9-1-1 In Washington Parish

Establishment of 9-1-1 In Washington Parish

Back in the old days before 9-1-1, when a citizen of Washington Parish needed help, they would pick up the phone and call the appropriate law enforcement agency on their normal business telephone line.  The police dispatcher would answer the call and then make sure the caller got the help they needed. There were four ambulance operations in Bogalusa and one in Franklinton back in those days.  In Bogalusa, there were ambulances owned by Osbourne Exxon, Champayne Exxon, Charlie Hayman Gulf, and Virgil and "PeeWee" Lloyd.  The Bogalusa Police Department maintained a rotating log book and would call the "next up" ambulance.  In Franklinton, Johnny Ray Fisher operated an ambulance service. 

Then came the original 9-1-1 technology.  The idea behind this system was that the citizen would make one three digit call, and that the person who answered that call would contact any emergency agencies that would be needed, such as law enforcement, the fire department or the ambulance company.

The Louisiana legislature, in an effort to establish 9-1-1 in Louisiana,  granted Communication District Authority to the Parishes in 1983, under the provisions authorized by Louisiana Revised Statue 33:9101-9107.

Washington Parish Police Jury enacted Statutes establishing Washington Parish Communications District on May 17, 1988. Once enacted, the Washington Parish Communications District became a legal and political subdivision of the state, not the parish as per Louisiana Revise Statues 33:9101 (AG Opinion 02-0134).

After their establishment in 1988, the Communications District reviewed possible system configurations permitted by Louisiana Revised Statues 33:9101-0107.  These possible system configurations included : 

(1) "Direct dispatch method", that is a telephone service to a centralized dispatch center providing for the dispatch of an appropriate emergency service unit upon receipt of a telephone request for such services and a decision as to the proper action to be taken.

(2) "Relay method", that is a telephone service whereby pertinent information is noted by the recipient of a telephone request for emergency services, and is relayed to appropriate public safety agencies or other providers of emergency services for dispatch of an emergency service unit.

(3) "Transfer method", that is a telephone service that receives telephone requests for emergency services and directly transfers such requests to an appropriate public safety agency or other provider of emergency services.

(4) "Referral method", that is a telephone service that, upon the receipt of a telephone request for emergency services, provides the requesting party with the telephone number of the appropriate public safety agency or other provider of emergency services.

The District in 1988 proposed that the parish law enforcement agencies adopt the direct dispatch method, that is, a telephone service to a centralized center providing for the dispatch of an appropriate emergency service unit upon receipt of a telephone request for such services and a decision as to the proper action to be taken.  Each of the three law enforcement agencies in the parish, however, desired to continue answering the telephone calls for help. Thus, it was agreed by all agencies that the law enforcement would continue to answer the calls from citizens that lived in their area of responsibility and that the Communications District would ask the voters to approve a 9-1-1 fee that would be sufficient for to purchase, maintain, and upgrade the 9-1-1 equipment, as well as fulfill the District's administrative functions, but not enough to employ 9-1-1 call takers or pay the police dispatchers to answer 9-1-1 calls.  By all agencies participating with the agreed upon responsibilities, 9-1-1 was implemented at minimum cost to the citizens.

Each public safety answering point would continue to be staffed by the respective agency’s dispatch personnel. These dispatch personnel were employed by their "home" agency who was responsible for their pay, performance, supervision, and training.  This division of responsibilities, agreed to by all governing authorities,  has been in effect since the very beginning of 9-1-1 in Washington Parish.  Thus, in Washington Parish, there are no separate 9-1-1 call takers.  The person that answers the 9-1-1 telephone call is the police dispatcher.

The original monthly fee for 9-1-1 services was $ 0.55 per Residential Phone and  $ 1.43 per Business Phone based on 5 percent of the monthly base rate, local exchange telephone line charge  There were approximately 20,000 phone lines back then in Washington Parish.  Current phone lines have decreased to approximately 11,000 within the parish.  The present monthly fee for 9-1-1 services is $ 1.06 per Residential Phone and $ 6.00 per Business Phone, based on the 5 percent of current monthly base rates. The fee of $ 0.85 on all post-paid wireless telephones in the parish was raised to $ 1.25 on August 1, 2016, as per Act 665, passed by the 2016 Louisiana Legislature.  The 2 per cent fee on pre-paid wireless cards was raised to 4 per cent on October 1, 2016, as per Act 590, passed by the 2016 Louisiana Legislature.  All funds in excess of operating expenses are placed in savings to allow for equipment replacement and upgrades as they are needed. 

In 1989, following the initial funding approval by the citizens of Washington Parish, the Communications District developed and implemented a uniform addressing system for the areas outside of the municipal boundaries of Bogalusa and Franklinton.  This five digit address system improved the ability of  the emergency responding agencies to locate the address of the emergency.  This system is still in use today by most, but not all, of non-municipal residents of the parish.

Following the re-addressing of parish roads, the Communications District acquired and installed 9-1-1 equipment at the parish's three primary public safety answering points (Washington Parish Sheriff's Office, Franklinton Police Department, Bogalusa Police Department).

This original basic 9-1-1 equipment provided the police dispatcher with the caller's phone number.   The only thing different from before was that there was now a phone at the police department dedicated for emergencies with a little screen to show the caller’s telephone number.  The police dispatcher answered the call and did the same things they were doing before, except now they knew the caller’s telephone number.  This was similar to the caller ID that you can now get for your home phone.

Then came Enhanced 9-1-1.  The little screen was a little bigger and showed the caller’s telephone number plus the caller’s address.  The police dispatcher answered the call and did the same things they were doing before, except now they knew the caller’s telephone number and address and the phone had mechanical buttons to transfer the call to other agencies like the fire department or the ambulance service.

Then came the present system in 2004.  The little screens are now even bigger, and there is an electronic map to show the caller’s location.  Same call for help as before, but now there is more information for the police dispatcher to utilize, and more telephone call handling capabilities, like the ability to type messages to hearing impaired callers.  Now the dispatcher has more “tools” to use to do a better job than they could do before 1989. 

You may ask, "What happens when all this modern 9-1-1 equipment is hit by lightning, for example, and quits working ?"  Don't worry, in a situation, when the computers quit working, the call for help will be routed back to the normal business telephone.  The police dispatcher is still going to get that call for help.

Modernization of 9-1-1 In Washington Parish

In 2002, the Communications District developed a vision of the future which included a consolidation of all of the parish's emergency communications functions, using updated equipment, into a single terrorist resistant, hurricane proof facility to be located near the geographical center of the parish.  This consolidation plan was based on recommendations by GeoComm, a nationally known emergency communications consulting company.  The plan included recommendations to add personnel specifically trained to answer 9-1-1 calls and to dispatch ambulance and fire service resources, in order to reduce the work load of the law enforcement dispatchers.

Using the consultant's study as a guide, the Communications District presented its plan to improve emergency communications to the voters of Washington Parish for their approval in October of 2003.   This approval, if granted, would have provided additional funding to build and operate a modern emergency communications center for Washington Parish. All police dispatchers were to have been moved to the new location and 9-1-1 would have employed additional persons dedicated to answer 9-1-1 calls.  Additional funding was not approved at that time.  Therefore, the law enforcement dispatchers continued answering 911 calls as they previously had been doing at their individual offices.

In mid 2004, the Communications District, knowing that the parish's 9-1-1 system needed replacement, aggressively committed a majority of its savings for a "ground up" rebuilding of the parish's 911 system in the existing multiple agency locations.   While advanced for its day, the original 9-1-1 equipment had become obsolete.  This equipment replacement did not, however, secure the benefits of a modern emergency communications center, and because it encompassed three locations rather than one centralized location, was expensive to implement. It was, however, imperative that the replacement be accomplished to maintain the current level of service and to provide a foundation for further improvements as funds become available.  

This equipment replacement gave the various agency dispatchers modern, capability to (a) answer incoming 9-1-1 calls, (b) transfer 9-1-1 calls to other agencies, (c) automatically detect and answer TDD calls from the hearing impaired, and (d) instant recall recording of 9-1-1 calls.  Equipment was provided to Washington Parish by PlantCML and Higher Ground, Inc.  Equipment installation and maintenance services are being furnished by Gage Telephone Systems, Inc. of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The Washington Parish Communications District completed the replacement of all its original 9-1-1 equipment on July 16, 2004.  The individual law enforcement agency offices are linked together with a single integrated 911 telephone system.  If any one dispatcher is overloaded with calls to the point of not being able to answer, their next incoming 9-1-1 call will be automatically redirected to a backup agency.   This "call forwarding" does not occur until after 20 seconds of wait time, so give the dispatcher time to answer your call.  They may be tied up on other calls.

In addition, all dispatchers can talk to one another via the 9-1-1 system, even if the commercial telephone system is unavailable due to catastrophic system overload such as the one that occurred during the October, 1995, chemical spill.

The ability of this new equipment to automatically detect and answer TDD calls from the hearing impaired is especially timely, given recent actions by the Federal government to enforce minimum standards of service for hearing impaired citizens. An improvement program such as that recently completed by Plaquemines Parish was implemented in Washington Parish.  To further improve services, the ability to handle text messages to 9-1-1 was added in 2015

In addition to the basic equipment replacement program, the Communications District implemented a Phase I and II wireless phone location and digital map system Start up was in October, 2004, and cell tower testing was completed on the existing cell towers during the summer of 2005.  This system allows the dispatcher to know the location of the person using a cellular phone to call for help.  Verizon, Sprint-Nextel, AT&T, and Centennial towers have been tested and approved for Phase II operation.  In the first quarter of 2006, the system was further upgraded to provide location data for land based telephone calls.  Aerial photography which had already been integrated into the system to provide additional information for the dispatcher was also updated in early 2006. Washington Parish was the fourth parish in the state of Louisiana to successfully implement such as system.

Just a few weeks after system startup of the GeoLynx Phase II mapping system in 2004, the Washington Parish Sheriff's Office was able to locate a citizen in need of medical attention who called 9-1-1 on his cell phone but was unable to give his address due to his medical condition.  

This mapping software was partially funded by a grant from the Public Safety Foundation of  America.  Washington Parish received this grant in July, 2003, and was the only Louisiana 9-1-1 system to receive such funding approval at that time.

Emergency response, humanitarian relief, and related governmental activities in Washington Parish during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were severely hampered by the lack of a modern Emergency Operations / 9-1-1 / Multi Agency Communications Center.  The statement, often heard, “Without effective communications, all else fails”, has been proven correct.  Washington Parish received funding in 2011 to build Phase 1 of a state-of-the-art combined Emergency Operations / 9-1-1 / Multi-Agency Communications Center. 

Construction of the Emergency Communications Center and its radio tower support system has been completed.  The "topping out" ceremonial flag is shown below.

First open to the public in June of 2013, the tower complex contains the capability to communicate via multiple means to anybody, anywhere, anytime, both inside and outside the parish. Parish Homeland Security Director Tommy Thiebaud has stated, "This is the most important of several redundant initiatives, that the Parish has enacted, to prevent the loss of communications during emergency events.". Project Manager Jim Coleman said, "I would like to thank Parish President Richard N. Thomas Jr. for his continued support of this project; as well as the engineers at Richard C Lambert Consultants in Mandeville for their excellent work on this job".

Also opened to the public in June of 2013, the 5,200 sq ft Emergency Communications Center contains a twenty seat Incident Command Center, a three seat 9-1-1 dispatch and call taking center, and the Washington Parish Communications District administrative offices.  Support components of power generation, water treatment, and sewage treatment allow the facility to operate independently without outside services.

The Washington Parish Communications District administrative offices are manned five days per week, during regular business hours.  The Incident Command Center is utilized whenever it is needed to coordinate emergency response and recovery efforts.

Parish agencies including law enforcement, fire, and EMS are able to utilize the facilities for their day-to-day dispatch functions whenever they wish to do so.  Currently, the dispatch portion of the Communications Center serves as the back-up facility if the agencies are required to abandon their current facilities due to unforeseen circumstances.

 

The site is remotely located, thus providing a secure location for command and control support of regional emergencies, while being away from heavily traveled interstate highways and metropolitan population centers.  The facility is the the primary Emergency Operations Center for Washington Parish and has the capability of supporting multiple parishes, if needed. 

The facility also provides the ability to direct and control resources, automate processes and methodologies, assign and track tasks, and efficiently communicate real-time emergency management information. In addition, the facility was also designed and constructed to protect communication and data with needed redundancy, security and flexibility.

The tower complex and Emergency Communications Center provides an effective means for local emergency response and government officials to coordinate, monitor, and direct emergency response and related activities during an emergency.

When you look at improvements that are having to wait for future funding, they fall into two categories.  They are either infrastructure related items such as updated equipment, or they are people related items such as staffing levels.  For example, the 9-1-1 equipment purchased in 2004 will soon require replacement.

Improvements in staffing is needed and will improve the ability of  9-1-1 operators to respond to calls for help.  No matter how modern the equipment, one dispatcher per agency answering 9-1-1 calls is not enough.  The future relocation of the current dispatchers to a single facility, would enable improved cooperation and teamwork, thereby improving efficiency.

With improved cooperation, teamwork and efficiency as the goal, the Washington Parish Communications District has invited each law enforcement to locate their dispatcher at the Communications Center.  The decision to utilize the modern dispatch facility at the Communications Center rests with the Mayors of Franklinton and Bogalusa and the Washington Parish Sheriff.

These future personnel and infrastructure enhancements, when implemented, would give Washington Parish emergency response agencies additional tools needed to assist emergency personnel in getting to the right place, with the right assets, in a timely manner.