best to allocate resources across the city, Boston EMS Chief Jim Hooley said.

Finally, Daley said, the new dispatch system is a modern platform that will help get the department ready for “Next Generation 911,” which officials said is likely to arrive within about two years.

Next generation 911, Daley said, is basically “the Internet for 911” and will accept text messages and videos from callers, as well as allow busy dispatchers to set up virtual call centers.

In the police dispatch center at police headquarters, the new dispatch system got good, but brief, reviews from very busy call takers and dispatchers.

“It’s been good; it’s been easy,” said call taker Steven Campbell, who fielded the first call of the day on the new dispatch system, in between answering new calls. “I like it.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.
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