New Voice Alert System Streamlining Call Response

ROANOKE, Va. — Her words tumble from fire station loudspeakers in robotic blocks, ubiquitous enunciations that send fire crews and ambulances rolling down city streets, sirens blaring. Roanoke fire officials claim the voice — feminine, unwavering, precise — contributes to a decrease in response times.

And it comes from a machine; a dispatch tool that draws from a trove of prerecorded street names and commands, bought and paid for with city capital improvement funds. The voice alert system was just one of several new technologies installed at the city fire department in recent months, a move aimed at streamlining call response and keeping radio airwaves clear.

It’s been implemented at fire departments in Los Angeles, Chicago and many other North American cities, pushing emergency dispatch operations into a new era.

In the past, dispatchers answering 911 calls would announce emergencies, then repeat them for crews. As fire trucks and ambulances arrived on scenes, crews radioed back to dispatch, who recorded arrival times. With the new technology, the robotic voice — known affectionately in the Roanoke call center as “Peggy” — dispatches calls over the radio one time. Then, inside the fire stations, electronic signs flash the information crews need to set out for scenes.

Once they arrive, commanders punch several buttons on vehicle computers — paid for by a federal grant of more than $200,000 — to log their arrival times. These computers have been installed in most fire engines, ambulances and response vehicles. One will soon find a place in the city’s newest ladder truck, a near-$1 million behemoth set to take to city streets in coming weeks, fire officials said. The result: Response times have shortened, said Michael Crockett of the emergency call center, though it’s still too early to definitively measure by how much.

Authorities said the new technology would not eliminate any dispatcher positions. Roanoke City Fire-EMS Chief David Hoback said he estimates the new technology cuts response by 15 to 20 seconds.

“It’s more efficient and it allows them to better manage the calls and get more information from the callers,” Hoback said. “It’s been a long time coming. As part of our accreditation, we needed to meet some of our benchmarks.”

The voice alerting system, which came as part of a $350,000 package, was built by Locution Systems, a company based in Denver. The voice files for every street name in Roanoke are stored on a shoe box-sized drive, said Courtney DeWinter, spokeswoman for the company. As for the woman whose voice echoes in fire stations across the country, DeWinter said they keep her identity — save for her first name, Debbie — under wraps.

“She’s very pretty and there are a lot of people who would like to know who she is,” DeWinter said. “We get inquiries all the time about who is she, where is she, and what does she look like.”

One city has arbitrarily named the voice “Mona,” she said. “She’s waking them up, and she has this nice, calm, steady voice that they rely upon,” DeWinter said. “This is a voice that really takes on a persona, and it’s in their lives 24/7.”

As it turns out, Debbie is a 50-year-old woman who records street names as a side gig. She also sings and plays the piano and guitar. Reached by phone, the woman said she got the job with Locution, in part, because she knew the founder of the company.

“I try to maintain a neutral accent, no matter which city I’m recording for,” she said. “The main thing I need to do is keep my voice in good shape.”

In recording the street names, Debbie said she attempts to maintain good diction and clarity. She said she has heard her voice before, while on a visit to a fire station, but admitted she probably couldn’t recall the names of any Roanoke streets. In addition to street names, Hoback said the voice makes an effort to distinguish between similar-sounding names, such as Brandon Avenue and Grandin Road. She also reads out names of major city spots, such as Valley View Mall and Walmart stores.

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