North Carolina Sets Aggressive Pace to Phase Out 911 Tech from the 1960s

Cellphones have been incredibly disruptive to 911 call centers. From pinpointing caller locations to things like text messaging and video capabilities, many jurisdictions are having to adapt to meet a growing constituency of mobile devices.

by / September 22, 2017
Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology

In the pre-mobile device days of 911, systems could identify the address of a caller and that was enough. There was a physical location tied to every call made from a landline telephone. But today, calls come from everywhere through mobile phones, adding a level of complexity that has left many 911 centers at a loss. 

What’s more is that a phone's mobility no longer makes it easy to pinpoint a specific caller’s location using systems that date back to the 1960s — not ideal in situations where lives are on the line. Fold in the clunky and often unreliable transfer technology among various regional centers, and you've got a concerning problem.

But over the next three years, the state of North Carolina will be updating its 117 call centers to not only adapt to the needs of modern technology, but also add capabilities that are more in line with the trends they are seeing from the public.

As it stands, 75 percent of the state’s calls for emergency service are placed on a mobile device, and that number is only expected to grow.

“The challenge has been that we have three major phone carriers in North Carolina, so you are going to be moving everybody off of that level of technology and onto this new digital platform. The cost and the coordination of doing that has just taken a lot,” said Bill Holmes, director of Legislative and Public Affairs for the Department of Information Technology. “Add to that the fact that it is 911 and you don’t want to miss even one call that comes in, and so you have to do a lot of extra planning on top of what you would do for just a normal sort of technology transfer.”

The state’s plan takes the form of a unified, Internet-based routing service that will allow the various centers to transfer information seamlessly. It will cost $99 million, but it’s a cost that cannot be delayed, given the current mesh of systems. While it allows centers to send and receive information about the calls they receive, Holmes said it is far from perfect.

Too often, information captured by one dispatcher is dropped when passed along to the appropriate call center. For example, Holmes said, if a dispatcher in the Raleigh center takes a call that should have gone to the town of Holly Springs, certain portions of the caller’s information could be lost when passed along to Holly Springs dispatchers.

Though the situation in North Carolina is far from unusual in a time where webs of legacy systems are coming up against new and increasingly popular technology, he said there is no room for error when it comes to emergency calls.

“Technology is having to evolve to how the calls are coming in and where they are coming in from,” Holmes said. “That’s not unusual for 911 systems, but the technology is there. We’re getting it up to that level. So, now if a call goes in to Raleigh and it’s supposed to go to Holly Springs and they transfer it, then everything they have collected at the Raleigh center goes with it.”

The new system will eventually allow for things like text messaging and sending videos or photos. Holmes said technologists are currently working on a solution that would allow dispatchers to view text messages in real-time without the would-be sender having to physically push send, but Holmes said they have not ironed out the details completely.

And ultimately, making changes to 911 systems is easier said than done. In North Carolina, officials have grappled with the idea since 2000. And even now, when AT&T has been engaged to streamline the process, questions remain and coordination is needed. Questions like: where to start?

Where rural areas are more in need of the technological upgrades, Holmes said, metropolitan areas see higher call volumes. The actual implementation will undoubtedly be a piece-by-piece undertaking wherever they choose to begin. “They haven’t decided how that is going to go yet,” he said.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.

NEW ON THE PODCAST

Tech Startups Can Help Revitalize Both Ends of Your Ballot