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Cumberland County, Pa., Joins Regional Push to Overhaul 911

The county is now part of a four-county collective working to replace the antiquated emergency phone systems. Officials say the systems are nearing the end of their useful lifespan and must be replaced.

(TNS) — Cumberland County is now part of a regional effort to replace phone systems used for answering 911 calls.

The county commissioners recently approved a resolution to enter into an inter-governmental agreement with the South-Central Inter-County Communications Network or SCIC-Net, Director of Public Safety Bob Shively said Monday.

"It sets the stage for us to work with Dauphin, Adams and Franklin in a four-county partnership for a new phone system," he said. "We've always had a good working relationship. This is a formal agreement that would start to establish the governance between the counties. The next step would be to put out a request for proposal for equipment."

Since Dauphin County is serving as the fiduciary under the agreement, its personnel are handling much of the legwork for the request-for-proposal phase of the project that could go out within the next few months, Shively said. The hope is to have a good selection of vendors submit bids on the equipment needed to upgrade systems across the four counties, he said.

"Our hope would be, through a coordinated effort, we can both save money and have equipment that could be used interchangeably," Shively said. He said money will be drawn from all four counties with shares that will likely be determined based on system needs.

Right now, the four counties routinely process calls made from locations along their common borders or from cellphone calls that have been misrouted into a neighboring county, Shively said. Aside from proximity, the four counties use similar equipment with the same life cycle coming due for replacement, he said.

Typically, manufacturers list the lifespan of 911 phone equipment as five to seven years, Shively said. "Our current system is approaching seven years. The system is stable and under a maintenance contract but, like I said, we're at the point where it makes sense to do a life-cycle replacement. We have all our critical equipment on a replacement plan. As things age, service contracts become more expensive or parts become harder to find. We certainly want to try and get those systems replaced."

SCIC-Net is timing the replacement of the phone systems with a broader initiative by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to move county and regional networks toward Next Generation 911, he said.

Jeff Boyle is deputy director for 911 at PEMA. His office administers funding and establishes standards for 911 centers in the state.

The current infrastructure is decades-old and based on technology that was designed in the 1970s, Boyle said. "It's nearing the end of its useful life and has to be replaced. It really limits the communications at our 911 centers to a voice call."

iPhones and other forms of social media are incompatible with the outdated infrastructure, driving the need for a switchover to a digital system, Boyle said. "As part of the project, we're building a statewide fiber network for public safety."

So far, 911 centers in Clearfield, Crawford, Elk and Erie counties have transitioned to the new technology.

The four counties have reported better audio quality and better location accuracy. Unlike the old technology, the fiber network makes better use of geographic information system mapping to pinpoint callers to first-responders dispatched to the scene, Boyle said. "In addition to that, it's a more reliable network with transfer capabilities."

There are 61 911 centers serving 67 counties in Pennsylvania, Boyle said. While the majority of them serve an individual county, there are cases where two or more counties have consolidated service into one location or have contracted with an adjoining county.

The goal is to have all 61 centers connect with the statewide fiber network within the next 18 months, Boyle said. Hand in hand with the statewide effort is the work of SCIC-Net and other regional clusters of counties to purchase replacement phone equipment that can tie into the fiber network.

"It's a really good step for the four counties to come together," Boyle said of Cumberland, Adams, Dauphin and Franklin. "This is really to going to improve service while saving the counties money."

The statewide fiber network will have the ability to transmit photographs and video direct from an incident. This would enable first-responders to better size-up and prepare ahead of their arrival, Shively said.

Aside from entering Cumberland County into the agreement, the commissioners appointed Brian Hamilton, technical systems manager at the county department of public safety, to the SCIC-Net executive board.

"We have probably been meeting for the better part of a year regarding the formulation of the inter-governmental unit and associated documentation," Shively said.

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