Luzerne County’s 15-year-old 911 center is ready for the digital world.
Millions of dollars have been invested in technology upgrades in recent years that will allow the center to accept emergency communications in new ways, such as text messages and videos sent from cellphones, said county 911 Executive Director Fred Rosencrans.
Technology sharing with other counties in the region also is in the works to reduce costs and allow centers to provide call-taking backup for each other if one center experiences a temporary system failure, he said.
“Great things are going to continue happening in our county with the aid of new technology, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” Rosencrans said.
But even though he’s embracing the tools of the future, Rosencrans is proceeding cautiously before going live with texting and other initiatives that are part of the “Next Generation 911” movement aimed at keeping up with communication technology.
“I would like to be on the cutting edge — not the bleeding edge. I’d rather take a wait-and-see approach,” he said.
He said he won’t offer texting until the option is operational with all four major wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — because he doesn’t want to risk public confusion. The four networks met their voluntary commitment last month to make the texts available, but it’s up to each center to work with them to implement the service.
Rosencrans also said he needs time to ensure workers are thoroughly trained to process the texts and educate the public about the shortfalls of choosing texts over calling.
Emergency officials in areas that have implemented texting stress the option should be used as a last resort because phone calls allow a more personal exchange with dispatchers. Phone calls also often trigger a more precise GPS (Global Positioning System) address than texts, which is why people texting are advised to specify their location if possible.
Advocates say texting could save lives because it may be the only means to safely communicate in domestic violence, hostage situations or other crimes where speaking could endanger them. Texting also could help people who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired, supporters say.
Protocols must be developed for processing videos and photos from the public because Rosencrans doesn’t want dispatchers distracted from assisting emergency callers due to an onslaught of visual data that may not be of any immediate value to emergency responders.
Dispatchers will be required to quickly discern the significance of this material while handling traditional emergency calls, he said.
For example, a photograph of a hostage situation, robber or license plate of a vehicle fleeing a crime scene could provide essential clues needed by law enforcement, while multiple shots of a fire or vehicular accident scene may not help emergency responders already en route.
The plans to share technology, such as internet-based phone and computer-aided dispatch systems, can’t happen until agreements are negotiated and approved with other participating counties, he said.
Luzerne County invested about $750,000 on an internet protocol phone system that can be accessed by other counties so they’re not competing for limited state wireless funding to buy individual systems, he said.
“It’s about ending redundancy. You don’t need nine phone systems for nine counties. You can do it typically with three as long as the network connectivity is there between the counties,” Rosencrans said.
This “opening up of borders” is possible because Luzerne and many other counties have moved to “cloud-based computing,” where systems operate through an outside network, he said.
“This regional approach, which has been implemented elsewhere in the state, will save millions of dollars across counties,” Rosencrans said.
In comparison, the county 911 center was “on a complete island of its own with technology” when the center opened in June 1998, said Rosencrans, who started working in public safety in 1995.
Officials within county government also are reaping the benefits of shared data with the new technology, he said.
Rosencrans said he and county Mapping/GIS Director Dave Skoronski sat down years ago and both concluded it was “ridiculous” that changes their departments make to county property maps in their own systems weren’t shared with each other.
The departments now send daily updates to each other on changing property owners and boundary lines.
“This sharing of data almost real-time was unheard of years ago. That’s another positive from new technology,” he said.
Mapping changes are loaded into 911’s computer-aided dispatch system, which is used to guide emergency responders to locations.
This “CAD” system, which cost around $1.7 million, allows dispatchers to send aerial maps to responders with laptops and Internet connections highlighting the location of a caller, including revised maps when cellphone callers are on the move for safety reasons or to follow a suspect.
The county also is preparing to promote its Smart911 program, which allows people to enter details about themselves and their family members, pets, property and vehicles into a database so the information pops up on dispatchers’ screens if a 911 call comes in from their phone numbers, Rosencrans said.
The program, accessible at www.luzernecounty911.com, accepts information about primary and secondary languages, blood types, allergies and emergency contacts.
Purchased from the Framingham, Massachusetts-based Rave Mobile Safety Inc., Smart911 cost $415,000 over five years and is funded by a phone fee that must be spent on 911 enhancements. The county started offering Smart911 in September 2011.
Rosencrans pushed for the program because dispatchers typically know only names and addresses when calls come in, and even that information might be inaccurate for cellphone numbers.
About 450,500 calls were processed by the county 911 last year — 70 percent from cellphones, Rosencrans said.