New county software quickens dispatch process for some cities
When lighting struck a house in the Savanna Ranch subdivision in Leander last summer, the city’s fire department was not the only emergency division to arrive at the scene of a house engulfed in flames.
The Cedar Park Fire Department also responded to the call. The two fire departments have had long-standing deals to provide assistance to neighboring fire departments if help is requested, and new dispatch software in Williamson County allows some neighboring fire units to be dispatched faster, which could save valuable time for residents in need.
Because of this new technology, Cedar Park and Leander city council members entered into an agreement in January to provide aid to each other’s fire departments automatically under certain specifications. As cities in Williamson County grow closer together, more fire chiefs across the county are making plans to partner together under these aid agreements.
New county technology
In September, Williamson County began using dispatch software CADFusion, which links the Cedar Park, Round Rock and Georgetown emergency call centers to Williamson County Emergency Communications through a centralized server. The Leander Fire Department is dispatched through the county call center, said Terry Purvis, the county’s assistant director for technology with emergency communications.
After a 911 call is placed, the software dispatches the correct agencies based on aid agreements in place, Purvis said. For example, if a call is placed for a structure fire in Leander, the county emergency division dispatches both Cedar Park and Leander to the scene, he said.
“Based on those automatic-aid agreements, as soon as I enter a call for an address in Leander, and the nature of that call is a working fire, it automatically notifies those agencies that they need to send resources,” Purvis said.
Fire departments in the county have provided resources across jurisdictional boundaries in the past through both mutual-aid and automatic-aid agreements. In a mutual-aid scenario, a battalion chief may arrive on the scene, make note of needed resources and request the aid of a local department that has a specific resource, such as a ladder truck. In the case of automatic aid, a neighboring department would be notified immediately if a specific type of 911 call that was incorporated into the agreement, such as a structure fire, was placed.
If there was a structure fire in Leander, Purvis said the county emergency division would previously make a phone call to Cedar Park to request assistance, though the phone system could cause a delay in communication.
“You have to keep in mind that when we’re in a busy environment, our administrative telephones will be the last phones that we answer, and that’s how we would have to notify partner agencies,” he said. “So if they’re really busy, they’re not going to answer that phone first; they’re going to answer the 911 phone first.”
The new computer-aided dispatch system knows which departments have agreements in place and automatically dispatches the partner agencies, thus bypassing the phone calls, Purvis said.
“The overall response times have improved substantially because of the impact of less processing time,” he said.
A comparison of data from April-December 2015 to April-December 2016 shows a 4.6 percent increase in calls for fire service that were dispatched through the city call centers, which are in Cedar Park, Georgetown and Round Rock. Since the new software was put in place, the processing time to dispatch calls in those departments has been reduced by 29.2 percent.
Cedar Park Fire Chief James Mallinger said the department can assess its resources and determine if it is able to help a community next door. He said less processing time means the departments are able to get units en route quicker.
“That faster response is a help to our citizens, especially when they’re in need of us in an emergency,” he said.
The cities in Williamson County participate in countywide mutual aid and have a statewide mutual-aid agreement. More of the cities are also looking into automatic-aid agreements with neighboring cities, especially as population growth pushes the jurisdictions closer together.
The partnerships allow departments to pool their resources and better serve the areas that may not have a close fire station within city limits, Leander Assistant Fire Chief Stuart Heater said.
“By getting an automatic-aid agreement with our neighboring city, it could get us a closer resource to where there’s two units [from another jurisdiction] on scene faster than waiting for all our resources,” he said. “That’s why we need to continue working on those agreements and getting those in place with all of our neighbors.”
Heater said the departments assisting each other could also help to delay the construction of another fire station, though he said that is mainly a strategy used by larger cities.
“I don’t know if it’s something a city of our size would use, because we’re growing so fast that we kind of have to plan [on building a station] anyway,” he said. “I don’t think either one of our cities has used that avenue to delay construction. We’re building as fast as we can essentially afford them with tax money and get the permission to build them. Due to the growth of the city, we have to.”
Mallinger said Cedar Park officials hope to form automatic-aid agreements in the future with the cities of Austin and Round Rock. He said the department is waiting until Round Rock builds a station on RM 1431 closer to Sam Bass Road and until Travis County has similar technology in place to allow the dispatch systems to communicate with Austin.
Heater said Leander is looking to partner with both Round Rock and Georgetown in the future.
Georgetown Fire Chief John Sullivan said an automatic-aid agreement with Leander would be beneficial in the future. He said Georgetown is evaluating building a station farther west in the future, and the city of Leander is currently building its fourth fire station by Ronald Reagan Boulevard, which will sit close to the western boundary of Georgetown.
Sullivan said the future Leander station would be beneficial if Georgetown needed assistance in its western areas, such as near Georgetown’s future Garey Park, which is planned along FM 2243.
He said as the cities grow and the fire departments build additional stations, the extra resources will increase each department’s regional response capabilities. Sullivan said it makes sense to have those agreements with surrounding cities, and he said Georgetown might look into agreements with Jarrell and Hutto in the future.
“I think you’ll see more of these happening as the conversation increases in Williamson County,” he said.