August 6, 2010 By Russell Nichols
Decades ago, answering 911 calls was a fairly straightforward process: Citizens who were in trouble dialed the emergency number from land line phones, and local police, fire and medical teams responded. That's what 911 systems were created for.
But these analog systems -- some built half a century ago -- have been left behind by technology advances, such as text, video and photo. But those new technologies aren't easily integrated into 911. For instance, calls from mobile phones take longer than land lines to route because it's hard for 911 call centers to pinpoint locations of wireless and IP-based phones. And in an emergency, every minute matters.
As the push to upgrade these systems remains a priority for a number of local and state governments, California's Office of the State Chief Information Officer (OCIO) has released its strategic plan, a road map to the development of the state's next generation of 911 services.
"The strategic plan sets the stage to ensure the 911 program moves forward," said Karen Wong, deputy director of the Public Safety Communications Division with the OCIO. "There's a lot to be worked out."
Despite the economic climate, numerous local and state agencies across the country have implemented strategies to improve 911 systems, such as aerial images to locate callers who need help and unified paging alerts to keep dispatchers and emergency responders connected. Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced a $40 million grant to help 911 call centers route calls from wireless phones and IP-based phones more quickly and efficiently. Virginia, as another example, is in the process of a multimillion-dollar program to purchase new equipment and services to enhance its 911 centers and improve services over an IP network.
Established 40 years ago, California's legacy system is strictly voice only, Wong said. But in the past decade, technological developments have expanded the way people communicate, and state officials seek to integrate those methods to enhance emergency response services.
According to state officials, this network will make it possible to pinpoint callers based on geographic coordinates and enhance the delivery of information to emergency responders via texting, instant messaging, and picture and video delivery, to name a few. For public safety answering points (PSAPs) -- the centers that take and answer 911 calls -- more information means better service faster.
"When there's a disaster in California, we'll be able to easily move calls from one PSAP to another," Wong said. "It also provides the public with additional ways to access emergency assistance."
The next phase, she said, requires working with stakeholders to determine the best approach for the 911 network. It's too soon to determine a timeline. Given the state's large size and geographic diversity, Wong said, officials still have to figure out whether it will be a statewide or regional implementation.
"We have a lot of rural areas in California," Wong said. "It's a consistent challenge to public safety communications as a whole."
In April, California deployed the Emergency Call Tracking System (ECaTS), a solution that could cut the time it takes to gather the state's 911 call data from months to a matter of minutes. The secure, Web-based management tool can report on all 911 PSAPs in an entire county, jurisdiction or state, giving clients quick access to key stats: call volume, frequency, type, geographical trends, etc. The strategic plan represents the next step in ushering the state's 911 call centers into the 21st century.
"While the existing 911 network and system remains a success story, it has been stretched to its limit because of relentless technology advances," wrote California CIO Teri Takai. "And so it's time now to support the exciting new technologies with a new, state-of-the-art 911 network for California."
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