Public Safety & Homeland Security

Pennsylvania Counties Hatch 911 Tech Sharing Plan

Municipalities in western Pennsylvania are establishing a regional emergency services network centered on next-generation 911 equipment upgrades.

by Brian Heaton / December 14, 2011

Emergency management agencies are taking a regional approach to public safety in western Pennsylvania, as 10 counties plan to use a shared next-generation 911 system by early 2013.

Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Mercer, Somerset and Westmoreland counties will be linked on a network with access to the same 911 technology, giving each of the counties in the conglomerate the ability to accept emergency text and video messages.

Frank Matis, director of Butler County Emergency Services, said the idea was sprung when Allegheny and Mercer did their own 911 system upgrades. Various counties in the region then reached out to one another and the state — which oversees the 911 program of each county — about a way to share the technology throughout the western part of Pennsylvania.

Mission Critical Partners, a public safety communications consultant, is doing an assessment on the technology and policy needs of each county to create a governance model on how to implement the partnership. The evaluation will identify how costs would be distributed among the counties, including whether the best model is based on population, call volume or other factors.

Matis said it isn’t clear yet whether the region would be using the call capacity and newer 911 switches — which route emergency calls to the appropriate operator — owned by Allegheny and Butler counties, or if additional equipment would be purchased to serve the group’s needs. But the partnership will have access to the latest technology at a fraction of the cost it would be to purchase individually.

Through the state, the counties are getting some help from Uncle Sam to make the plan a reality. A $2.5 million federal grant was awarded to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which will be used to help purchase whatever equipment is needed to establish the regional network.

Brian Bark, senior vice president of Mission Critical Partners, said 911 switch redundancy is a paramount factor to make the network viable. The consultancy will be designing a system that has two or three centralized 911 switches so that if one fails, another is ready to pick up the slack for all counties on the system.

But exactly how many switches will be used and where they’ll be located is still up in the air.

“Today [the counties] own their own 911 switches and each one of them cost $250,000,” Bark said. “The new switches have capacity to support 150 911 workstations. So if you have a network in place, one switch could potentially support 10 to 15 counties.”

The financial savings are an obvious advantage in a time where local government budgets are continually shrinking. But there will be other positives. Matis said the ability to immediately restore service in the event of a catastrophe is one critical benefit the shared use of emergency technology will have for Butler County.

“We obviously have a restoration plan, but it would take several days to get it all operational,” Matis admitted. “When we’re sharing this 911 equipment, it would be extremely easy to have our calls transferred and answered in another county. It would be almost instantaneous.”

More Applications Planned

Ultimately while 911 systems were the kick-start for the equipment-sharing idea, Bark said it’s likely only the first application that will result.

As the network’s infrastructure is built, in addition to the 911 technology, Bark and Matis said other applications such as GIS, an emergency notification system, voice loggers and computer-aided dispatch systems and their data can eventually be tied into the network.

Bark explained that while creating a network for shared services isn’t a novel idea, he felt most municipalities that do it only put one application on it. But what the western Pennsylvania counties are trying to do is establish an all-encompassing public safety network.

“It’s complex, it’s not easy, but just the fact these folks are stepping up to work together and to see the coordination and the foresight and vision they have and to be part of it is pretty rewarding for us,” Bark said.