For most people, knowing how the 911 system works isn’t important; it just has to work when they need it. But as our landline phones gave way to cellphones and cellphones evolved into smartphones, 911 centers have had to adapt to the changing environment to provide consistent, dependable service.
And in the foothills of Northern California, a cluster of municipalities is looking toward a networked 911 system that will eventually allow them to accept streaming video, text messages and, of course, the voice call.
Through an intergovernmental agency agreement (IAA) the cities of Auburn, Lincoln, Rocklin and Roseville will be linked with Placer County in a next-generation 911 system.
Sandra Bumpus, division commander for the Support Services Division of the Rocklin Police Department, said the joint city networking project will ultimately be a vast step toward modernizing a largely unchanged emergency system. While she said the project will bring much needed changes to the legacy systems sprinkled throughout the region, she noted that the upgrade is more akin to bringing the system in line with modern needs than it is making it “cutting edge.”
“The current 911 system was rolled out in 1968, and other than enhancing the system to begin to receive what’s called enhanced 911 ... this system has not been upgraded since that time,” she said. “It really doesn’t have the capability to receive digital communications; it’s an analog system.”
Under the IAA, two host sites will be stationed in the city of Roseville and in the Placer County Sheriff’s Office. Satellite sites will be stationed in Auburn, Lincoln and Rocklin.
Bumpus, who has been assigned to the project since it began in 2012 and served as project manager since 2014, jokingly referred to the upgrade as the “lead balloon project.” Not only was approval from California Office of Emergency Services required, but she said each of the stakeholders also had to identify system requirements and wait for their funding cycles to line up before moving forward.
“Once we all got on the same funding cycle and identified what we needed, what we were looking for and how we were going to make it happen, we created what’s called an intergovernmental agency agreement that speaks specifically not only to the phone system, but in the future any technology that could possibly benefit public safety in the region and could be shared,” she said.
The municipalities and county created a 911 committee to begin looking ahead at the cooperative effort and future needs.
“There was a lot of moving parts just to get five agencies to identify the same principles and concepts that they wanted to abide by,” Bumpus said. “So we’re moving forward; we anticipate the host sites to be installed sometime in the spring and the entire system to be completely functional, I’m hoping, by July 2016.”
The new system will be capable of expanding to the technological needs of constituents, Bumpus said, and should operators be unable to answer a call within a certain time threshold, the system will automatically transfer callers to more available, nearby centers.
“All of law enforcement, especially in California, is moving to a next-generation 911 system that is capable of receiving streaming video and OnStar, digital communications and texts to 911, things like that that our community requires," she added. "Today we don’t really communicate by phone, we communicate by text 99 percent of the time.”
Unlike some states on the East Coast, Bumpus said the size of California makes coordinating 911 systems like this one difficult.
“California, being one of the largest states in the union, has not been able to go there," she said. "However, we’re on the verge of the state being able to push through some of these next-generation features."
Though the modernization effort will mean considerable upfront costs associated with equipment implementation and potential infrastructure build-out, Bumpus said the new system could lead to cost savings in the long run. The state, she added, has awarded $1.76 million for the project.
"If the infrastructure doesn't currently exist, then we'll have to plot T1 lines and whatever form of transmission that we need to get all of the agencies networked," she said. "Over time, it will be a money savings for the state of California as they begin the next cycle."
Because funding for the 911 system is distributed on five-year cycles, Bumpus said the state could theoretically begin to look at funding in totality as a result of the more virtualized network.
Across the country in Charleston County, S.C., officials moved toward a completely consolidated system, merging the county’s 11 communication and 911 centers into one building.
Jim Lake, director of the Charleston Consolidated 911 Center, said the shift away from individual agency centers to a unified model took a substantial consolidated effort on the part of police, fire and emergency medical services officials, but ultimately boosted efficiencies and cooperation. The consolidation effort began in 2009 and was completed in 2013.
“Between those 11 different centers, they were all processing pieces of a call. For example, if you lived in one area, you would dial 911 and it would go to the sheriff’s office 911 center; they would then say, ‘This is an EMS call,' and would transfer it to EMS, [which] would process the call, dispatch the ambulance, notify Fire and then Fire would go,” he said. “By the time the caller had called in to the time Fire got dispatched was seven to eight minutes.”
Since the consolidation, the call center has seen substantial improvements in call handling times, according to documents provided by Lake. Emergency calls answered during the busiest hour within 10 seconds went from a low of 67 percent in 2011 to a 94 percent in 2013.
According to the same document, the percentage of abandonned calls went from a high of 16 percent in 2009 and 2011 to a low of 6 percent in 2014.
Though Charleston's consolidated system is a step beyond what is planned for the cluster of California cities, Bumpus said the IAA committee will continue to review all of the options and needs moving forward.