December 23, 2021
Montgomery County Police 911 Emergency Communications Center didn’t let the challenges of 2020 stop them from going full steam ahead in seeking accreditation in all three disciplines. With the groundwork in place, they worked together to overcome their growing pains and a pandemic to join the elite club of tri-ACEs in June 2021 and be recognized at NAVIGATOR in Las Vegas, Nevada (USA), in July.
But it wasn’t a quick arrival to triple ACE status. Montgomery County had ACE in their sights as far back as 2015 when they added the Fire Priority Dispatch System™ (FPDS®) and the Police Priority Dispatch System™ (PPDS®) to their usage of the Medical Priority Dispatch System™ (MPDS®). Changes were afoot that kept accreditation in the background for four years.
Getting to know Montgomery County
First, let’s get to know the makeup of Montgomery County. Situated northwest of Washington, D.C., Montgomery County, Maryland (USA), is 507 square miles and home to more than one million people. This county is the most populated county in the state, and four cities within the county were listed in the Top 10 most ethnically diverse areas of the country in 2018. In addition to the one million people who call Montgomery County home, a large number of commuters move through their county daily, adding to the calls their center fields.
You may have heard of this bustling county without even realizing it. The county is on the eastern border of Virginia with Baltimore northeast of the county and Annapolis directly east. It boasts gardens (Brookside Gardens), transportation museums (National Capital Trolley Museum and B&O Railroad Museum), great restaurants, and a nightlife scene. The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center calls Montgomery County home.
The area is full of history including the Clara Barton National Historic Site and performing arts venues including the Strathmore Music Center located in Bethesda, the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown, and Glen Echo Park (a national park).
Getting to know the Montgomery County Police 911 Emergency Communications Center
The Montgomery County Police 911 Emergency Communications Center has undergone some major changes in the past decade and hasn’t always functioned as it does now. Before 2009, two groups shared the comm. center. Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service (MCFRS) handled everything related to fire and rescue with firefighters staffing the “Fire Rescue Corral” section of the center. But they were a secondary PSAP, so the fire and EMS calls they handled were initially answered by a Montgomery County Police calltaker before being transferred to a MCFRS calltaker sitting 20 feet away. Montgomery County Police calltakers answered all phone calls as the primary PSAP and handled all requests for police assistance.
Things started to slowly change in 2009 when MCFRS launched a pilot program that involved hiring a small group of civilians (non-uniformed personnel). The pilot program didn’t continue for long. But more changes were on the horizon in the coming years including consolidation and implementing a new CAD system.
In 2014, planning began to consolidate the primary and secondary PSAPs (Montgomery County Police and MCFRS). MCFRS had been using the MPDS for a long time but added the FPDS in 2015, the year after the consolidation process began. That same year, Montgomery County Police went from not using any of the Priority Dispatch System™ protocols to implementing PPDS.
After implementations and training took place, cross training began. Montgomery County Police calltakers started to learn MPDS and FPDS and had their sights on becoming certified EMDs and EFDs. Then MCFRS civilian employees learned the PPDS with their sights on becoming certified EPDs. The consolidation process took six years, culminating in 2020. It’s no surprise that the additional training and certification took some time because the Montgomery County Police 911 Emergency Communications Center has a staff of 185 employees of which 140 are Universal Call Takers and dispatchers.
“This was a huge undertaking and was not without some serious growing pains,” said Laura Fitzgerald, Policy and Accreditation Manager, Montgomery County Police 911 Emergency Communications Center. “Everyone in our center, both police and fire, our training instructors, supervisors, technology team, quality assurance—literally EVERYONE—deserves recognition for that success.”
Building on success
And speaking of recognition, Montgomery County Police knew that achieving Accredited Center of Excellence (ACE) status was on their to-do list. They wanted to stand out from the crowd.
“We knew we wanted to go after ACE during the discussions to implement FPDS and PPDS—it was on the table from day one,” Fitzgerald said. “The Montgomery County Police has held CALEA accreditation for years, and MCFRS has the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI) accreditation, as well. It is important to both departments to continue to pursue excellence via accreditation, and ACE presented another opportunity—it was a win for everyone.”
With the consolidation efforts and other projects under way, Montgomery County Police personnel worked to lay the groundwork until late 2019/early 2020. In a year when everything turned upside down, Montgomery County Police submitted their medical ACE package in August 2020. It wasn’t a cut-and-dried process and included some back and forth with their reviewer in which they provided necessary clarifications and made some changes to their polices and processes as a result of the input received (see Lessons Learned section). Montgomery County Police achieved medical accreditation in October 2020 and looked to build on their achievement.
“It was eye-opening and definitely helped to make sure our EPD and EFD accreditation packages were complete at the time of submission,” Fitzgerald said.
Not one to rest on their laurels, two months later they submitted their EPD and EFD packages in December 2020. Police accreditation was achieved a few months later in February 2021, but fire accreditation took more time. Everyone worked together to become a tri-ACE.
“We relied on the MCFRS EMS Division, our medical director, the quality assurance team, our training team, and even technology was involved in getting the package together,” Fitzgerald said. “But mostly, and I don’t know if this qualifies as ‘help’ with achieving our accreditation, but our calltakers and their outstanding performance is really what got us here. They do consistent, excellent work, and I can’t brag on them enough.”
The Montgomery County Police 911 Communications Center reached what only 19 other agencies in the world have. In June 2021 they became the world’s 20th tri-ACE and bumped Maryland’s tri-ACE count to three. At NAVIGATOR in July 2021, they crossed stage as a new triple accredited center. So, how does it feel to be a triple ACE?
“They are very happy and proud to be recognized for their dedication and work!” Fitzgerald said. “Consistently outstanding Q evals, internal and department awards and recognition . . . we try to hype our folks wherever we can, but to be recognized at the ACE level? It’s kind of a big deal, and they should be very proud of themselves.”
What are some key takeaways after completing three ACE packages?
Fitzgerald says to start by taking it one point at a time. It may look overwhelming when you realize there are 20 points (with sub-points), and you may encounter aspects of the process that you don’t know how to answer or what to provide. Remember, you can reach out to others in your center and those with the Academy for help.
“Don’t feel defeated if something gets kicked back as insufficient—for example, a policy may not contain specific language needed to meet the accreditation standard,” Fitzgerald said. “Believe it or not, this actually helps solidify your policies and procedures, aside from accreditation. It’s a learning experience.”
Another important aspect is to form your Dispatch Review Committee (DRC) and Dispatch Steering Committee (DSC)—or revamp them if needed—with the right people. Be clear on each member’s role, including expectations. “Even if you only have one agenda item, you might be surprised with the value of what comes from the discussion in those meetings,” Fitzgerald said.
And most importantly, begin the process where you are.
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