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Grand Forks dispatch center sees increase in emergency calls

Emergency call volume has increased by 20% in the last four years.

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Shannon LaHaise is the director of the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) at the Grand Forks Police Dept.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – They are “first to serve,” being the initial contact for all emergency line callers in Grand Forks County.

In recent years the county’s emergency calls have been on a steady incline and, as a result, there is a higher demand for emergency responders. With that increasing demand, the Grand Forks Public Safety Answering Point’s duties and abilities are evolving; technological advancements play a major role in that evolution.

“We’re behind the headset,” Grand Forks PSAP Director Shannon LaHaise said.

In the last four years, there has been a 20% increase in emergency call volume throughout Grand Forks County, with a fairly consistent 5% increase per year. According to the PSAP annual report, the total number of calls for service in 2021 was 106,693. This includes all dispatches, whether or not a resident called in to initiate it.

As stated in their dispatcher recruitment video, the PSAP is, “a direct communication link for 33 agencies in Grand Forks County including fire, police, and medical services.” A popular tagline of theirs is “first to serve,” as they are the initial point of contact for anyone calling to report an emergency situation throughout the county.

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The PSAP’s funds are split into two categories: operational and infrastructure. In 2021, the operational cost was $1,811,480 and infrastructure was $1,214,973. Operational revenue was $1,686,983; infrastructure revenue was $1,541,190.

Typically, the PSAP has one dispatcher taking calls and three on radio communications. On the dispatch floor, calls are monitored in real time, with dispatchers gleaning information to safely and appropriately dispatch. They remain in communication with the caller and relevant emergency responders as an intervention is planned.

“We are their lifeline out there,” said LaHaise. “We are their eyes and ears.”

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Staff at the Public Safety Answering Point work Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022 in Grand Forks.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

On the dispatch floor, each station has numerous monitors. Screens include the map of callers and emergency responders, phone calls, open and pending cases, radio channels, and other data. The screen with details on open and pending cases assists dispatchers in determining what needs to be addressed immediately and what can wait, if necessary.

Some recent technological advances include text-to-911 and a radio system with statewide coverage. In 2017, text-to-911 was rolled out statewide. LaHaise said North Dakota was one of the first states to implement this method. The PSAP received 70 text-to-911 messages in 2021. The newly-implemented statewide radio system covers all radio towers in the state, which allows for increased efficiency in intercommunication among agencies. This is especially beneficial when incidents cross county lines.

“The technology in our field is really growing,” LaHaise said.

When someone calls in to dispatch, their location is pinned on a map. Police officers and other relevant emergency responders also have their locations pinned, which is especially helpful in determining who is closest to the scene and will respond promptly. The program Rapid SOS is utilized by the PSAP and tracks movements the callers make. The tracking only works within their jurisdiction, and is terminated 10 minutes after the call ends. These resources are highly beneficial to emergency responders, especially in cases when callers cannot — for various reasons — report their address, or if their location does not have a traditional address. In cases where a caller’s self-reported location is different from where they have been pinned on Rapid SOS, two responders may be sent.

“Everything is very much data driven now,” LaHaise said.

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The PSAP tracks the volume as well as types of calls received. This allows them to analyze peak call times and staff accordingly. Tracking call types allows them to determine when calls that need extra time and attention are most likely to come in. The PSAP has found days to be busier than nights in terms of call volume, but according to Senechal, “it really is pretty steady.”

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