Deadline looms for tech changes in Nebraska 911 services

Inside the North Platte Police 911 call center. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Maps showing the location of fire and police units at the 911 center. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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October 11, 2017 - 6:45am

In five years Nebraska  is scheduled to have technically sophisticated, fully operational 911 services in every county. At least that's the goal.


Lt. Steve Reeves, right, talks with a 911 operator at the North Platte Police Department. (Photos by Bill Kelly, NET News)

 

State 911 director David Sankey addresses the Public Service Commission.

The hope is to provide a system that will allow citizens at an emergency to text and share photos and video with those responding, while making it easier to find where calls originated.

On Dec. 1 the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) will present the Legislature with options for creating a network of local 911 centers which, according to the most recent draft report, will provide “a consistent level of service in a cost-effective manner.”

“It’s going to be a costly process,” said Lt. Steve Reeves, managing the 911 center for the North Platte Police Department.

Over the next five years state costs could reach $8.1 million, in addition to increased annual expenses for local governments. Surcharges paid by telephone customers, both wireless and landlines, would increase under any of the options before the Legislature. (Current landline 911 fees vary by local government, ranging from $.50 to $1 per month per telephone number. Currently the wireless surcharge for enhanced 911 is $.50 per month on each telephone number in service.)

Local 911 centers, some within one county’s borders and others formed by adjoining counties, will follow up with equipment purchases and procedures to make sure their systems are able to talk with the statewide emergency communications network and provide emergency back-up for others when needed.

“The plan that we are developing is focusing on regionalization,” said David Sankey, the state’s 911 director for the PSC.

“It is sharing of services and sharing of equipment and resources,” Sankey said. “It’s cost effective and it allows the locations to make the decision on whether they want to keep operating as a PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) or not. It’s their decision.”

The plan for next generation 911 was prepared by a public safety consulting firm Mission Critical Partners from Pennsylvania. A draft of the report released in September summarized the challenges of the aging emergency communications systems in many states.

“Technology advancement in 911 is playing catch-up to private sectors,” the report stated. “Citizens currently have expectations of the technology used in their day-to-day lives.” That includes easy-to-use texting, sharing of photos and data, and super-precise mapping in even remote locations.

While the specifics of next generation 911 are still in flux for Nebraska, there is broad agreement on the ways emergency communications could benefit.

  • Ability to text to 911 and share photos and video.
  • Fewer 911 busy signals during emergencies.
  • Improved training for 911 operators.

Texting

Nebraska law enforcement hears lots of questions about the limited use of 911 texting.

At the dispatch center managed by the North Platte Police Department, 911 operators can get a text on their personal phone from their spouse about dinner. That’s not possible if a neighbor hopes to quietly text a report to police about an intruder in their home to police.

“If you try and text the North Platte 911 center at this point you will not get through,” Reeves said.

Most counties face the same problem. (The first tests of a text-to-911 system were in 2012)

The exceptions are Douglas and Buffalo counties, accepting 911 texts since January 2015, and Sarpy County which added the capability earlier this year.

Sankey said the public has “expectations now-a-days with smart phones and all the data they have readily available to them. They want to be able to communicate with 911 centers with those smart phones.”

As the next generation of 911 systems evolve in Nebraska, more counties plan to install necessary computer network servers and software packages. All centers will eventually make it possible for 911 operators to receive photos, video, documents and other data from citizens which might prove helpful to first responders.

According to Reeves, witnesses could provide images to emergency workers who “might be able to assess the extent of the injuries, the extent of the damage to the cars, maybe an image of a hazmat placard” providing crucial information before they arrive at the location.

Acquiring that technology will be the responsibility of individual 911 operations (known as Public Safety Access Points or PSAPs). How state and local money is divided to make those acquisitions is still in question. Funding comes from a combination of state funding, property tax collections and surcharges collected from cell phone and land-line customers.

It will be expensive. On average, the state’s consultant estimates it will cost each 911 center $15,000 to set up the system and $16,000 to keep it running every year after.

Busy Signals

In some Nebraska 911 centers a minor emergency risks overloading the system.

At the center serving North Platte and Lincoln County, where Interstate 80 accidents and severe weather are common emergencies, a busy signal when dialing 911 “is not unusual.”

“If we had an accident on the interstate and we have four 911 trunks (or lines) and 10 people try and call us, your 911 call could very well go unanswered,” Reeves said.

With regionalization, Reeves explained “we have the availability to tell this equipment, ‘hey, if all of North Platte’s calls ring busy send my calls to Dawson County.’”

Compatible equipment with the neighboring 911 centers will allow one center swamped with calls to route the overflow to another location.

The same would apply if a center is temporarily taken out of service because of a weather or equipment emergency.

Most 911 centers in Nebraska have signed agreements with plans to acquire the technology for emergency back-ups.

Training 911 Operators

There is nearly universal agreement to require 911 operators obtain standardized training and certification testing. It was mandated by state law in 2016.

Buffalo County Sheriff Neal Miller, an advocate of local control of 911 operations, said this is one of the most important roles the state should regulate.

“We need someone at the state level who can coordinate a level of service that is the same across the state,” Miller said. “We need to look at a level of consistency, and there needs to be standards in place. There needs to be standards.”

With new generation systems, operators work with sophisticated communications equipment and mapping software. High-tech dispatch centers will also make new demands on the operators already required to make split-second decisions when responding to high-tension situations.

With the added technology, an operator may be called on to evaluate what videos or photos might be of greatest value to emergency crews.

“It will be critical that only the most relevant information be forwarded so as not to “overload” responders with a great deal of information,” the consultant’s report observed. Considering both the judgments and the technical process will be important “to ensure appropriate training can be developed.”

“We want to establish training standards so that all dispatchers are taught the same way to the same level,” state 911 director Sankey said.

Discussion

 

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