When you call 911, who picks up? In most places, it’s an emergency communications center operated by people who work for a local government. But in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, Sandy Springs, Georgia, and Danbury, Connecticut, you will get an employee of IXP Corporation, an emergency communications company based in Princeton Forrestal Village that’s expanding rapidly by privatizing what was once a purely public-sector service.
IXP, founded 15 years ago, has doubled in size in the last two years. Today it employs more than 165 people, about 25 of whom work at the company headquarters, with the rest at the four communications centers it operates. They are doing so in a sector that is struggling to catch up to the rapid changes in mobile technology.
When CEO Bill Metro and COO Larry Consalvos met 20 years ago, they were both employees of Systemhouse, a company that was helping New York City build an enhanced 9-1-1 call center. At the time it was introduced, Enhanced 9-1-1 was cutting edge information technology. It allowed dispatchers to see the address and exact location of incoming calls, saving valuable time in situations where a few seconds could make a difference in saving a life.
Metro, a computer science major who had worked in law enforcement IT, and Consalvos, a former police officer and police executive, worked together on a number of projects. In 1999 their company, which was owned by EDS, which wanted to divest its public safety consulting group, headquartered on Princeton Pike in Lawrenceville. Metro, Consalvos, and seven other employees decided to buy it, and a year later they were in charge of their own spin off company. Of the original owners, only Consalvos and Metro remain.
At that time, IXP didn’t actually run emergency communications centers. Instead, it helped emergency response agencies upgrade their systems and integrate new technologies. It was a gradual progression from designing and implementing systems and training operators, to “managed services,” where IXP actually does the work of taking 9-1-1 calls.
The economic downturn of 2008 provided an opportunity for IXP to privatize emergency dispatch services. In 2009 the towns of Johns Creek and Sandy Springs near Atlanta had recently incorporated and were looking to build an emergency dispatch center that both municipalities could share. They hired IXP for the job.
“There is an ever-increasing call for doing more with less,” Metro says. “Municipalities are significantly challenged on the budget side, and they are now turning to IXP to provide those mission-critical services.”
Metro says IXP can do the job for cheaper than governments can because they can use private business management techniques. (In other words, they do not have to follow civil service rules or deal with unions that represent public employees.) IXP hired and trained 65 to 70 employees to man the 9-1-1 lines around the clock. The experiment appears to have been successful. The towns renewed their five-year contract, and the center now handles calls for two additional neighboring cities.
The launch of the Sandy Springs center was a natural outgrowth of the company’s area of expertise, since it has many employees with extensive 9-1-1 center experience. But it was still a challenge for the company, since it was venturing into unknown territory. The new center had to be set up to handle 200,000 9-1-1 calls per year. From when IXP completed the consulting study to when the phones started ringing live was seven months, which Metro says is “unheard of.” Consalvos said it takes most municipalities three years or more to accomplish the same task.
In 2013 Lawrence Township became the first municipality in New Jersey to privatize its emergency communications department. The township had been having trouble staffing its call center, and police officers were filling in at the controls, at great expense. They decided to put the operation of the communications center out to bid to private companies. IXP, the only bidder, got a two-year contract for $719,400 a year. Today IXP employees occupy a small room in the township municipal building. Not only do they man the phones, but they get records for the police, run criminal background checks, and perform many other communications tasks relating to public safety.
The call takers and dispatchers receive a minimum of 240 hours of training, including public safety industry telecommunicator training, technology training, emergency medical dispatch, CPR, information systems, and local agency and community policies and procedures.
Lawrence Police Chief Dan Posluszny has given the company high marks for its service, telling Officer.com in a 2013 interview that the new workers got up to speed quickly and the situation was “a win-win for the community all around.”
IXP staffers work closely with the police and wear a company uniform. The citizens who come to the room’s plexiglass window to get police reports and attend to other matters of routine business might not even notice the workers there are not actually police officers. People calling 9-1-1 probably don’t.
“When people call 9-1-1, most people don’t know where the call is going to,” Metro says. He says most callers assume they are talking to someone in a police station or a firehouse. In most places around the country, the call automatically is routed to a place like the communications center in Lawrence. It was set up before IXP got the contract, and the company left it the way it was. At a trio of computer consoles with rows of monitors, three employees were taking 9-1-1 calls.
Ordinary-looking office phones let dispatchers talk to callers, and giant, complex-looking radios let them talk to police, fire, and ambulance personnel. A printer along one wall spews forth a constant stream of paperwork so that even when the phones are silent, the dispatchers have never-ending work to do.
“This is kind of the nerve center of the police department,” says Dan Teixeira, an IXP dispatcher.
Consalvos described the rhythm of work at an emergency communications center as “hours of routine punctuated by minutes of absolute bedlam.” On a recent afternoon in October, the work was more on the “routine” end of the spectrum. Someone called and then hung up, and the dispatcher called back to make sure there was no emergency. (If no one had picked up, they would have sent a police officer to investigate.) At another phone, a dispatcher tried to calm down a caller. “Not everything you see on the news is true. Not all police are like that.”
At any moment, bedlam could erupt, especially if there is a car accident or some other emergency that’s visible to the public. “If there’s a bad car accident, we’ll get dozens of calls,” Teixeira says. “People will call until they see lights on the scene. That’s more motivation for us to get people going out there fast.”
Even though the work can be routine, most dispatchers are mindful of the fact that they are often talking to people on the worst day of their lives. “We look for individuals who know how to be nice and engage in a dialogue with someone who is calling in a very traumatic moment,” Consalvos says. “You have to be able to gather information very quickly and efficiently and give the person the sense that you’re there to help them get help.”
The proliferation of cell phones and smartphones has changed the world of 9-1-1 dispatch in profound ways, beyond just provoking a flood of calls for every car accident. For starters, it has reversed some of the improvements that the “enhanced 9-1-1” system introduced. Nowadays 70 to 80 percent of all calls are made by mobile phones rather than landlines. This has actually made the process of dispatching a 9-1-1 call less efficient because in some cases dispatchers can’t see the exact location of the call being made. Dispatchers usually have to talk to a caller to find out exactly where they are — and they may not be able to answer, especially if they are lost or disoriented.
Metro says this shortcoming is surprising to members of the public who have come to take for granted the near omniscience of their smartphones, which are, for the most part, equipped with GPS devices. But the 9-1-1 network has yet to catch up to those technological advances and most dispatchers cannot see location based on GPS signals.
Only the most advanced 9-1-1 call centers are now able to receive text messages, photos, and videos, that callers often want to send. Depending on the caller’s location and how a particular call center is set up, the dispatchers may be able to see a caller’s location on a map. Sometimes this is calculated by triangulating cell phone towers, not by GPS signal.
Anyone who has called 9-1-1 from a cell phone knows that the routing of the call can be somewhat unpredictable, even to industry veterans like Metro. One day he and Consalvos were eating dinner at a restaurant by a river, when they saw a man swimming out into the water. Consalvos called 9-1-1, realizing the man would never make it to the other side. The call was transferred to different rescue agencies several times until nearly 20 minutes later, they saw a boat come roaring out of a Coast Guard base next door to rescue the tired swimmer.
“The pace of the technology has changed so quickly that the industry hasn’t really been able to respond,” Metro said. “There’s a new standard called Next Gen 911 that describes how a center should be able to receive video, images, and text messages, and not only process it but store it and retrieve it in an efficient manner.” Metro noted that the gear in many centers has been around for around 10 or 15 years and hasn’t evolved, while mobile phones have continued to change on a monthly basis.
Nevertheless, IXP is forging ahead with new technology-based services that go beyond just 9-1-1 centers. The company has also done work for universities and police departments on projects that have nothing to do with 9-1-1. IXP is now promoting a pair of services that resemble science fiction more than anything else.
The first is a data mining service that monitors social media and alerts police to potential local crimes. “Law enforcement now needs to be aware of communications that may be happening in the public Internet space,” Metro said. “That can be different forms of chatter between individuals who may either be planning to do something, or who are talking about something that they just did. We can search or monitor public posts that people make and search for keywords that law enforcement wants to know about.”
But would criminals really talk about it on Twitter or Instagram if they had just committed a felony? Do gangs use Facebook posts to plan crime sprees? Metro says the concept isn’t as absurd as it first appears. “You would be surprised what criminals say and do. Or they might use local lingo they think only they know about.”
Another technology IXP is selling, which was developed by a third party, is an intelligent security camera monitoring system. Currently, most security cameras are good for solving crimes after the fact, but not much good at preventing them. It’s just not cost effective to have someone watching every camera at all times. Metro says IXP’s new technology has the ability to recognize what human figures are doing, and alert someone monitoring the security system if something unusual happens. For example, it might set off an alarm if someone starts crawling, or if someone appears to be “lurking,” or if two people fall to the ground together.
“This allows campus public safety to respond to the location potentially before a crime or incident occurs,” Metro says. “It gives them a virtual policing component. To be able to respond to something that may be happening or prevent something from occurring, that’s a huge money saver.”
Metro grew up in Pittsburgh in a family of steelworkers going back two generations. When the steel industry took a nosedive, Metro’s father moved the family to Seattle and he got a job at Boeing. Metro went to Seattle University and studied computer science, sticking in the city for his first job out of college, which was at an emergency dispatch center. His job was to operate the computers that ran the dispatch system, which in 1982 meant such tasks as manually doing tape backups at 4 a.m.
He liked working with computers and with emergency dispatch, and has stuck with both. “It’s surprising how your first job will define your career,” he said. “It was exciting, and it was long hours.”
Consalvos grew up in Howell, and often helped his parents out with their taxi company. He went to Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey) for his undergraduate degree and earned a master’s at Rider while working as a police officer. “I’ve always had an interest in law enforcement,” he said. “As someone who was draft eligible for Vietnam and never got drafted, I thought it was my duty to serve the community.”
In 1987 Consalvos retired from the police and went to work for Honeywell Information Systems until the early 1990s, when he joined Systemhouse. He says he has welcomed the transition from the public sector to being in business and says he enjoys being more entrepreneurial. The business world, he believes, could make emergency services much more efficient than they currently are.
“When I was a police officer, I thought our emergency communications folks always did a great job in responding to the public and to officers on the streets, but what was really lacking was technology,” he said. “At the time, everything had to be done manually. It slowed everything down.”
Consalvos says that in the future, with tightening budgets and longer-lived retirees, the pressure to provide more services for less money will only increase, and IXP will be there to step in. “You can’t keep raising taxes,” he says. “You have to find better ways to do more with less. We believe we can provide higher levels of service in emergency communications that’s more sustainable and more predictable.”
IXP Corp., 103 Main Street, Forrestal Village, Suite 100, Princeton 08540; 609-409-7272; William E. Metro, CEO. www.ixpcorp.com.