If you made a phone call to 911 as someone was breaking into your house, you’d have to whisper. But within several years you’ll be able to text dispatchers or silently stream video from your hiding place.
The technology of accessing the 911 system — talking over the phone — hasn’t changed much since the first call in 1968. Utah dispatchers added cellphone compatibility in the 1990s, but in what could be the biggest leap since the inception of emergency service, three centers that handle emergency calls for Salt Lake, Weber and Morgan counties are making the leap to an Internet-based 911.
Instead of just conversing, dispatchers will be able to send and receive text messages, videos and photos — all of the new tools the public uses every day to communicate — once those applications are available.
Until then, the upgrade to an Internet-based system has the more immediate benefit of allowing the centers to spread a flood of 911 calls around so that no one center has to put off a call because it’s too busy.
When the Machine Gun Fire set ablaze 4,326 acres in the Oquirrhs and threatened Herriman, 911 dispatchers were inundated with calls, said Bill Harry, the executive director of Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC), which handles much of Salt Lake County. But other emergencies were occurring while dispatchers tried to keep up with the widespread fire, and if the new system had been in place, VECC could have transferred those calls to other upgraded centers that were not as busy, Harry said.
That flexibility will come in handy if an earthquake knocks out the Salt Lake County dispatch centers, Harry added. "If Salt Lake County has a big shaker, now we have a diverse backup so those calls would go to Weber, out of the impacted area."
A lot of the three centers’ technology was nearing the end of its life — new software wasn’t compatible with their hardware. So in November 2011, their directors united to launch The Greater Wasatch Multi-Node Project. Its mission: Find a more efficient and ultimately less expensive Internet-based system.
They figured out that they could host much of the new technology at two centers — VECC and Weber Area Dispatch — and give other centers that get smaller upgrades access to the full system via the Internet. That allows them to combine resources and share the cost of fully upgrading the two centers instead of spending the same on all of them, said Kevin Rose of the Utah Department of Technology Services.
The Utah 9-1-1 Committee found grants to cover about $800,000 of the $1.3 million bill for the multicounty upgrade.
The committee has its sights set on upgrading systems all over the state, but for the time being, they "wanted to get something up and going and seeing how it works," Rose said. "So far it’s been really successful [with] little issues here and there that we’ve worked out. It’s going great so far."
The Bountiful Police Department, Unified Police Department and the Salt Lake City Police Department are among agencies with their own call centers that will be joining the upgrade in the near future, according to a news release.
"Right now we’re developing [the statewide] plan, doing research, trying to find out what the financial impact is going to be," Rose said. Ideally they’ll apply the same model in place now, where they can fully upgrade a few centers and have the rest tap into that system, as a way to reduce the cost, he said.
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