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911 text messages: Coming soon to a dispatch center near you

By Jed Boal | Posted - Mar 20th, 2013 @ 11:21pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — The 911 emergency system for much of the Wasatch Front took a big technological step into the future this winter.

"The platforms that we are using will ultimately provide the 911 user more options on how to get a hold of the 911 center," said William Harry, executive director of the Salt Lake Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC).

Emergency center managers like Harry call it the most significant upgrade to 911 in the last two decades, and it affects the emergency response for 1.6 million Utahns.

"Up until now, 911 systems have been voice-centric: a call comes in, and the call is answered," Harry said.

The new generation 911 is data-based, which will also allow calls to come in, but in the next few years dispatchers will be able to receive data such as videos, photos and text messages.

A 911 caller today is not going to see or experience any difference. But what this technological upgrade means for the future is more options for reporting your emergency, and more flexibility for the 911 center to handle calls.

VECC takes an estimated 1,600 to 1,800 calls on an average day. But that volume can spike to as many as 4,000 calls a day when a snowstorm leads to a flurry of crashes, or a wildfire takes off in a neighborhood.

This new system links VECC with Weber County and the Utah Department of Public Safety's dispatch center, which handles the Utah Highway Patrol as the first Internet protocol (IP)-capable 911 call delivery system in Utah. Unified Police, Bountiful and Salt Lake City will join the network in the coming months.

With a data-based system, a caller could send a text to 911, for example, if there's a robber in the house and the caller can't make a noise. You could also snap a photo of a crime suspect and email that to 911, so dispatchers could send it out to the police.

And with video? "If you witness a fire, you could hold up your camera, and a video stream would be routed to the fire department," Harry said.

We're not there yet, but testing is under way across the country to establish the protocols that would enable that kind of emergency data transmission.

"We've positioned ourselves so that when those standards are developed, we will be able to take advantage of the applications that ride on that system," Harry said.

If the volume of calls coming into any one of the 911 dispatch centers is too much for that center to handle, another one can pick up the excess.

For example, when a wildfire erupted in Herriman last summer, VECC was bombarded with calls. Today, with this new system, calls unrelated to the fire could be offloaded to the Weber County-area 911 center. That network capability can help in many different emergency scenarios.

"If one of the centers involved in the system has to abandon (shut down), those calls will be routed to a center that remains standing," Harry said.

If a dispatcher assigned to work in the Weber center cannot make it to that center, he or she can pick up their work at one of the other centers because the network is tied to computers at VECC and Weber County.

"It provides a lot more flexibility and backup capability than our old system did," Harry said.

That same flexibility will allow the system to go statewide, if that's a decision other communities want to make.

The first 911 system in Utah was established in 1974. Wireless capability arrived in the early '90s; and 20 years later, this internet-based system is the next generation.


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