New 911 system shows a caller’s location instantly
March 30, 2009
By Warren Kagarise
When Carma Mathieson first answered 911 calls for the Issaquah Police Department 23 years ago, just about every caller dialed the emergency number from a landline phone. As technology advanced, however, calls placed from mobile phones and voice-over-Internet-Protocol services, like Vonage, strained a system based on technology developed in the 1960s.
The system took a quantum leap March 11 when workers installed Next Generation 911 equipment. Officials said the new, faster system laid the foundation for future advances that could one day enable callers to reach dispatchers via text messages, and send digital images and streaming video and audio. But those capabilities are at least a few years distant.
“It’s gone from paper, when we had to timestamp everything,” Mathieson said, reflecting on the advances during her tenure.
Nowadays, a computer imaging system allows dispatchers to pull up an image of the building where a call originates. The new system instantaneously loads an image of the caller’s location, whereas the earlier program could take up to 30 seconds.
Cmdr. Stan Conrad, support services commander for the department, described the transition as nearly seamless.
“The changes for us at this point are minimal,” he said.
Conrad noted a few wrinkles during the changeover. The dispatchers’ headphones may need to be replaced with a model more compatible with the new technology. Software will be adjusted during the first weeks of operation.
Though the shift represents an improvement in 911 service, officials said other improvements will be necessary to keep the system up to date.
For instance, callers who dial 911 from a mobile phone can be difficult to locate, and the system cannot yet handle text messages. Calls from VoIP services can be misrouted, because the address used to register the phone does not always correspond to the location of the caller. Crucial moments can be wasted while a caller or dispatcher works to determine the location of an emergency. Dispatchers have been able to pinpoint locations from landline phone calls for years.
Marlys Davis, E-911 program manager for the King County Office of Emergency Management, said further improvements should be available in about three years. Nonetheless, she said, the upgrade marks an important step toward more advanced 911 technology.
When a caller dials the emergency number, Enhanced 911 — often shortened to E-911 — routes the call to one of 13 centers across the county. The system determines which agency should handle the call, and then sends it to the appropriate public safety answering point, as the centers are known. Dispatchers at Issaquah police headquarters also answer 911 calls for the Snoqualmie Police Department
Money collected through county and state 911 service fees paid for the $101,000 equipment upgrade. Users of landline and mobile phones pay the charges as part of their bills. Police switched from the old system to the new between 1 and 9 a.m. March 11, when dispatchers typically receive few calls. During the changeover, calls were routed to a backup facility.
Before the Positron Viper phone system could be installed at the 911 center, city workers upgraded electrical power, backup-power service and air conditioning in the room that houses the guts of the 911 system. At the nexus of the updated system is a hulking black server more than 6 feet tall.
“Even if all the power goes out and the generator fails, we have about 15 minutes to transfer all service to Bellevue,” which serves as a backup 911 center, Conrad said.
Regardless of the new technology, Mathieson said the fundamentals of her role would not change. During difficult calls, she will still rely on her years of experience: “Take a deep breath,” she advises callers, “and tell me what’s going on.”
Reach Reporter Warren Kagarise at 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.