Meet 9-1-1, the Next Generation
(Pictured above on right: Clarion County Public Safety Director Jeff Smathers explains Next Gen 911.)
Not only was Clarion County the first county in Pennsylvania to have a 9-1-1 service, but the county is also now part of 10 counties in the Northern Tier region that successfully upgraded to the Next Generation 911 system.
Mixing Star Trek references, this is the next generation, and they’re ready to boldly go.
The old analog circuits and lines have been removed, and now Clarion County is 100 percent digital.
“This means the counties of Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, McKean, and Warren have all upgraded phase of the project, bringing Clarion County into the digital world,” Clarion County Director of Public Safety Jeff Smathers explained to the Clarion County Commissioners on Wednesday morning.
The new Internet Protocol system replaces the analog 9-1-1 infrastructure that has been in place for decades.
“The success and reliability of 9-1-1 will be greatly improved with the implementation of NG911, as it will enhance emergency number services to create a faster, more resilient system that allows voice, photos, videos, and text messages to flow seamlessly from the public to the 9-1-1 network.”
According to Smathers, the new system will also improve public safety’s answering ability to help manage call overload, natural disasters, and transfer of 9-1-1 calls based on caller location data.
While the technology to implement the new IP-based 9-1-1 systems is available, the transition involves much more than just new computer hardware and software. Implementing in states and counties nationwide will require the coordination of a variety of emergency communication, public safety, legislative, and governing entities.
“Our current 9-1-1 system is no longer able to support the needs of the future. The NG911 networks replace the existing narrow band, circuit-switched 9-1-1 networks which carry only voice and minimal data,” Smathers said.
There are difficulties in supporting such things as text messages for emergencies, images, and video, including support for American Sign Language users, and easy access to additional data such as telematics, building plans, and medical information over a common data network.
The new system will also allow text messages to Clarion County 9-1-1 by simply stating: “911.”
“The law now states that only 9-1-1 needs to be used to reach emergency services and does not require 814 landlines,” Smathers continued. “There are places in Clarion County and other counties where texts will go through where voice will not.
“There have been people that we’ve had lost in the woods that have texted us and asked us for help because they were lost. It’s a very useful tool. And, when video and some of the other features come online, then we’ll be able to see you and any information that we need from the background such as a vehicle accident and what you’re dealing with. We do not yet have a video of 9-1-1, but that and some of the other features will probably be coming within the next year.”
In addition, the need for intercommunications across states, between states, and across international boundaries requires the county to create a more flexible 9-1-1 system design with much greater data handling capabilities. A highly standardized system is essential and critical to seamlessly support communications and data transfer across the county, state, and international borders and across the multitude of emergency response professions and agencies, from traditional PSAPs to poison control centers, trauma centers, Coast Guard, and disaster management centers.
There will be numerous and varied steps toward the new system named NG911, according to Smathers, and vendors are already referring to their products as aimed at, enabling, or being wholly NG911 compliant. Vendors who have direct experience with parts of today’s system and service, and who are directly involved with the next generation are starting to produce NG911-oriented products.
“Clarion County currently supports text to 911, and the Department of Public Safety would like to thank the commissioners for the support we received during the transition to our new 9-1-1 center in Shippenville,” Smathers added.
The new 9-1-1 center includes new fiber lines and everything needed for the digital side.
“This was a no-brainer for us, and we were ready to go. Being the first group of counties in Pennsylvania is a great honor. It’s not just a replacement of software or computers, but a lot of legwork goes in the background to make sure this all works.
“Everything’s crystal clear to us, and we don’t have interruptions as we had before with the old analog lines. We are way ahead of the other states and we’ll be able to transfer data to them, information about an incident, or information about a person. They’re looking for anything that they need by simply a push of a button.”
Smathers also explained that “we (will) get to the point where we have a hazardous spill of some kind, then we can work with the firefighters or the hazmat team to get them to a site, get a firsthand view of what’s going on, and then we can send that directly to Harrisburg or Washington D.C. or, even if it’s a chemical spill, the lab where the stuff’s made and tell us how to deal with this.”
He added, “It’s really cool stuff. We’re excited to have it.”
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