Lehigh County 911, PA: Unifying Police, Fire, and Medical Emergency Call Handling

Total Response is a one-stop shop. We process the police calls, the fire calls, and the medical calls all from inside one piece of software.”

Dan Bellesfield, Director of Operations, Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) 911

Situation

Lehigh County is located in the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania. The county has a population of 374,557, with Allentown, the county seat, being the state’s third-largest city behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Lehigh County 911, located in Allentown, is a major communications center, with 20 operator stations, providing emergency dispatch services to urban as well as rural communities. Last year Lehigh County 911 operations handled 472,256 inbound telephone calls and dispatched 229,660 incidents from the calls. Recently Pennsylvania mandated that the state’s 911 centers needed to deploy a unified solution that could handle dispatches for medical, fire, and police—with custom protocols for each.

“The state’s mandate meant that we needed to implement a solution using a structured protocol for all three disciplines, whereas in the past, we were only mandated to use a medical protocol,” says Dan Bellesfield, Director of Operations at Lehigh County 911. “We needed a vendor that could provide all three solutions and was also on Pennsylvania’s approved list of protocol vendors to choose from.”

Solution

After evaluating its options, Lehigh County 911 deployed PowerPhone’s Total Response emergency call handling software.

“We were given the opportunity to choose from the three vendors that had been approved by the state,” Bellesfield says. “We looked for a protocol package that was all-inclusive, that was able to manage all three disciplines from a single call within the software package.”

The flexibility of PowerPhone’s solution, and the ability to customize protocols to meet the needs of the different communities served, also impressed the evaluators. Unlike other 911 call handling systems that insist on rigid adherence to generic protocols, Total Response provides the agencies with the tools needed to set their own standards and reliably measure effectiveness all while bringing the highest level of service to the communities they serve.

We like Total Response because it gives our dispatchers the ability to think on their own.”

Donald Smith, Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Communications/911 Director

“Other solutions force the dispatcher to go through every question. Inflexibly structured protocols can make a dispatcher so focused on questions that they miss what is going on in the background. Total Response lets our dispatchers move swiftly to get the help required out to the situation in need—while providing consistent service across the board.”

The county was also impressed with the ease with which Total Response integrates with its CAD interface, through its open API.

The county assembled an evaluation team that included managers, some with more than 30 years of 911 experience, as well as dispatchers who would be using the software to handle calls.

“We looked at each vendor multiple times, Bellesfield says. “We looked at functionality for the dispatcher as well as ease of configuration from the administrator standpoint. With evaluation of any product, you look at the pros and cons and you pick what you feel is the best for your operation. Based on the choices we looked at, PowerPhone’s Total Response was the solution that met our needs in the best manner possible.”

Benefits

Lehigh County 911 has enjoyed a number of benefits since deploying Total Response software, including:

• Ability to seamlessly handle police, fire, and medical calls
• Flexibility for dispatchers in handling calls
• Faster response times
• Ease of use
• Protocol customizations
• Powerful Quality Assurance
• Option for online training
• Great company to work with

Ability to Seamlessly Handle Police, Fire, and Medical Calls

Lehigh County 911 values the fact that dispatchers can seamlessly handle all incoming calls from the same solution-whether for police, fire, or medical. This differs from other solutions that compartmentalize by responder type.

Total Response is a one-stop shop. We process the police calls, the fire calls, and the medical calls all from this one piece of software.”

Dan Bellesfield, Director of Operations, Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) 911

“I think the number one benefit of PowerPhone’s Total Response is that this single software package allows us to process calls for all disciplines,” Bellesfield says. “This allows the staff to do what they need to do without having to think about switching to a different piece of software. That was the most important selection scenario for us—the ability to have that single point of contact to process calls.”

Flexibility: “We don’t Want Our Dispatchers Turned into Robots.”

The flexibility of Total Response’s guided call processing helps Lehigh County 911 dispatchers provide the most relevant responses for callers.

“Other solutions didn’t provide the ability to skip irrelevant questions,” Smith says. “If there were questions A through F, you had to go sequentially through all of those questions, which can be frustrating for the caller and the dispatcher. With Total Response a dispatcher can immediately go from question A to Question D and later circle back, if needed, to the earlier ones. Every 911 call is different, so giving our dispatchers flexibility was critical for us. We don’t want our dispatchers turned into robots. We want to give the flexibility to think on their own.”

Bellesfield agrees about the benefit of giving dispatchers the ability to skip questions that don’t apply to the situation.

“Quite frequently in an emergency situation where someone’s screaming for help, the last thing they want to be greeted with is being inundated with questions that don’t apply to their scenario,” Bellesfield says.

Lehigh County 911 uses the Script Manager module of Total Response to provide flexibility in other ways—including customizing protocols to better meet the needs of specific communities.

“We serve a very diverse set of communities, from Allentown, the third largest city in Pennsylvania, which has the full spectrum of urban needs, to small rural communities in the Appalachian Mountains,” Bellesfield says. “PowerPhone gives us the ability to customize protocols to better match the needs of these very diverse communities.

Faster Response Times

The ability for Lehigh County 911 dispatchers to skip non-essential questions when needed is helping to ensure faster response times.

Every 911 call is different, so giving our dispatchers flexibility was critical for us. We don’t want our dispatchers turned into robots. We want to give the flexibility to think on their own.”

Donald Smith, Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Communications/911 Director

“One of the big things we were looking for when evaluating vendors was the ability to shorten call processing times, and PowerPhone provides that,” says Smith. “Total Response has a dispatch indicator, so when a dispatcher gets maybe two questions in, they can send a response and then come back to answer additional questions.”

This differs significantly from other vendors the team evaluated. “With others, the dispatcher had to go through a list of questions until you got a call type,” Smith says.

“This meant you might be on the phone for a minute, or a minute and a half, just on the question portion. That doesn’t include of verifying the address, getting the caller’s name, getting the caller’s phone number. In contrast, with Total Response, as soon as you have enough information for police, fire, or medical, you can trigger a dispatch. With some calls you can trigger a response within a matter of seconds.”

Ease of Use

PowerPhone’s Total Response has proven to be easy for dispatchers to use, and easy for managers to administer. This is due, in part to the tight integration of Total Response with the county’s CAD system.

“Total Response is fully integrated and triggered from our CAD system,” Bellesfield says. “Data from the protocol software automatically transfers into our CAD, with minimal intervention from the dispatcher.”

The result is a simple to use system that is appreciated by dispatchers and administrators. “As a system administrator, I wanted seamless integration,” Bellesfield says. “I don’t want to force a dispatcher to have to remember to do something. You want to avoid potential failure points when things get busy. With Total Response we help our staff to do the best job they possibly can.”

There was a brief period of adjustment as veteran dispatchers shifted from the previous software, which they had used for many years, to the new. But they soon embraced it. “Our dispatchers love Total Response because it is easier to navigate and has great flexibility,” Smith says. “We made sure our dispatchers were part of the decision-making process in evaluating which system to adopt, so they could see the benefits of changing from the very beginning. We considered our options, and as a group decided this was the best choice for Lehigh County.”

Protocol Customizations

Lehigh County 911 made extensive use of the Script Manager module of Total Response to precisely tailor protocols to fit the needs of the different communities—and disciplines—it serves.

With Total Response we help our staff to do the best job they possibly can.”

Dan Bellesfield, Director of Operations, Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) 911

For example, the organization initially changed the second question in its motor vehicle accident protocol to “Is anyone injured?” Later they determined the second question should be, “Is anyone trapped?”

“We leveraged custom configurations very heavily,” Bellesfield says. “We have unique configurations compared to how maybe some other places in the United States handle calls.
We worked closely with PowerPhone to create our custom protocols.”

The organization was impressed with the ease with which Script Manager enabled changes, and the dedication from PowerPhone to ensure all customizations could be achieved.

“We basically touched every single protocol in Total Response,” Bellesfield says. “We looked at every question-and-answer scenario that we could think of within the protocols and customized as needed.”

The organization also worked closely with PowerPhone to ensure that protocols could smoothly work together. “In the case of an assault, for example, you may have an event that starts as a law enforcement situation, and very quickly, in the course of questioning, it turns into a scenario where not only do we have a crime in progress, but we have an injured subject,” Bellesfield says.

“So, we needed the protocol to be able to quickly change gears, advise the call taker that the level of response has changed, and you need to upgrade your response and send that back to the CAD to get the correct resources going. We were able to do this with Total Response.”

Powerful Quality Assurance

PowerPhone Total Response includes a Quality Assurance module that helps Lehigh County 911 ensure they are providing consistent, high-quality service across all the 911 calls they handle each year.

Smith says the county’s previous system didn’t have integrated Quality Assurance, meaning that supervisors could listen to call recordings, but couldn’t see what was on the dispatcher’s screen during the call.

“When you’re answering close to 480,000 calls a year, it is difficult to monitor for quality control,” Smith says. “Total Response helps us ensure quality because in addition to providing voice recordings, it also shows the screens that were used for the call, which gives a much more complete view into how the call was handled.”

Smith notes that strong QA can help the organization identify areas where additional training might be needed, as well as identify instances of exceptional performance. “Handling 911 calls can be stressful,” Smith says. “We want to be able to let our people know when they are doing well, not just when we see areas for improvement.”

Option for Online Training

Lehigh County 911 prefers classroom training, especially when its veteran dispatchers and supervisors can share their experiences, and directly answer questions. However, the organization also values that PowerPhone offers online training.

“The pandemic has underscored the value of having an option for online training,” Smith says. “In times of a pandemic you might not want to get 63 people together in a classroom. The online option also offers people the chance to study at their own pace. This also gives our people the chance to review specific modules they might need more information on.”

The online training was especially helpful as the organization adopted Total Response.

“We had to get 63 people trained on the new protocols,” Smith says. “Having the ability to do it online made the project go much faster. When you’re trying to schedule individuals, off the floor to attend classes on-site or off-site, it is a very difficult process, especially when you’re trying to keep staffing levels up.”

Handling 911 calls can be stressful. We want to be able to let our people know when they are doing well, not just when we see areas for improvement.”

Donald Smith, Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Communications/911 Director

Great Company to Work With

Lehigh County 911 gives PowerPhone high marks for being a responsive partner with a can-do attitude whenever asked to provide guidance or assistance.

“We have all been impressed by PowerPhone’s willingness to work together,” Smith says. “Throughout the process, there was never a push to buy the product. Instead, their focus was ‘Let’s make this work for Lehigh County.’ And every time someone sent them an e-mail, or gave them a call, we had an immediate response. They were there to help. This made our process so much easier.” Bellesfield agrees about PowerPhone’s responsiveness.

“Whenever we came to PowerPhone with a suggestion or a request, or proposing a new scenario, they never said no,” Bellesfield says. “Their response was always, ‘Let’s take a look at this and leverage the tools that we have to make this happen.’ They are very agile and responsive. I’ll send an email or make a phone call, and I’ll get a call back from someone saying, ‘I’ve got the time right now. Let’s make this happen.’” This kind of responsiveness is especially important to a service organization such as a 911 center.

“As a public safety agency tasked with providing service to a population of almost 400,000 people, responsiveness in a quick manner is very important,” Bellesfield says. “Everyone at PowerPhone has been absolutely professional, friendly, outgoing, and again—most importantly, and I think I can’t emphasize this enough—responsive to our needs.”

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