Chicago to replace computer-automated dispatch system

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Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, in 2017, when she said that a new computerized distach system will replace one that’s 20 years old and “clearly past its time to be replaced.” | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The computer-automated dispatch that forms the guts of Chicago’s 911 emergency center will be replaced with an upgrade that allows people to text and send photos and videos from emergency scenes, improving the quality of the city’s response, a top mayoral aide said Monday.

Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said the new system will replace a 20-plus-year-old version that’s as old as the 911 center and “clearly past its time to be replaced.”

A request-for-proposals for the new system is expected to hit the streets in a few weeks. Chicago is facing a 2020 federal deadline to comply with what’s known as “next generation 911.”

“Now, you’ll have the ability to send a photo or a video of an incident to the 911 operators. That isn’t just the ability to send a text or a photo. That is invaluable information that a first-responder needs to be able to know what’s going on. . . . That’s so important so we’re able to get the right resources to you and our first-responders,” Tate Nadeau said during a luncheon address to the City Club of Chicago.

“We’ll be able to see anomalies we wouldn’t have been able to see before. If that’s five minutes faster to help me be able to realize that I actually have a situation going on here and one over here, that saves lives. I’m able to move those resources back and forth. And I can predict what I’m gonna need. . . . The faster I can make a decision, the better off we’ll be and the more lives that will be saved.”

The current computer-aided dispatch system was made specifically for Chicago. It made a problem-plagued debut that coincided with the 1995 opening of the $217 million 911 center.

For the first two years, the Chicago Fire Department continued to dispatch emergency vehicles manually because of a shortage of personnel and persistent problems with the computer software.

In 1997, an exasperated then-Mayor Richard M. Daley hired a retired U.S. Navy commander to correct the system’s problems.

Dispatchers and call takers were hired. A room where alarms from 1,622 schools, hospitals and nursing homes are received was monitored round the clock, instead of being unstaffed overnight. Automatic vehicle locator devices were installed in 318 Fire Department vehicles.

And city contractors engineered a software fix to make fire call boxes compatible with the integrated mapping system that formed the guts of computer-aided dispatch.

A computer-generated voice that relays emergency dispatches to Chicago firehouses was replaced by a voice that sounds human, eliminating the last major kink.

On Monday, Tate-Nadeau, the Illinois National Guard’s first female general, acknowledged that installing a new computer-aided dispatch system while keeping the old one operating smoothly is no small feat.

“Whoever is selected for this, that’ll be one of the key things that they look at. How we turn one off and turn the other one on without losing any capability,” she said.

The city’s decision to replace the system that forms the guts of the 911 center coincides with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to turn the 311 non-emergency system into a two-way communication system.

Tate-Nadeau said that new system, too, has the potential to “revolutionize everything we do.”

“In the future, every time you put in a request, you’ll be able to see who touched that, how long they had it and when it’s going to be fixed. Now, people are truly accountable when we talk about their response to our residents,” she said.

Also during Monday’s speech, Tate-Nadeau:

  • Declared Chicago’s 29,000 public and private surveillance cameras the largest “federated” system in the nation: “New York City has more cameras than we do. But ours are federated, which means that, from one location, we can pull up all of those images,” she said.
  • Disclosed that the Emanuel administration tried and failed to get federal funds to defray some of the security costs tied to the Cubs’ march to their first World Series championship since 1908. The federal government foots the bill for Super Bowl security, but not the World Series — in part, because “they don’t know where it’s going to be,” Tate-Nadeau said.
  • Said President Donald Trump’s budget threatens to cost Chicago millions of dollars — a figure separate from Trump’s threat to cut off funding to sanctuary cities. Federal grants comprise half of all funding to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and Trump wants to expand a 25 percent cost-sharing mandate, she said.
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