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The future of 911

Theresa Rios takes a call at the KaneComm center in Geneva. Authorities hope the technology to accept texts, photos and video through 911 emergency calls will be available in three to five years.
Theresa Rios takes a call at the KaneComm center in Geneva. Authorities hope the technology to accept texts, photos and video through 911 emergency calls will be available in three to five years.

Text messages have surpassed phone calls, according to industry statistics, with 2.5 billion texts sent each day compared with 2.4 billion mobile phone calls per day.

Worldwide, 6.1 trillion text messages were sent in 2010, said Jennifer Baustian, director of Kane County Emergency Communications, the county’s 911 emergency dispatch center.

And how many texts go to emergency 911 centers? None, she said, because the dispatch center lacks the technology to accept text, photos or video, even in an age where 70 percent of 911 calls are made from mobile phones.

“There are countless examples of situations when talking on the phone to a 911 operator could actually put the caller and others in more danger, further diminishing their chances of survival,” Baustian said at a recent budget presentation to the county board.

“In the Virginia Tech Campus shooting in 2007, students crawled through the carnage, repeatedly trying to text police by sending 911 text messages,” Baustian said. “And no one ever received them.”

Next Generation 911 describes new technology that will allow 911 centers access to the capability of receiving text, photos and streaming video, Baustian said. The latest 911 technology allows for using global positioning systems to plot up to 1,000 feet where a cell call is coming from.

But the next wave is at least three to five years out, and Baustian cautioned the cost to transition to this new technology likely will triple the investment spent on the current 911 infrastructure, with costs “in the millions.”

“In the not-so-distant future, I will likely come before you again, seeking your support on this matter,” Baustian told county board members. “As parents, you spent enough money on that gaudy magenta-colored, rhinestone-encrusted iPhone that your daughter just had to have, please support me in making sure that we can answer the one time she really needs to use it.”

KaneComm dispatches for the fire departments of Big Rock, Burlington, Fox River, Hampshire, Maple Park, Pingree Grove and Kaneville; the police departments of Campton Hills,  Gilberts, Hampshire, Maple Park, Pingree Grove and Wayne; as well as for Fox Valley Park District police, Kane County Forest Preserve police, the Kane County Office of Emergency Management and the Kane County Sheriff’s Office.

Baustian said Kane County has seven 911 centers and two others that serve Kane communities. None of them, she said, can afford the infrastructure for the new technology on their own without consolidating.

Tri-Com Director Stacy Sarna said the new technology would enable 911 phone systems to network with each other. Tri-Com Central Dispatch, a 911 center based in St. Charles, takes emergency calls for Geneva, Batavia and St. Charles police and fire, Elburn police and Elburn Countryside and Fire Protection District.

“Right now, we each have our own phone system, but with a single-button transfer,” Sarna said. “She [Baustian] is talking about a single, massive phone server shared by a fiber line or ... secure Internet. Imagine, when it comes to making a police report, police might be able to view video at the site.”

Not here, but 15 counties in southern Illinois are on the cusp of having that next generation of 911 technology.

Pilot program

Called Counties of Southern Illinois 911 Association, the project based in Jackson County is five years into a pilot program that will go live next spring – if everything lines up as hoped – to test Next Generation 911 as a network in a rural area.

“There are citizens who are walking around with applications they can’t use to access 911 ... a vital service to our citizens,” said Patrick Lustig, director of 911 services for Jackson County. “Next Generation 911 will benefit everybody we serve. Counties and cities need to work together to do this. We all need to move to this next level.”

Jackson County got to be the pilot program through a local company, Clear Wave, that qualified for a federal grant to build the infrastructure for the new 911 technology. The company dedicated $2.1 million to Counties of Southern Illinois for its system, Lustig said. 

“This is the pilot program in North America,” Lustig said. “Nobody else has done it yet.”

The last step before launch is for its plan to be approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission, Lustig said. If they can submit their plan this fall and the review goes smoothly, the earliest it could go live would be next spring, he said.

Lustig said the possibilities for public service would be tremendous.

“Say a bank wants to send us a video with pictures of robbers when there’s an alarm,’’ Lustig said. “With a good enough connection, we could send it to the [police] cars and watch as the bank robbery is going down.”

The technology would be helpful in a car crash, he said.

“OnStar can send us that video, we can take it and send it to the emergency room doctors and they can anticipate what kinds of patients will present,” Lustig said. “They could also identify patients and get health care records so the emergency room doctor can know if a person has a medical condition or, say, a bleeding disorder.”

New technology

Several federal agencies and other groups are also involved in developing the new 911 technology so it can adapt to wireless services.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office’s Next Generation 911 Initiative established the foundation for public emergency communications services for wireless systems.

Its goal is to enable existing 911 call centers to accept emergency information from any network device.

“The overall system architecture has essentially not changed since the first 911 call was made in 1968,” according to its website. “To date, the NG911 Initiative has developed ... engineering architecture that allows for connections to a wide range of new technologies.”

Also involved is the National  Emergency Number Association, a professional organization that promotes implementation and awareness of 911. NENA  is at the forefront of establishing industry standards to facilitate the creation of an Internet Protocol-based Next Generation 911.

Standards will also apply to wireless carriers so that all their equipment will fit the new 911 technology, said Trey Forgety, governmental affairs director for NENA. Laws also need to be adopted to facilitate the change, he said.

“As with anything, the industry changes quickly, regulations don’t,” Forgety said. “NENA’s goal is for citizens to be able to access emergency services from anywhere, any time, any device.”

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