How to Buy...
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How to buy police CAD
By Tim Dees
Selection of a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system may be the most critical administrative decision a police manager makes. Choose the wrong one, and you throw a monkey wrench into your department's efficiency. You will also spend a lot of money on something that doesn't work, and your superiors won't forget that.
CAD systems are difficult to evaluate, because their specs indicate they all perform the same tasks. Critical factors include scaling to your needs, compatibility with any existing records system, functionality with your state's switcher, software stability, and user interface. Here are three essential factors to consider when purchasing a CAD system.
1. Features: Modules
Most systems are supplied in modules, where you can pick and choose among the options you need. These modules are not created equal. Even the best vendors have modular applications that are the red-headed stepchildren of the group and just won't work well. CAD systems frequently integrate with overall records management systems (RMS), so take into account any of the RMS modules you may be considering and ensure those work well enough for you.
2. Features: Compatibility
Sales presentations at your site can be misleading, especially if the audience isn't technically sophisticated. The salesperson with the snappiest presentation may not have the snappiest software. Ask potential vendors to identify an existing customer with an operation similar to yours, preferably one in your state. Do a site visit and talk to the people who use and administer the system. Take some of your dispatchers and cops with you, because they are ultimately the people who are going to have to make this work.
Each state maintains a switcher through which passes all data traffic to the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the International Justice & Public Safety Network (also known as NLETS), and is integrated with any regional or state database or records system in place. The switchers are usually managed by your state's department of justice or state police. No two switchers are configured exactly the same way, so a CAD system that works splendidly in one state may not work in your state. Sometimes it can be useful to work with a vendor that has a proven, working system like the one you intend to buy in place in your state.
If your CAD system fails—and it will fail—what kind of support does your vendor offer? It is not unreasonable to demand telephone and/or online support 24/7. A few vendors support regional user's groups that meet periodically throughout the year to discuss common issues and workarounds. A good vendor will have a representative at those meetings so that permanent fixes and software upgrades are always in the pipeline. All things considered, favorable reports from existing customers are your best recommendation.
Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.