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Published December 09 2012

PDF: Data playing bigger role for first responders

FARGO - When Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes joined the department 25 years ago, officers would come to work, gather around a table, take notes from a sergeant about the latest crimes and hop into their patrol cars.

“And then for the most part we just kind of scattered into the wind,” Ternes said.

These days, the department analyzes crime data to direct those resources more efficiently. And the practice is about to receive even greater focus with the creation of a crime data analyst position.

“We’re going to try to put some science into how we police the city,” he said.

Police aren’t alone in playing the numbers game. Local fire and ambulance services also are crunching data more intensely to improve response times and position personnel and equipment in areas where they’re most needed.

At F-M Ambulance Service, officials use software to track locations that are most likely to generate emergency calls. Based on historical data, call times, traffic counts, population and other factors, the service identifies so-called “hot spots” and posts ambulances there.

The Fargo Fire Department is keeping close tabs on response times, run volumes and risk in the city’s far south side to gauge the need for an eighth fire station.

“It’s a constant monitoring,” Assistant Chief Gary Lorenz said.

Tools evolve

At the Fargo Police Department, tracking and analyzing computerized crime data dates back about a decade to when Ternes, then assistant chief, recommended it to then-Chief Chris Magnus.

“There really wasn’t any structure whatsoever for us in using data,” Ternes recalled.

A visit to the Minneapolis Police Department served as a springboard to Fargo police implementing their own computerized statistics, or “comstat,” program, and it has continued to evolve since then.

Detective Leo Rognlin, the department’s current crime analyst, uses a mapping system to try to identify patterns in burglaries, vandalisms and other crimes, as well as traffic crashes, as well as to tie incidents together.

Once a month, the department’s command staff and patrol supervisors – about 20 people in all – gather for a comstat meeting to assess the data.

“Once we can identify where things are happening in Fargo, that allows us then to point officers in right direction,” Ternes said.

Ternes said he believes the efforts have paid off, noting the 6 percent reduction in overall crime last year and 11 percent reduction in 2010. An increase is expected in 2012, but given the past two years of decline, Ternes said it “should not cause anybody to panic.”

Statistics through Oct. 15 showed a 15 percent increase in property crimes and a 14 percent jump in personal crimes this year, but Rognlin said he expects those percentages to come down a bit by the end of the year. He attributed the increase in part to the mild winter months at the beginning of the year.

Police use data not only to identify trends and problem areas but also to measure results. For example, Rognlin generated a map with areas of the city shaded purple based on crime density last winter, then overlaid in red the crime density from the first six months of this year. In many instances, the red areas were smaller than the purple.

“Some of our efforts are paying off,” he said.

Analyst to ‘drill down’

Ternes said the new crime analyst will work within the same context as Rognlin but take the data analysis a step further.

“Leo has undoubtedly built this and allowed us to take it to the next level,” he said. “But at the end of the day, Leo and really the rest of our staff, they’re police officers. They’re not statisticians. They’re not analysts. They’re not data miners.”

The next step, he said, “is to really drill down into the components of some of these crimes.

“Even though they might not have any physical attachments to one another, are there some commonalities where we can get some different resources involved in the process to help combat them?” he said.

Fargo police received 55 applications for the crime analyst job before the Nov. 30 deadline, Ternes said. About half were regional applicants, and the rest hailed from around the country, including Florida, Texas, Ohio and the East Coast, he said.

“I’m really happy with that and the qualifications that I’ve seen of some of the candidates. I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to find somebody,” he said.

Ternes said he hopes to have someone in the position by Feb. 1.

Moorhead, West Fargo

The Moorhead Police Department doesn’t have a comstat program or the resources to add a crime analyst like Fargo, Lt. Tory Jacobson said.

But it has taken advantage of the data capabilities provided by New World, a $3.8 million public safety dispatch and record management software installed in March 2011 for metro-area agencies.

Jacobson said that while New World has experienced some bugs, it allows for faster, customized data retrieval that can be combined with mapping and applied to investigations.

A recent rash of Dumpster fires in the Romkey Park neighborhood that led to an arrest is one of example of how the mapping was used, he said.

West Fargo police also extract data from the New World system and run it through a software program that Fargo also uses, Command Central.

“We’re able then to review patterns of crime behaviors,” Assistant Chief Mike Reitan said.

Every second counts

Firefighters and ambulance crews place more emphasis on response times, and the Fargo Fire Department uses data to track everything from how long it takes firefighters to don their gear and roll out the door to which traffic routes will have the least amount of resistance during different times of day.

The department’s 5 Alive software program allows it to break down data “into just about any form you can dream up,” Capt. Craig Nelson said.

For example, with just a few mouse clicks, the program showed that Unit 801 turned on its emergency lights and sirens when responding to 1,065 of its calls so far this year.

At F-M Ambulance, Nathaniel Dutt, a paramedic and dispatcher, continually scans a wall of six computer monitors in front of him.

One is connected to a software program that decides which ambulance to send based on the distance to the emergency. Another uses a blue line to trace the ambulance’s route on a Google map, tracking its speed, distance and time.

The data is fed into a “deployment monitor” system that helps the service improve response times and identify the best places to position ambulances – some in fixed locations and others in parking lots throughout the metro area, said Ken Krupich, operations director for F-M Ambulance.

It’s a far cry from yesteryears when ambulance officials would set up a big map, extract the emergency calls from their logbook of thousands of calls per year and plot the calls on the map with a marker.

The process, which Krupich said “took an enormous amount of time,” is now done in real time on computer monitors. A colored map with shades of green, yellow, red, purple and black continually analyzes data from the past two years and predicts where the next ambulance call is most likely to originate.

“It’s really quite phenomenal what we can do with it,” Krupich said.

Like the fire department, F-M Ambulance strives to meet the national standard of responding to calls within 8 minutes, 59 seconds. Mid-morning Wednesday, the map showed that its ambulances were in position to reach 86 percent of potential calls in the metro area within that time.

“We can cover all these areas with less resources and be more efficient with it, too,” Krupich said.

Fargo Fire Department to begin using GPS dispatching today

FARGO – The Fargo Fire Department today will begin phasing in a new GPS dispatching system that is expected to improve response times and simplify the process for dispatchers.

The AVL, or Automatic Vehicle Locator system, will allow dispatchers to send the trucks that are closest to the emergency call, as opposed to dispatching units based primarily on each fire station’s well-defined zone boundaries.

Assistant Fire Chief Gary Lorenz said crews are often away from the firehouse during the day conducting building inspections and responding to calls, which means their trucks may not be closest to an emergency if it originates from the other end of their zone.

Instead of taking time to sort out which truck is where, dispatchers will now be able to rely on the GPS system.

“It’ll take that piece out of it for the dispatchers and go with the nearest truck,” Capt. Craig Nelson said.

The system will initially be used during daytime hours. It was made possible by New World, a $3.8 million public safety dispatch and record management software system installed in March 2011 for metro-area agencies.

Police to host downtown trends meeting Tuesday

FARGO – The Police Department here will host a public meeting from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday in the City Commission Room at City Hall to discuss downtown crime trends, how they compare to citywide trends and how police have responded this year.

The discussion also will address the department’s downtown surveillance camera project and how it has evolved. Downtown officers and police supervisors will be present to answer questions.

The meeting will be broadcast live on cable channel TV Fargo 12 and online at www.cityoffargo.com/streaming. It also will be recorded and posted on the police department’s website.

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