Balto. Co. to re­ceive $4M grant for up­grades to 911 equip­ment

State pro­vides funds for Next Gen­er­a­tion sys­tem

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Pamela Wood Bal­ti­more Sun re­porter Yvonne Wenger con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle. pwood@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/pwoodreporter

Bal­ti­more County will re­ceive $4 mil­lion from the state to up­grade its 911 equip­ment, part of a na­tional ef­fort to al­low op­er­a­tors to re­ceive texts, photos and videos and to pro­vide bet­ter lo­ca­tional data that can im­prove emer­gency re­sponses by en­sur­ing that callers are di­rected to the right dis­patch­ers.

Ju­ris­dic­tions across the state are get­ting the hard­ware needed to im­ple­ment Next Gen­er­a­tion 911, though of­fi­cials cau­tion it will be at least a few years be­fore tex­ting and other fea­tures are fully im­ple­mented for Mary­land 911 op­er­a­tions.

Anne Arun­del, Har­ford, Howard and Car­roll coun­ties have al­ready re­ceived money for new 911 phones; Bal­ti­more city’s phone up­grade is in the works.

The Bal­ti­more County Coun­cil for­mally ap­proved ac­cep­tance of the state grant Tues­day. The money comes from the state’s Emer­gency Num­ber Sys­tems Board, which col­lects a fee from phone users.

Lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions have had prob­lems with 911 ser­vice in re­cent years, in­clud­ing callers — who in­creas­ingly use cell­phones — be­ing sent to the wrong dis­patch cen­ter. That has been a par­tic­u­lar is­sue for in­ci­dents that oc­cur near ju­ris­dic­tional lines, such as in Bal­ti­more near city and county lines.

The new text and video ca­pa­bil­i­ties also can be im­por­tant in cri­sis sit­u­a­tions, said Rob Stradling, di­rec­tor of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy for Bal­ti­more County gov­ern­ment. He said some callers might not be able to talk, point­ing to the Pulse night­club shoot­ing in Orlando, where peo­ple were trapped and hid­ing from a gun­man.

Un­der Next Gen­er­a­tion 911, peo­ple would be able to text 911 with­out alert­ing as­sailants or in­trud­ers.

Call-tak­ers at Bal­ti­more County’s 911 cen­ter in Tow­son an­swered nearly 863,000 calls last year. About three-quar­ters were 911 calls, with the rest com­ing in on a non­emer­gency num­ber.

Us­ing the state grant money, the county’s phone sys­tem up­grade is set to be com­pleted by Septem­ber 2017.

Of­fi­cials say there are ad­di­tional steps that need to hap­pen be­fore the county — or any other 911 cen­ter in Mary­land — is able to re­ceive and re­spond to texts, pic­tures and videos sent from cell­phones. Once phones are up­graded, soft­ware is needed to han­dle those types of com­mu­ni­ca­tions. In the next few years, the county will make those up­grades as well.

Cell­phone com­pa­nies also have to do work on their end to be able to de­liver the text mes­sages from the cel­lu­lar sys­tems into the 911 sys­tems. “Right now, it’s not there yet,” Stradling said.

And guide­lines need to be de­vel­oped for how 911 call-tak­ers re­spond to texts, photos and videos.

“What do you do with it af­ter you get it? How do you pop the in­for­ma­tion on the screen for the call-taker to do any­thing with it?” Stradling said.

Fi­nally, he said, the pub­lic will need to be ed­u­cated in how Next Gen­er­a­tion 911 works, and how to make use of its new tools.

Stradling es­ti­mated it could be at least two years be­fore Next Gen­er­a­tion 911 is in place.

Scott Roper, di­rec­tor of the state’s Emer­gency Sys­tems Num­bers Board, which over­sees 911 sys­tems, said Next Gen­er­a­tion 911 will be a re­al­ity “in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture.”

The phone sys­tem up­grades are funded by the state’s 911 Trust Fund, ad­min­is­tered by the Emer­gency Sys­tems Num­bers Board. For peo­ple with monthly phone bills, $1 is col­lected on each bill for the fund. Users of pre­paid phones pay 60 cents into the fund when they buy their phones.

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