January 27, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) announced Monday the approval of an American National Standard that enables alarm companies to transmit alerts to 911 centers automatically.
Alarm companies typically place a phone call to 911 centers when an alarm sounds, but the new standard would send them automatically.
An automated standard could eliminate 32 million calls nationally from the alarm companies to the 911 public safety answering points, erasing the two to three minutes of processing time that call-takers need for obtaining information from alarm company operators, according to Bill Hobgood, public safety team project manager of the Richmond, Va., Department of Information Technology.
"That means police, fire and emergency medical services (EMS) will get to the scene of an emergency two and a half to three minutes faster," Hobgood said. "That will increase the likelihood of police apprehension. It increases the chances that fires will be extinguished faster, possibly avoiding a structure being completely engulfed when they arrive. Of course, a bunch of lives will be saved from an EMS standpoint."
Hobgood led pilot testing of the standard in Richmond, prompting APCO's consideration for a national standard. The pilot involved one alarm company and two 911 centers, one in Richmond, and the other in nearby York County. The pilot eliminated 5,000 calls during the two-year time span. Richmond is considering making the standard law.
Hobgood predicts alarm companies won't have trouble adopting the standard.
"The standard is XML-based. A complete package has been laid out for all [the companies]," he said.
Would the new standard prompt 911 centers to cut staff because there would be fewer incoming calls? Hobgood said he doubts that would happen. Fewer calls from alarm companies would free the call-takers to answer the remaining calls promptly, he said.
"The problem today is there is a de facto standard within 911 centers that all calls must be answered in 10 seconds or less. 911 centers are not meeting that because the volume of calls is increasing, yet their level of staff has remained the same," Hobgood explained, blaming funding shortages and high turnover.
"We want to make sure these 911 call-takers are charged with a manageable level of calls and have more time to spend on the true emergencies," he added.