Text-to-9-1-1 now avail­able at county emer­gency call cen­ter

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - SAN­DRA BRANDS sbrands@cov­news.com

At the Cov­ing­ton-New­ton County 911 Cen­ter there are five mon­i­tors and three key­boards at each sta­tion. Each 9-1-1 Call Cen­ter dis­patch op­er­a­tors mon­i­tors the calls that come in, track them if it’s made from a cell phone and con­tact the ap­pro­pri­ate emer­gency re­sponse ser­vice.

There are dis­patch sta­tions for the Cov­ing­ton Po­lice Depart­ment, New­ton County Sher­iff’s Of­fice, and the fire de­part­ments with Ox­ford and Por­terdale po­lice. Dis­patch­ers are also able to track am­bu­lances in the county and the emer­gency air-lift heli­copter.

It’s one of only 86 in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­cred­ited 9-1-1 Call Cen­ters in the coun­try, and only one of eight in the state. Soon, the Call Cen­ter will be the fifth in Ge­or­gia to han­dle Text-to-9-1-1, which al­lows the cen­ter to re­ceive text mes­sages from mo­bile phones or de­vices. The other coun­ties able to ac­cept emer­gency texts are Alphretta, Cobb, Glen and Pauld­ing.

“We knew it was com­ing out,” said Mike Smith, Di­rec­tor of Cov­ing­ton-New­ton County 9-1-1 Call Cen­ter. “Text to 9-1-1 has moved a lot quicker than the in­dus­try was ready for. We didn’t want to be a guinea pig, but talk­ing to those who have it up and run­ning, we’re com­fort­able mov­ing for­ward.”

Smith said Text-to-9-1-1 is an­other way to con­tact 9-1-1. How­ever, he said, “we still want peo­ple to call. We’d rather talk to you for in­for­ma­tion. The time when Text-to-9-1-1 would be ap­pli­ca­ble is dur­ing a home in­va­sion or if some­one is kid­napped [and held] in the trunk of a car. Those are some of the cases when tex­ting to 9-1-1 would be ap­pro­pri­ate.”

He said that though there is al­ready tele­type­writer (TTY) ser­vice for those who have hear­ing or speech im­ped­i­ments tex­ting has be­come so pop­u­lar that TTY ser­vice may not be nec­es­sary.

Smith also said Congress has al­ready be­gun work­ing on an ini­tia­tive aimed at up­dat­ing 9-1-1 ser­vice in­fra­struc­ture in the United States and Canada. Called next gen­er­a­tion 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), it would en­able the pub­lic to trans­mit text, images, video and other data to a 9-1-1 Call Cen­ter.

“It’s the next step to true next gen­er­a­tion 9-1-1 which will have a lot of good tools,” Smith said. “It will give the dis­patcher ac­cess to more in­for­ma­tion, which, in turn, will help our first re­spon­ders. It will al­low video stream­ing, in­stead of just call­ing, and [we will] see video of a scene.

“That’s many years done the road in the in­dus­try as well as our 9-1-1 cen­ter,” he said. “There are not a lot of 9-1-1 cen­ters ready to do it right now.”

Right now, Smith said, the Cov­ing­ton-New­ton County 9-1-1 Cen­ter needs some se­ri­ous up­grades, not just in equip­ment but in fa­cil­i­ties. Con­se­quently, the cen­ter will be re­quest­ing $10 mil­lion of the 2017 Spe­cial Pur­pose Lo­cal Op­tion Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds. UP­GRADES NEEDED

The cen­ter is in the old Cousins School build­ing in Ox­ford. The build­ing is old and the equip­ment needs up- grad­ing. In fact, the City of Cov­ing­ton Coun­cil ap­proved the pur­chase of a $93,666 recorder from Ex­traCom.

It was a crit­i­cal piece of equip­ment, Smith said, and “we’re get­ting to the point where we are go­ing to have to up­grade.”

“It’s not a sexy thing; it’s just a recorder,” Smith said. “One of the most ba­sic things we [do] is record con­ver­sa­tions and traf­fic. We tried to put band aids on [the cur­rent equip­ment] not know­ing our fu­ture in this build­ing. It records our phone traf­fic and even text to 9-1-1.”

Smith said the dis­patcher can use the recorder for in­stant play­back to make sure they heard the call cor­rectly and to lis­ten to sounds hap­pen­ing in the back­ground. The other thing the recorder is used for is to pro­vide ev­i­dence in cases such as mur­ders or ma­jor ac­ci­dent scenes.

Re­play­ing tapes al­lows dis­patch­ers, first re­spon­ders and courts to hear what hap­pened dur­ing the emer­gency call. The recorder comes in to play as ev­i­dence daily, Smith said. “Our dis­patch­ers tes­tify in court quite of­ten,” Smith said.

The tapes are also re­quired by law un­der the Open Records Act. It’s used dur­ing mur­der cases, at ma­jor ac­ci­dent scenes, fires, death in­ves­ti­ga­tions and sui­cides.

“A lot of times our dis­patcher is the last per­son some­one talks to,” Smith said.

The new recorder the city ap­proved will make re­triev- ing mes­sages more ef­fi­cient. The equip­ment is also more se­cure be­cause it’s dig­i­tal and en­crypted, Smith told the city coun­cil. It will “help with po­lice depart­ment re­ports and re­triev­ing them. Every­thing is time stamped and has a case num­ber,” he said.

That’s just one piece of equip­ment. All equip­ment at the 9-1-1 Call Cen­ter needs du­pli­cates be­cause the sys­tem can never be al­lowed to fail. Bat­ter­ies and backup gen­er­a­tors keep the sys­tem work­ing in power out­ages or nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.

Smith said the cen­ter had made two 9-1-1 re­lated re­quests for the last SPLOST money. Though the cen­ter re­ceived $5 mil­lion from the 2011 SPLOST, it was sig­nif­i­cantly less than the $12 mil­lion es­ti­mate to make up­grades to the ra­dio sys­tem as well as com­plete it be­cause there have been on­go­ing is­sues with 9-11 in some ar­eas of the county.

“With our ra­dio sys­tem you have to have cov­er­age where the en­gi­neers tell you it’s needed,” Smith said. “The sys­tem served us well, but it’s been 10 years. The sys­tem has holes in it. We’ve asked for money to fin­ish the up­grade [to the ra­dio sys­tem] and to re­place ex­ist­ing, out­dated equip­ment.”

“Even though it’s ded­i­cated to 9-1-1 cen­ter, it’s re­ally used by ev­ery city and pub­lic safety in the county,” Smith said. “That’s the beauty of shared 9-1-1 cen­ter – you share the cost across all agen­cies. No one has to do their own thing.” LEAKS DON’T HELP EQUIP­MENT

Re­cently, the roof on the 9-1-1 Call Cen­ter sprang two leaks – one over the cab­i­net with the backup bat­ter­ies; an­other over the stack hold­ing the recorder. Mold has also been found in some of the walls.

“We’ve been strug­gling,” Smith said. “The roof has been fixed but when you get a leak o you r most im­por­tant equip­ment, it’s a prob­lem. The main­te­nance on the equip­ment is get­ting ex­pen­sive to main­tain.

The old school build­ing has served the cen­ter well, Smith said, “but it’s go­ing to start to get ex­tremely costly [to make re­pairs]. Our op­tions are lim­ited be­cause we don’t own the build­ing. We lease here.”

Part of the $10 mil­lion re­quest for the 2017 SPLOST funds, Smith said, is to ad­dress the 9-1-1 Cen­ter fa­cil­i­ties. When it moved into the Old Cousins school, it was in­tended to be a tem­po­rary so­lu­tion, Smith said.

“We’ve been here 13 years, so it’s re­ally time to do some­thing,” he said. Equip­ment like air con­di­tion­ing runs non­stop 24/7. “In the server room, it never shuts off. Our sys­tems are at the point where we need up­grades, but I’m hes­i­tant to make them be­cause we don’t know where will be.”

The com­pli­ca­tion comes be­cause the 9-1-1 Call Cen­ter equip­ment is needed con­stantly, and mov­ing equip­ment means turn­ing it off. If the cen­ter moves into new fa­cil­i­ties, they will have to move and set up half the equip­ment, be­fore shut­ting down the old fa­cil­ity and mov­ing the rest of the equip­ment over.

“A move is the per­fect time to up­grade our sys­tems,” Smith said. “Re­dun­dancy is nec­es­sary be­cause the cen­ter can never shut down.”

While the cen­ter could be moved into an ex­ist­ing struc­ture, Smith said, some­times costs more than new con­struc­tion be­cause of the adap­tions that need to be made to a build­ing for the equip­ment and in­fra­struc­ture. There are ha­los and grounds to pre­vent dam­age to the equip­ment in the event of a light­ning strike.

Smith es­ti­mates a new build­ing could cost up to $3 mil­lion and the lo­ca­tion is crit­i­cal. “It’s not cheap to make the build­ing safe and to equip it with the com­put­ers, recorders and sys­tems that make it op­er­a­tional.

“We have to have ac­cess to in­fra­struc­ture ser­vices like fiber op­tics,” Smith said. “It can be at­tached to an ex­ist­ing agency, but it’s also good for the con­ti­nu­ity of op­er­a­tions to be in­de­pen­dent. If some­thing hap­pens at a po­lice sta­tion, 9-1-1 is still func­tion­ing.”

Smith said he doesn’t have an opin­ion whether the cen­ter should move into an ex­ist­ing or new fa­cil­ity. Ei­ther way, a move will be costly.

“Ide­ally, the best way is to fund it with SPLOST,” Smith said, “but if it doesn’t pass, we’ll have to find al­ter­nate ways to fund this. We’re get­ting to the end of the life cy­cle.

“It’s not one of these things where peo­ple need to panic, but it’s time,” he said. “Our ven­dors and IT peo­ple are telling us we need to have it on the agenda.”

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