Last August fire crews in Spokane County started hearing a new voice dispatching them to calls that sounded almost, well, robotic. And it was.
The Combined Communications Center near Spokane Community College, which handles fire dispatch for the entire county, switched to “locution” software that uses a computer-generated voice. It’s a voice that fire crews have grown used to.
“They like the fact that it’s the same way every time,” said Spokane Fire Department Capt. Jay Atwood, communications manager.
But what fire departments were really hoping for was a reduction in dispatch time and the software has delivered that in spades. Before Aug. 29, fire calls were dispatched in 60 seconds or less only 62 percent of the time. Since the new software went live, that percentage has increased to 93.
Dispatching a call faster also means improved response times, which fire departments are always striving for. Dispatch is really the only area where a significant amount of time can be saved, said Spokane FireDepartment Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer. “You can’t drive faster,” he said.
Previously, dispatchers would ask a set of questions, then ask the caller to hold while they sent the call to the local fire station. Now the dispatcher continues to talk to the caller while pulling up a computer file of the call and sending it to fire crews at the touch of a button.
“It’s cut our call processing time down significantly,” Atwood said. “We don’t have to disrupt that call flow. There was a whole shift in the way we do business.”
Spokane Valley Fire Department Capt. Pat Schaffer said his department is pleased with the new system. Crews have even named the voice, calling her “Lady Locution.”
“The software has really positively impacted response times,” he said. “It’s much better, probably a 30 second increase.”
There are some improvements that could be made, Schaffer said, including adjusting the tones broadcast before each call. There are two short tones for a medical call or car accident and one long tone for a fire call. Firefighters put on their turnout gear for accidents and fires and would like to be able to tell just from the tones whether they should put it on rather than waiting for the call to finish, Schaffer said. “There are some things we could adjust or work through,” he said.
The Spokane Fire Department spent about $200,000 for the software and some hardware, which it will get back as part of the fees other departments pay for dispatch services.
Local fire departments recently got a report giving the call percentages for every day between Aug. 29 and Jan. 21. On several days 100 percent of calls were sent out in 60 seconds or less, but Spokane’s Schaeffer said he doesn’t think it’s realistic to think the percentage could be that high every day. “I don’t think so,” he said. “We’re human.”
Sometimes people are so excited it’s difficult to get information from them quickly and other times callers have trouble speaking.
Lt. Vicki Brown, dispatch supervisor, has been on the job for 21 years and struggled with the software at first. “I like the new system,” she said. “It took some getting used to.”
Dispatchers worried that they would lose time needed for personal contact with callers, but now they actually have more time, she said.