Texting Just Beginning of Next Generation 911

Callers will be able to send photos to communications centers, but additional upgrades are required.

June 11--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."

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