Cultivating Positive Change
November 10, 2023
At Cincinnati Emergency Communications Center (CECC), Ohio (USA), everything took a new turn when emergency communication became a standalone PSAP, separate from the city’s police department.
The move nearly six years ago simply provided a new perspective.
City officials selected an independent contractor to take an in-depth look at the current organizational structure of the center, with an explicit goal of improving the overall service to callers and responders. The reorganization opened a top to bottom shift to civilian management and administration.
CECC Director Bill Vedra and Deputy Director Karli Piper—the leadership choices in the transition—brought years of emergency communications experience to the CECC. When hired in 2018, Vedra had over 18 years in public safety roles focused on emergency communications technology and operational management. Piper joined CECC in 2018 as training manager and was promoted to CECC deputy director in 2020.
The CECC wasn’t built in a day, although things happened quickly in succession, including the addition of Priority Dispatch Corp.™ (PDC™) protocols developed by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED™) and ProQA® software.
The Medical Priority Dispatch System™ (MPDS®) was already in use when Vedra arrived and based upon the consistency in calltaking and dispatch it provided, they went full bore. Vedra wanted the protocol’s high standards across three disciplines. “We are always looking for ways to improve our service for the public and responders.”
The CECC took a novel approach to enacting the two additional protocol systems: the Fire Priority Dispatch System™ (FPDS®) and the Police Priority Dispatch System™ (PPDS®). Vedra and Piper arranged EFD and EPD certification classes. They both became EFD and EPD certified before committing to the project, as did their managers and liaisons within the police and fire departments.
The two certification classes sealed their commitment, along with calltaker and dispatch input. “We had our people involved from the start,” Piper said. For example, initial plans called for going live with police and fire simultaneously. The plan was revisited in consideration of staff concerns, she said. “It was a huge relief to them to go about this one at a time.”
Prior to each “go live” date, they practiced among their teams and applied protocols to test scenarios. They worked closely with PDC and the IAED. “We wanted this to be as close to second nature as possible when they took their first calls,” Vedra said.
FPDS went live in October 2022, and PPDS went live in February 2023. All in all, the transition to the two protocols went quite smoothly. Vedra found it “refreshing” to experience protocol in action. An early call in the process caught his attention. A driver reporting a stuck accelerator was resolved prior to police or fire arrival. The calltaker "saved the day,” Vedra said, and assisted the driver to reach safety without injury or accident by following the PAIs.
The QA program is a major plus, said Piper, who holds professional certifications as a Communications Training Officer, Emergency Medical Dispatch Quality Assurance Evaluator, and Communications Center Manager. “We were inconsistent,” she said. “It was one of the easiest things to put off to the side. Now it’s a priority. At our six-month anniversary of EPD, we were close to full compliance.”
Although it’s too early to tell, Vedra is hoping that QA and protocol make it easier for hiring and training. CECC hires personnel as calltakers and provides opportunities to advance to dispatching. “Like all centers, we are trying to get to the land of full staffing,” he said.
Protocols also benefit what happens outside the center. Responders are taking a fresh look at long-standing response plans, such as when to use lights-and-siren and prioritizing response. Protocol systems rooted in scientific research and data were a big sell, as were protocol’s built-in options for local decision-making to customize response. “They are seeing the consistency protocol provides,” Vedra said.
And the public is hearing about it, too.
In 2021, a public information officer (PIO) position was created to increase community outreach and involve the dispatch staff in public events and school programs. Sophie Wong quickly picked up the profession’s complexity. While not on the floor, her appreciation of the profession keeps growing through observation and the dispatch outreach team she manages. “It takes dedicated people to do what they do every day,” she said. “They’re amazing.”
The outreach team spotlights just how amazing the CECC staff is at community events each month. She also guides school and scouting groups on center tours where they can practice making a simulated 911 call. “We’re helping to create the next generation of 911 users. We let them [the public] know what’s available in 911 and how to access the system to their advantage.”
There’s still more
A PIO serving the community opens time for Vedra and Piper to concentrate on internal matters. Over the past five years, the center’s training program improved, dispatch and calltaking staff increased, and a full-time quality assurance position was filled. The backup call center was renovated and updated with state-of-the-art equipment. A dedicated quiet room within the center provides downtime after a particularly stressful call. A mental health program, animal-assisted therapy visits through Pet Partners of Greater Cincinnati (featuring the gentle, giant rabbit named George), and peer support group complements the focus on maintaining a positive and healthy dispatch environment.
On the technology side, the city operates an IP-based, NG911-ready telephone system to process calls at the ECC. The system accepts analog calls from the telephone company and converts them to IP, and it stands ready to accept IP calls as soon as telephone companies and the state of Ohio make NG911 services available. A data-based approach was developed to improve quality assurance, and mapping software in police vehicles was upgraded with 911 caller locations.
CECC is integrated with the Cincinnati Police Department ShotSpotter gunshot detection system. Within seconds of a gun being fired in any of Cincinnati's gunshot detection zones, CECC police dispatchers are alerted to the location and number of shots fired.
Features focusing on public access include Smart911—introduced in 2018—to give individuals the option to develop safety profiles (such as home and work addresses and medical conditions) for calltaker access during an emergency. In January 2019, the text-to-911 service was launched.
As Vedra said, they are continuing the path of improvement. A new pilot program launched in July 2022 gives 911 Emergency Dispatchers the option to send a mental health professional to certain low-risk incidents instead of police. The pilot program created a team comprised of one licensed behavioral health clinician and one Cincinnati Fire Department paramedic. Calltakers and dispatchers were trained on new protocols and procedures regarding which calls are appropriate to send the team to.
In addition to answering and dispatching all emergency calls for fire and emergency medical services for Cincinnati, the CECC also answers police calls and serves as the dispatch center for the Cincinnati Police Department. In a typical year, CECC calltakers answer over 350,000 calls on emergency lines and handle over 400,000 calls on non-emergency lines. Those calls result in approximately 300,000 police incidents, 16,000 fire incidents, and 60,000 emergency medical incidents each year.1
1 “Emergency Communications Center.” City of Cincinnati. https://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/ecc/ (accessed Aug. 14, 2023).