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Automated system provides critical seconds for emergency responders

Being a few seconds late may not matter much in most people's daily lives, but that time is precious to firefighters and paramedics responding to 911 calls of those in need.

A new text-to-speech radio alert system at Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon is shaving seconds off the response times of local emergency crews by spitting out automated broadcasts to fire stations while dispatchers are still on the phone with callers.

Central Point-based ECSO serves as the dispatch center for emergency response crews and police in Jackson County.

"For our business, it's all about time," said Justin Bates, deputy chief with Medford Fire-Rescue. "Seconds count when we're responding, so if we can respond with our units even 15 seconds faster, that may be the difference between life or death.

"We're really driven by trying to shave off a few seconds here and a few seconds there, because over time that can add up to lives being saved."

Once a dispatcher enters the type of incident and its location into a computer and assigns units to the case, the automated program broadcasts a computerized voice over the radio.

The automated broadcasts were implemented at the beginning of April and the system has taken some fine-tuning, but dispatchers and emergency crews are settling in with it, said Kevin Harris, operations manager at ECSO.

"I think there are somewhere around 9,000 street names in the county, and there are some odd ones it's had trouble with," Harris said. "We're tying to be proactive with the pronunciation of streets. ... If it fails, we have the ability to reach over and manually send those alerts like in the past."

The automated broadcasts are used only for initial announcements from dispatch, with human dispatchers following up with any further information. Also, the automated broadcasts are not used when communicating with police, Harris said, because the dialogue between police and dispatch is oftentimes "too dynamic."

Bates said the computerized voice lacks some authenticity, but it makes up for it with consistency and efficiency.

"As far as the computer voice itself ... we're still getting used to the way it sounds and the way it pronounces streets. I think the adjustment period will be ongoing for a little while," Bates said. "One point that we do miss is when you have a live person, we could tell by the tone of their voice whether it was a real call."

The automated broadcasts are just one facet of an automation makeover the dispatch center and several area fire stations have been implementing over the last few years to reduce response times, Harris said.

The upgrades were paid for mostly through an about $550,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, which was matched by the city of Medford with $45,500 and by participating local fire agencies with about $91,000 in 2011, city records show.

Along with the automated broadcasts, the new alerting system sends incident-specific tones over radios and through fire stations to alert firefighters and turns on incident-specific lights inside stations.

The tones also ramp up in volume over time to gently alert firefighters who may be sleeping, instead of sending the sound of a blaring siren through a fire station, Harris said.

"Right from the get-go when the crews are in the station and they hear that tone, they know that they are going to a structure fire call or going to a medical call," Bates said. "The lights do the same thing. If it's a medical call, the lights turn blue, or lights turn red for a structure fire ... all this happens automatically from dispatch."

Harris said MFR, Ashland Fire & Rescue, Jackson County Fire District Nos. 3 and 5 and the Medford airport's fire department are the only agencies that have ramped tones and incident-specific alert lights installed at their stations, but all of the fire stations in the county hear the computer automated broadcasts.

"In this day and age you're having to look at equipment to create some efficiencies where you're not able to add staffing," Harris said. "I am hearing that firefighters like the new system, and we've set up means for them to report any issues that arise."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or swheeler@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/swhlr.

A text-to-speech alert program at Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon is sending out automated radio broadcasts to crews while dispatchers are still on the phone with callers, speeding up response times. - Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo