For 40 years, 9-1-1 emergency dispatch centers have operated using mostly the same technology and methods: accepting phone calls, getting a description from frantic callers and relaying information by radio to police, firefighters and paramedics.
That is about to change, big time.
Locally and nationwide, 9-1-1 systems are in for a transformation that, not so long ago, would ‘ve seemed more likely in a Jetsons cartoon.
Next Generation 911, as the trend is called, is going to revolutionize how dispatchers and first responders handle emergencies and how the public reports them. Manatee and Sarasota counties(Fla.) are moving toward adopting the new systems. Manatee already has a state grant for up to $600,000 to partially cover its conversion costs. It will soon put out a request for proposals to get an idea of what the full cost may be.
Imagine dispatchers being able to get not just audio, but video, still photos, emails and text messages from callers with smartphones; pinpoint the callers’ precise locations not just by street address, but even inside a building as more cellphones include global positioning systems; and seeing what a surveillance camera is showing, in real time, if a trespasser is on school grounds or a robber is inside a bank.
Imagine all that additional information being fed directly by dispatchers to the computer screens seen by first responders on their way to an accident or a crime scene.
“All the technology is there,” said Gerry Wheeler, Sarasota County’s public safety communications manager. “The issue is the time it takes to design it, procurement and coming up with the money to do it. These are not inexpensive solutions.”
The conversion from a conventional 9-1-1 system will cost each county in the millions. Yet, just as progress compelled people to give up rotary phones and for communications companies to start replacing copper lines with fiber optic cables, the change is considered inevitable.
“This stuff is coming,” said Ron Koper, Manatee County’s public safety director. “The state of Florida is not requiring it—yet. But, at some point, they are going to require it.”
Regardless, current 9-1-1 equipment is going to become obsolete, Koper said. Replacement parts will become scarcer and no longer manufactured.
Emergency operations centers have to periodically upgrade anyway, he said, so they may as well do so to accept the communications methods that more and more of the public are using.
The regional approach
Throughout Florida and the nation, at the urging of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration and other federal agencies, communities are exploring how their 9-1-1systems must adjust for the future.
Sarasota and Manatee counties are part of a six-county Tampa Bay group that is coming together to work on a regional plan.
Currently, the 9-1-1 systems for those counties are served by two Verizon routers in Tampa. Within milliseconds, those routers determine the location from which a call comes and sends it to the closest 9-1-1 center, Koper said.
That system is largely built on “a spider’s web of copper lines” and designed primarily for landline calls, Koper said. It can ascertain from which tower a cellphone call is sent but cannot get more specific, which is increasingly becoming a disadvantage.
Koper estimates that, of the 250,000 calls Manatee’s 9-1-1 operators handle yearly, about 75 percent now come from wireless phones.
The six Tampa Bay counties are talking about creating their own regional Internet Protocol router. Whatever could possibly be sent over the Internet, 9-1-1 centers could receive it “at lightning fast speeds,” Koper said.
Two regional routers would be required, at possibly more than $5 million each, Koper said.
Then each county will have to invest in new hardware and software as well, which surely will be in the millions, too, Koper said. And some locales may need more fiber optic cable in the ground.
Municipalities that are still handling their own 9-1-1 calls, such as Bradenton and Longboat Key, will have to be consulted to see if it may be more economically feasible for them to let the upgraded county systems take those calls as well.
Sarasota County is still constructing a $15 million storm-resistant building to which its 9-1-1 center will relocate.
After that move is completed next year, it can focus more on its Next Generation 9-1-1 strategy, Wheeler said. “There’s a limit to how many new things you can do at once.”
In the meantime, even without a regional IP router in place, Sarasota County expects to work with one of its existing vendors for its 9-1-1 dispatchers to soon accept text messages.
That text-to-9-1-1 technology is being widely favored by the deaf, Wheeler and Koper said.
Collier County, considered on the forefront of Next Generation conversions, began accepting text messages from Verizon cellular customers this month and is working on arrangements with other carriers, Cmdr. Bill Rule of the Collier Sheriff’s Office said.
It has already contracted with firms to work on fully expanding into IP technology.
Like any substantial change in how a system operates, Next Generation 911 will have its challenges and perhaps shortcomings.
“How do dispatchers deal with seeing things they are not used to seeing?” Koper said, noting that many of the incoming images and videos from accidents and crime scenes will be gruesome.
Currently, recordings of 9-1-1 calls are public records. Koper said counties will have to determine how their emergency operation centers will store the volumes of multimedia information to be received from multiple sources and how to handle public records requests.
Even with some unanswered questions for now, “it’s going to be worth the effort,” Koper said. “This is coming. I’d say, within five years, we’ll all be there.”