A Conversation with Jim Mack - Shelburne PSAP Administrator
Shelburne Public Safety Answering Point Administrator Jim Mack has more than 26 years of experience in the public safety field. He started as a fire and rescue volunteer in Charlotte and now serves on Shelburne Rescue and as the PSAP administrator. The Shelburne Communications Center is one of six PSAPs in Vermont and receives emergency 9-1-1 calls and provides dispatch services for communities in their region. This includes 18 towns, five ambulances, 28 fire departments, two police departments and several more first response agencies.
Over your career, have you seen significant changes in communications?
“For PSAPS, we went from basic 911 to enhanced 911 in 1998. The old basic 911 was a caller ID and reverse index, now it’s all on my computer screen in front of me when I answer the call or receive text messages,” said Mack. He explains that the two-way radios used by first responders has changed drastically. Initially, simplex radio systems were the primary means of communication between the field and dispatch. These systems were then upgraded to repeater radio systems to enhance the radio coverage and to provide better situational awareness between practitioners in the field. Today, digital systems have become popular.
How have applications being used in the field today changed?
“Most of our agencies are now using smartphones with the Active 911 application, in addition to their radios. That’s something brand new to us. We just turned [Active 911] on in the last four months. Some of our first responders are adapting well to the application and some are still getting used to it. They can now see everything that is going on in the call. They have the address and the nature of the call on their smartphone screen. They also have cross-streets on their screen, which sometimes we would have and sometimes we wouldn’t have in the past. The goal, from our standpoint, was to reduce the amount of unnecessary radio traffic. When the tones go off, fire and rescue people start racing for their vehicle and they don’t always listen to where they’re going or what they are going to. I’m as guilty as anybody. A responder might have asked for an address or nature of the call five or six times in the past. That information is now all on their cell phone,” Mack explained.
How have you managed constantly changing technology?
“We just went online with the new enhanced 911 system this past year. Every time we go online with new systems there is a learning curve. We have to tweak the system to accommodate us and find all of the bugs that are still in it. Money and time are both issues in integrating systems,” said Mack. “Whatever systems we might have in the future, the biggest question is, can we integrate FirstNet effectively?”
How do you foresee FirstNet helping first responders effectively respond to calls?
“Being able to send and receive data using the FirstNet network, I think it could be beneficial. Right now we’re using Verizon for the air cards in our cruisers for our mobile data. Replacing that with whatever FirstNet provides, at or below what we currently pay, in order to be able to transmit more information, would help. We have air-cards and in-car cameras in some of our cruisers. Theoretically, I could stream the video from a cruiser to my screen. With the technology coming down the pipeline, the potential is getting that bank alarm and being able to see the cameras from the bank. Is it really a robbery or is it just a person who accidentally pushed a button? If I can see that on my screens when the call comes in, I can give that information to the officers for safety reasons. Traffic cameras - if you have a hotspot for accidents that you can view live - I can see what I’ve got for an accident there instead of getting vague information from people traveling past the accident at 50 miles per hour. The problem with transmitting that video onto my screen is the bandwidth and that’s something that FirstNet offers,” said Mack.