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Richmond Times-Dispatch
Richmond 911 system leads way
Published: June 2, 2009
During a recent break-in, Richmond police summoned by a burglar alarm were able to arrive on the scene quickly enough to find the intruder still inside.
The faster police response stemmed from a new system used to notify Richmond's E-911 center when an alarm goes off in a home or business.
But in the city and throughout the nation, most alarm alerts still require a phone call and a two-to-three-minute verbal exchange between an alarm company and a 911 call-taker before help is sent. 
Three minutes can make a big difference, said 3rd Precinct Capt. William Smith of the Richmond Police Department. "If you are the one being victimized during an incident, three minutes is an eternity," he said. "Three minutes can be the difference between somebody getting away scot-free or somebody getting caught."
Those three minutes no longer will be a factor with the implementation of a new national standard, developed with the help of the city of Richmond, that enables electronic transmission of information between alarm companies and 911 centers.
"It's a matter of the alarm company being able to just press a button and that call popping up right in front of the radio dispatcher, who can immediately dispatch that call," said Bill Hobgood, public safety team project manager and interim applications solutions division manager for Richmond's Department of Information Technology.
This differs from "the traditional method of the alarm company having to call the 911 center, wait for somebody to answer the phone, and then start a three-minute question-and-answer session," Hobgood said.
The system, begun in Richmond in August 2006, has reduced the number of phone calls handled by the city's E-911 center and the time it takes for police, fire and emergency medical workers to respond to a call, Hobgood said.
It also can cut the chances for mistakes made when information is exchanged verbally.
Smith, who previously commanded the Police Department's emergency communications division, said the new alarmcall interface allows the city's 73 communications officers to spend more time with higher-priority 911 calls. Smith recently became commander of the 3rd Precinct's patrol operations.
"We're saving minutes of time in order to get officers on scene that much quicker," Smith said. "From the officers' standpoint, that probability of catching someone is increased."
Hobgood, 54, has seen and helped bring about changes in the way emergency calls are handled in Richmond since he began working as a police dispatcher out of high school. Teaching himself programming on the job, Hobgood wrote the city's first computer-aided dispatch system, which went online in 1981. York County began using the same program five years later.
In 2004, Richmond, York and Vector Security Inc., an alarm-monitoring company based in Pittsburgh, agreed to serve as pilot sites for a project backed by The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, the Central Station Alarm Association and the IJIS Institute, a public-safety technology group, to improve the delivery of alarm calls from alarm companies and 911 centers.
Of nearly 1 million calls handled yearly by Richmond's E-911 center, alarm calls account for about 18,000, Smith said.
Vector Security now sends information about its Richmond alarm calls -- about 5,000 out of the 18,000 -- electronically.
"One of the things we like best about this is it takes advantage of today's technology," said Pam Petrow, chief operating officer for Vector Security. "We can pass data quicker than by reading it to someone. 
"It's better for the citizens, because their 911 dispatcher is on the phone talking with people about emergencies rather than alarm calls that can be taken electronically."
However, Petrow said alarm-monitoring companies still must try to verify an alarm with the homeowner or business before contacting authorities.
Nationwide, adoption of the new standard has the potential to result in at least 32 million fewer phone calls to 911 centers from alarm companies yearly, Hobgood said.
The standard, which Hobgood describes as a roadmap, was adopted by the American National Standards Institute in January and is available for download by developers of computer-aided dispatch and alarm-monitoring software, emergency communications agencies and other interested parties.
Hobgood said other localities in Virginia and across the nation -- including Henrico and James City counties, and Scottsdale, Ariz., and Houston -- have expressed interest or are moving ahead with using the new standard, as are alarm companies.

"The big thing for me is saving people's lives," Hobgood said.


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