Newsletter Feature

PROFILES IN SERVICE

Akron's Safety Forces Network Monitors City 24/7

The elevator I rode to the fifth floor of Akron, Ohio’s police department was shared by three people. They were discussing how to raise the bond necessary for a relative who had been arrested. I was on my way to meet Sgt. Richard A. Schmahl, Head of Information Systems. He greeted me in the corridor when the elevator doors opened. “I rode up with some interesting people, “ I said. “Oh, yes, that’s why our police narcotics team is housed elsewhere,” he said, “we don’t want a person recently arrested to see them in this building and then again in the street when the officer is ‘making a buy’!”

My tour started with a conference room. Sgt. Schmahl directed me to the window that overlooked a plaza. “We are located in an annex that was added at the rear of our main building some years ago to house the jail. It was moved to another location. A lot of renovation had to take place for us to move in. This entire floor was filled with cells. All that is left is the vault over here. This was used to secure prisoners’ valuables. Now we use it for ‘safety deposit’ of contracts and warranties and such.”

After passing through a pass card secured door, I am in the heart of the city: the Information System’s dispatch center. Here the beat goes on 24 hours a day. More than 390,000 calls are processed annually. Thefts. Highway accidents. Heart attacks. Fires. Calls from people directly involved or eye witnesses. Every city resident is a potential partner in communicating need for response by Akron’s safety forces network: police, firemen, or EMS.

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Capt. James E. Harris, Director - Combined Akron Fire & Police
Communications, with Sgt Richard A. Schmahl, Head of Akron's
Safety Forces Information System. Behind them is one of the
dispatcher work stations.

Photo: Jane Walker Snider

This network has 1200 user accounts throughout Akron, set up on 450 work stations which are monitored 24 hours a day in order to dispatch appropriate teams quickly. Here in the center are several work stations, each with four screens, their glow providing most of the light in this darkened room. The focus of the dispatcher at each station is on taking call, typing them into the system, and sorting and redirecting to the appropriate safety force.

Sgt. Schmahl introduced me to Capt. James Harris, Director of the Combined Fire and Police Communications. He and Sgt. Schmahl directed me to one of the work stations, where I met the dispatcher and was able to observe the process.

Sgt Richard A. Schmahl, Head of Akron's Safety Forces Information
System, demonstrates the satellite assisted location of emergency
call sites.

Photo: Jane Walker Snider

Each incoming call is color coded for degree of urgency, red or yellow or green, and is then relayed to designated police cars on their dashboard computers or to the fire department or EMS or combination of these. Depending on urgency and scope, this will be supplemented by radio contact, aiming for the most appropriate use of these forces.

As we watched, the dispatcher asked a cell phone caller for the telephone number and location. As she typed this and other calls in, the screen to her far right identified the sites of the emergencies on a satellite generated map.

Sgt. Schmahl told me that an upgraded system is being installed soon: Computer Aided Dispatch. The dispatcher will no longer need to sort and redirect calls to police, fire department or EMS or a required combination of these. This scheduled upgrading will do this automatically. It will also identify cell phone numbers and the locations of callers, cutting down on a dispatcher’s entry time.

Each dispatcher works a 10 hour day with days off on rotation. They stay on site during that time and bring their lunches in with them. Break times vary, based on level of calls. This is necessary because major emergencies and a spike in calls may occur at any time.

He said that the call traffic today was relatively light. The most intense periods, he told me, was for Signal 40s. This is a special detail of the police force and may require coordination with the other safety forces. A Signal 40 may be for delivery of a narcotic search warrant or an abnormal amount of traffic.

Our final stop of this tour was the room that housed the energy supply system and the computer programs. The energy supply is “fail safe”. It is UPS: Uninterrupted Power Supply, running off big batteries backed up by diesel generators. Any interruption in electrical service in the city has no effect here. He also said that an entire backup communications center is being built at another site. If anything catastrophic happens to this building, the system will continue uninterrupted.

Capt. James E. Harris, Director - Combined Akron Fire & Police
Communications, points to a photograph of the system in place
on November 4, 1995, taken the day before the changeover to
the current system.

Photo: Jane Walker Snider

Capt. Harris rejoined us in the corridor outside. He directed my attention to a series of framed photographs in black and white. “These were taken on November 4, 1995”, he told me, “the day before the changeover to our current system on November 5. The dispatchers are shown at computers but most of their work was done by hand, entered on cards that were filed. A lot of time was required to respond to police department follow up requests. For example, if they wanted to know the collective number of responses to a given location, the files had to be searched by hand.”

He produced a pink card. “Here is a souvenir for you, the Akron Police Dispatch Card that was used then. We still use it for training of new employees.” I take it and look at the data that had to be entered previously by hand. Sixty entries possible on the front alone. Eleven categories on the back, to be used for describing up to three people apprehended at a given location. A tangible glimpse at some of the capacity of information managed now, minute to minute, at this center.

I thank my two hosts and tell them how pleased I am to have had even this brief association with police work. “My reading preference is for police procedurals, and I am watching all the episodes of CSI available through Netflix.” I restrained myself from saying that Nancy Drew had been a role model during my elementary schools days.

What this tour had reinforced for me, though, was that while only some residents of this city are directly engaged in police work, all of Akron’s citizens are important partners in conveying information essential to the safety and security of our neighborhoods.

All photos copyright © 2007 Jane Walker Snider

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