This page describes how to set up a responder call-in system for free using a Google Voice number.
What is it?
Responder call-in systems are a relatively new service offered to volunteer fire departments. They are available commercially from a number of providers. When a fire department is paged for a call, responders speed-dial a phone number from their cellular (or home) phones. This tells the call-in system that they are responding to the call, and a list of who is responding is displayed on a website. Most departments place a screen showing this website in a convenient location at the fire station so that as soon as they get to there they can see who else is on the way. These systems help improve responses by ensuring that trucks don’t roll when additional people are on the way, and by helping incident commanders make early decisions about when to call for mutual aid resources. By dialing different phone numbers or entering in a touch-tone code, responders are able to call in with different status codes such as “responding to the station”, “responding to the scene”, “delayed response”, etc.
Doing it for free
These commercially available systems are great, but they also cost money. A lot of small departments are too cash-strapped to be able to afford them. This page will show how to get a rudimentary call-in system set up for free using Google Voice. This free method doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles of the commercial systems, but it does provide the basic functionality.
The first thing to do is sign up for a Google Voice account, which will also get you a Gmail account automatically. When you sign up for a Google Voice account, you’ll be assigned a phone number. This phone number is designed to be a number that you can have forwarded to your cell phone, etc. You’ll need to associate your Google Voice number with a cell phone number in order to get the account set up.
Once you have your Google Voice phone number, you’ll adjust your settings so that calls made to that number will go straight to voicemail, and you’ll have Google Voice send missed call and voicemail notifications to your Gmail inbox.
When someone calls your Google Voice phone number and hangs up, you’ll get an email in your inbox.
Next, add everyone you want to use the system as a “Contact” in your Gmail account, and put their cell phone number in their contact information. By doing this, their name will show up in the “missed call” emails instead of just their phone number.
When you get a fire call, everyone can dial your Google Voice number. When the voicemail answers, they just hang up. Then, you can display your Gmail inbox on a monitor in your fire station. A new email will show up for each responder that calls in. After the call, simply delete the emails and you’re ready for the next call again.
Using the Gmail inbox as your call-in display is a bit primitive, but it will work. If you want to get a little fancier, you can create a web page that will check your inbox, parse the emails, and display the relevant information in a little bit more pleasing format. Here is some simple example code, with a screenshot below.
Sample PHP Webpage Display
Note: Google Voice does have its own inbox that displays missed calls. However, I’ve found that it doesn’t automatically refresh (or if it does, not fast enough), so to get a faster response time, forward the missed call and voicemail notifications go your Gmail inbox, which will show them much sooner without manually refreshing.
Google Voice Settings
Here are some of the relevant settings that you’ll want to configure in Google Voice:
Phones-> Uncheck all boxes so that calls placed to your Google Voice account will not be forwarded to your cell phone or to Google Chat
Voicemail & Text -> Voicemail Notifications -> Check the box to email you a message when you have a new voicemail. You can also check the box to forward text messages if your firefighters would prefer using a text messaging shortcut (from a smartphone) instead of a speed dial.
Calls->Missed Calls->Check the “send missed calls to my email” box
By setting up multiple Google Voice accounts that all forward their missed calls to a common email address, it’s possible to have different numbers to call for different response status codes. For example, you could call 555-555-1234 to log in as “responding” and call 555-555-1235 to log in as “delayed”. To do this, use the “labels” feature of Gmail to mark emails from each forwarding account with a different label corresponding to each status code.
You could also use text messages (with automatic send shortcuts on a smartphone) to indicate different status codes. However, not everyone has a smartphone with “speed text” capability, so this may not work for everyone. On the other hand, all phones have some type of speed dial capability.