Although not one of the largest counties in Georgia by size, Fulton County boasts the largest population in the state. A large part of that is due to the city of Atlanta – one of the top 20 largest cities on the east coast – falling mostly within county limits and also serving as both state capitol and county seat.
Making up 90 percent of the city of Atlanta and much of its surrounding metro areas, Fulton County has to protect, serve and provide citizen services to almost one million individuals. This is a difficult job to do for all major cultural, economic and transportation hubs, and one that has been exacerbated in recent years by tight budgets and decreased revenues.
To help increase cost efficiency and operate more effectively, Fulton has turned to new technologies that lower the cost of doing business while also making their officials and county employees more effective. And one of these technologies is video teleconferencing (VTC), which is being utilized by the county for two specific uses – video arraignment in courts and disaster preparedness and planning – with great results.
First, let’s look at Fulton’s video arraignment program.
Whenever someone is arrested and placed in a county jail, they need to go before a judge to be officially read the charges against them and plead “guilty” or “not guilty” in a process known as arraignment.
In the past, this process involved the movement of prisoners from the jail to the courthouse by the Sheriff’s Department. This creates a few problems. First, the removal of the prisoner from the jail – even under strict supervision by sheriffs and deputies – provides an opportunity for escape or the injury of innocent civilians.
Second, the actual process of escorting prisoners from jail to the courthouse is long and arduous and not the best use of a sheriff or deputy’s time. On days with a large number of new prisoners in need of arraignments, corrections and police resources could be tied up for hours simply transporting prisoners from cells to arraignments – which keeps those same resources from focusing on higher value work, like solving cases.
At other times, judges and attorneys have had to enter secure areas to hold court inside the jail causing delays, inconvenience, and risk to the parties having to enter prisoner areas.
By conducting arraignments via video from a room in the jail facility, Fulton has effectively eliminated all of those problems. Prisoners now step into a small room with a VTC endpoint that connects them to both their lawyer and a judge. The arraignment can then play out without the need to ever transport the prisoner out of the jail.
This not only greatly reduces the chance of escape by eliminating the costly transportation of potentially violent criminals from security facilities, but frees up police resources to do their jobs by cutting down the number of prisoner transports that are required.
This technology isn’t just being used for arraignments, however. Fulton County is also finding other ways to expand the program and derive more cost savings from video in courtrooms.
One way is through expert testimony through video – a process in which out-of-town or out-of-state experts are brought into the courtroom to testify via video. This eliminates the need for state’s witnesses to travel to the courtroom at the taxpayer’s expense, and also greatly reduces the impact on their productivity.
When it comes to Fulton County, VTC isn’t only for courts. They’re also seeing benefits and cost savings from another use of their VTC investment: disaster response and preparedness.
Most counties in Georgia – including Fulton – are home to an emergency operations center, where emergency response personnel meet to plan and coordinate the county’s response to natural disasters and other emergencies. These centers are hubs of activity when planning for large special events – such as the occasional Summer Olympics. They’re also the central nerve center for the organization and response to emergencies when they occur.
When planning for major events, counties work together and collaborate, since multiple jurisdictions are often affected, or need to otherwise share resources. In the past, this meant that representatives from each county needed to physically travel to a central location for in-person meetings. This kept them from doing their jobs and cost taxpayers money.
Today, the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency (AFCEMA) and other counties are using VTC for collaboration and communication between emergency operations centers. This eliminates the need to travel and also makes it easier for Ad-Hoc meetings and face-to-face discussions – which is important since many natural disasters and emergencies don’t occur with prior warning. Ultimately, connecting emergency operations centers via video saves taxpayers money and ensures a more collaborative, coordinated response to emergency situations – improving citizen safety and helping save lives when disaster strikes.
As a major population center and hub of culture, travel and business, Fulton County faces many difficult challenges and has many responsibilities to its almost one million residents. By utilizing new technologies like VTC across different facets of its public services, the county is not only saving budget dollars that can go to other purposes, but is making its employees more effective while making its citizens safer.