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Tech Talk: Computer-Aided Dispatch Hubs, High Availability, and the Cloud

Dave Bermingham, Senior Technical Evangelist, SIOS Technology, and Kevin Konczal, Chief Revenue Officer, Emerging Digital Concepts

Information is ultimately the lifeblood of any community’s public safety system. Real-time details in a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system about police, EMT, and fire team locations; information about events or incidents; known weapons or hazardous chemicals at an address; and more are crucial to operations and officer safety.

Increasingly, though, jurisdictions, agencies, and neighboring communities are realizing that there are distinct benefits to working cooperatively. A unit in Community A may actually be closer to an incident or fleeing suspect on the outskirts of Community B and would be able to respond faster than a unit in Community B if there were close integration between the communities’ CAD systems (assuming also that a mutual aid agreement was in place).

Additionally, in large-scale incidents requiring coordination among multiple agencies, efficient coordination and communication are critical and can be aided by integrated information sources.

But, there’s a challenge: CAD systems do not always communicate well (or at all) with other CAD systems. The CAD system deployed in one community may be unable to share information directly with the system in a neighboring community or another agency. To overcome this collaboration obstacle, departments can use what’s known as a CAD2CAD interoperability hub, which is designed to act as a real-time interpreter, accepting input from one CAD system, transforming it so that it can be understood by another CAD system, and then pushing that transformed information to the other CAD systems with which it is communicating. None of the communities need to change the CAD system they’re using to cooperate more effectively with the other responders; they just need a CAD2CAD hub with which their individual systems can communicate.

Once the CAD systems are connected to the CAD2CAD hub, they can seamlessly and effectively pass information among the systems. The CAD2CAD hub supports the specific requirements of the relationships between agencies and the mutual aid (or MOU) agreements that the communities have in place. Dispatchers at each connected CAD system may be able to see each other’s units, unit status, and more on a single screen. A dispatcher in one community can see and request aid from a specific unit in a neighboring community or different agency. If the agreements are in place, the CAD system from one community can even automatically dispatch a unit from another community—all of which can lead to faster, better, and more coordinated responses among different agencies, municipalities, and departments.

High Availability Is Key

The ability to capture and disseminate information and event details in real time is crucial to efficient response—particularly in a dynamic emergency situation, such as a disaster or mass casualty event. CAD systems are routinely configured with redundant hardware and software to ensure that they will be available 99.99 percent of the time, effectively eliminating the risk that an unexpected event, such as a system malfunction, a power outage, or a regional disaster, would cause a CAD system to go offline for more than a few seconds. They’re built with software that ensures that the CAD application is operating, and if it detects a problem, it moves operation over to a secondary system that is always standing by and able to access the same operational data if for any reason the primary system fails. Because the two systems work with the same data, there’s minimal interruption when this “fail over” from the primary to the standby server occurs.

“In today’s complex public safety environment, the need for information coordination is more vital than ever before.”

CAD2CAD hubs are protected in the same way and for the same reason. If the CAD2CAD hub goes offline—for any reason—it won’t be able to share information among the CAD systems to which it is connected. The responders depending on these connections to protect their communities would have to use slower, manual standard operating procedures. Outdated ring-down methods would need to be temporarily resurrected. For the duration of the hub’s outage, time would be lost, as would—potentially—property and lives.

The good news is that deploying a CAD2CAD system for high availability (HA) is easier and less costly than one might imagine. A cloud service provider such as AWS, Azure, or Google can provide the servers, storage, and communications resources that a particular CAD2CAD hub will require—and they will manage the equipment, as well. That eliminates the needs for costly computer hardware or software and personnel to manage the system.

Any of these cloud service providers can provide the kind of distributed infrastructure needed to protect a CAD system or a CAD2CAD hub even in the event of a site-wide or regional disaster. In this instance, the CAD or the CAD2CAD system operates on servers in two different cloud data centers that are geographically separated. The geographic separation is important, because if the entire data center where the active CAD or CAD2CAD hub is running should go offline—due to a hurricane, for example, or a terrorist attack—the secondary system in a remote cloud data center, which is unlikely to be affected by the same event, can immediately take over. Within seconds, the standby CAD or CAD2CAD hub can be up and running and performing its role to help coordinate a response, which will be all the more critical if the local data center went offline because of a catastrophic weather event or terrorist attack.

Deploying a CAD2CAD Hub for High Availability

There are multiple ways to create a cloud-based CAD or CAD2CAD hub that is protected from downtime and disasters. Some are dramatically more expensive than others—but spending more does not necessarily mean getting more protection. With a little insight into how these hubs work, the same level of protection can be obtained while saving thousands of dollars.

First, there needs to be operational software to monitor the CAD or CAD2CAD hub application and detect problems. If this software detects a problem with the application, it will automatically handle the process of moving the operation over to standby servers. If the CAD2CAD system runs on Microsoft Windows servers, all of that functionality comes for free. If it runs on another operating system, it’s possible to buy cost-effective software that will provide the same functionality. In addition, the agency or provider also needs to configure each virtual server in the cloud with its own local data storage. This requires a specialized replication software that copies the data on the primary server over to the standby server. This keeps the data storage on the primary system and its standby synchronized, that is, identical to one another. If they are not synchronized, then information in the standby CAD or CAD2CAD hub may be outdated when it takes over for the primary server.

There is replication software that is designed specifically for this purpose. The software works with the server and system and quickly and efficiently copies the data to the standby server without slowing down or interfering with the operation of the CAD or CAD2CAD system.

In today’s complex public safety environment, the need for information coordination is more vital than ever before. Ultimately, CAD2CAD systems are enabling the intercommunity, interagency coordination and collaboration needed to respond effectively to complex incidents. Protecting these important systems from downtime and disasters is critically important. Using the right tools, such as a public cloud, flexible CAD2CAD software, and powerful replication software, can save agencies time, resources, and money and give them the flexibility to partner with more communities more easily and to quickly build a high-availability solution.

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