April 23, 2010 By Russell Nichols
As 3-D effects continue to pop up in movie theaters worldwide, emergency responders are finding more practical uses for the technology, like in Durham, N.C., where officials have started using 3-D technology to observe the locations of residents in trouble.
In April, the Durham Emergency Communications Center (DECC), launched advanced tools that show the exact origins of 911 calls in a 3-D, aerial image. Communications officers can view any property, building, highway or other structure in Durham County from 12 different angles, and obtain measurements and elevation from the imagery. This technology is critical when it comes to GIS mapping, transportation and community planning. And in the case of Durham, its usefulness includes missions for first responders, who can better assess the scene of an incident.
"Sometimes people [who call 911] either don't give us all the information we need or they don't know where they are exactly," said James Soukup, director of the Durham Emergency Communications Center. "This gives us another method to try and pinpoint the location and know more about what's going on. It means we'll be able to see what is around you."
Developed by a company called Pictometry International Corp., based in Rochester, N.Y., the software is used in about 800 counties and six states, according to Dante Pennacchia, the company's chief marketing officer. Unlike the satellite images and aerial shots that point straight down, Pictometry captures images from a 40-degree angle. According to Pennacchia, the software saves time and money by making users more efficient in their respective jobs.
In Durham, communication officers can give first responders remote guidance, find alternate traffic routes, direct them to alternate entrances and exits at the scene, monitor foot chases based on landmarks and more. For instance, police recently responded to an incident where a suspect was seen running from a house into the woods. Communications officers used the technology to locate the exit points of the woods. When the suspect emerged, police were waiting.
In another case, somebody called 911 to report that a shed near the caller's house was on fire. But the aerial image showed that the shed was actually attached to the house, which changed the nature of the response, Soukup said.
"Now, the image of the building or area where a 911 call originates is available on the computer screen as soon as a call comes into the center," Soukup said. "The system is wireless, which means our communication officers can now visually follow the caller as they travel along a road during an incident. That type of contact is priceless if you are on the other end of the line needing emergency help."
The software in Durham, Soukup said, does not show the scenes in real time. However, Pennacchia said, the company has a product that shows images in real time, and another product that can be used to see the interiors of buildings.
The North Carolina Chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (NCNENA), which received a federal appropriation of $214,605, funded the imagery technology. In addition, the DECC used $66,550 in 911 surcharge funds to cover the remaining cost of the installation. There will be a recurring cost of $1,350 for annual maintenance.
"We're always trying to find ways to improve ourselves," Soukup said. "As things become available, we try to find ways to see how we can afford it. Funding is always an obstacle."