Pa. leads federal study of future 911 technology

The study also explores the possibilities like residents sending pictures to dispatchers and vests that would detect heart problems

The Sentinel, Carlisle, Pa.

CARLISLE, Pa. — Send a text message to 911, or photographs of emergency scenes to first responders, wear a vest able to alert medical dispatchers if your pacemaker malfunctions — Welcome to the world of Next Generation 911.

It’s a federal initiative designed to update 911 infrastructure for an increasingly technologically advanced society that offers nifty futuristic capabilities.

It also requires potentially costly technology upgrades and, with improper planning, creates the possibility of uneven 911 services from one county to another.

The Cumberland County Commissioners on May 27 approved a study that will form part of an eight-county regional 911 compatibility assessment. Advocates say the assessment will provide a roadmap into an otherwise uncertain 911 technology future.

Texting 911 is lead advance

Texting 911 officers may be the most developed aspect of Next Generation 911. Dauphin and Lancaster counties have already implemented texting with certain cell phone carriers. Among other potential benefits, texting could help the deaf community better communicate with 911, says Cumberland County public safety director Ted Wise.

“It serves the special-needs population in a much better fashion, and ... with the design of (new) phones, texting is becoming the new norm,” Wise said. Some people are simply used to using texting as their primary mode of communication, he said.

The texting technology also could be used to notify 911 when a victim is in a situation where voice calling could be unsafe, perhaps when hiding from a home intruder, officials said.

But texting is just the beginning, says Sid McConahy, director of operations at Mission Critical Partners, which is conducting the regional study. In the near future, residents may be able to send photos to 911 dispatchers, which would help emergency responders quickly determine the appropriate response, McConahy said.

“Picture yourself in a department store trying to tell your wife what a dress is like. A picture is worth a thousand words,” Wise said. “That makes the clarity of the event much easier for (emergency responders) to interpret.”

Technology is also in the works to create vests for people with heart problems that would automatically notify dispatchers of problematic heart rates or pacemaker malfunctions, McConahy said.

Upgrades to county 911 systems could allow centers for vehicle crash notification systems such as OnStar to directly forward alerts to 911, he said. The centers currently must relay crash information orally, he said.

McConahy believes the examples of Next Generation 911 features he outlined are sufficiently advanced to be available within the next five years, he said.

Department of Public Safety Communications Specialist Megan Silverstrim said it is important for Cumberland County to begin preparing for Next Generation 911.

“Technology changes impact our lives daily, and there is an expectation of the public that we change and evolve with it,” Silverstrim said. “The exploration of (Next Generation 911) by Cumberland County is an important step in a path that will allow us to keep pace with these changes and continuing to provide effective and efficient services.”

Regional compatibility study

According to Wise, county 911 systems developed individually over time without a larger regional plan, and with 911 technology changing, that could be a problem. Imagine texting 911 about an emergency without realizing that the county you are currently in does not provide that service.

“We don’t want any caller to be left in any type of cyberspace,” McConahy said.

So the regional compatibility studies, which are being conducted individually in Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, York, Perry, Lebanon and Lancaster counties, are an important first step to implementing the new technology, he said.

Because of the complicated nature of next-generation 911, “we want to take the time to make it right, and make sure we’re meeting all the standards,” Wise said. “It quickly becomes an enormous task to coordinate.”

While technology is “driving the transition,” cost-sharing initiatives could help counties save money in ways unrelated to new technology he said.

Many counties have computerized equipment with greater capacity than they need, so coordinating technology among counties would allow them to share unused capacity and eliminate redundancies, Wise said.

“What is really at the baseline is the reality that we have over-horsepowered our systems across the Commonwealth, and we need to look at controlling our costs, so that we get the biggest return on our investment,” he said.

A coordinated system also would allow calls to be seamlessly transferred in the event of an emergency at a 911 dispatch center, he said. “The big advantage is continuity to the general citizens,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which is working to implement Federal Communications Commission standards for Next Generation 911 upgrades, is pushing for the regional 911 compatibility assessments, Wise said. PEMA believes it will save money long-term to have a regional, planned approach to 911 as new technology develops, he said.

Challenges and costs

Even if regionalization can reduce the cost of upgrading 911 systems, some aspects of new technology make modernization a challenge.

First, Next Generation 911 technology will likely rely on an Internet Protocol-based system that will have to be secured from hacking, McConahy said. It also will have to have the ability to handle a wider range of technology than ever, from rotary telephones to ever-evolving smart phone applications, he said.

The changes needed to accommodate next generation 911 also have associated costs. Software and hardware updates to make the county’s system compatible with others in the region will likely cost less than $500,000, while the texting service would likely cost the county $2,400 to $4,000 per month, he said.

Before authorizing the compatibility study, the county commissioners expressed apprehension about the potential costs of its ultimate recommendations. Chief Clerk Larry Thomas instructed McConahy to provide the commissioners with regular updates of the study’s findings.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is funding the $29,250 cost of Cumberland County’s study through 911 fees paid by telephone owners, and McConahy said PEMA funds will also likely be available to help fund the 911 upgrades. However, wireless phone 911 fees are currently scheduled to sunset at the end of June unless the state legislature passes legislation to extend them.

The eight-county region’s studies likely will be completed by mid-to-late September, after which the public safety directors from the counties will develop a regional plan with short-term, mid-term, and long-term recommendations, he said. The most immediate priorities will likely involve coordinating the 911 systems of the eight counties and making any changes that would improve the safety of first responders, he said.

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