New technology would make 911 better, but at a cost

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Capital News Service

LANSING — An improved emergency 911 system would allow Michigan residents to text police if they are held hostage by an active shooter.
Crime victims could text for help without alerting a burglar in the next room.
And police could accurately locate crime victims who use cell phones to report when they are threatened.
But lawmakers are now struggling to figure out how to pay for the expansion of the new system called Next Generation 911.
“The problem we have right now is many 911 centers around the state are only able to trace a call to a landline,” said Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who has introduced a bill to expand the Next Generation 911 system beyond the 33 counties that have it now.  “However, most people nowadays are changing to cellphones.”

The current 911 system is almost 40 years old. Meanwhile, around 70 percent of 911 calls are made from cellphones that cannot be accurately traced, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Michigan residents now pay 19 cents a month for state 911 fees per device. Prepaid wireless users pay 1.92 percent per retail transaction.
If the bill passes, the state 911 fees would go up to 25 cents per month, and prepaid wireless users would pay 4.53 percent per retail transaction.
Without the change, even the counties that already have Next Generation 911 will lose it when their funding runs out next year, said Harriet Miller-Brown, the state 911 coordinator.
“Even though they have it, it won’t be paid for, and there is no more money for new counties to join,” Miller-Brown said.
Next Generation 911 makes it easier for dispatchers to help each other out when they are flooded with calls, said Thom Sumbler, vice president of sales and business development for Peninsula Fiber Network, which installs systems for counties.
Dispatchers are flooded with calls when accidents happen, said Sumbler. ”There might be only two or three people taking calls and they might be getting 25-30 calls at one time,”
If someone called in about an unrelated heart attack, the call might not go through with the old system, he said. With the Next Generation 911, calls can be routed to dispatch centers that are less busy.
“This is an enormous improvement,” Sumbler said.
Next Generation 911 also allows users to text to 911.
“Always call when you can, text when you can’t,” said Jason Torrey, director of Grand Traverse County Central Dispatch/911 and the president of the Michigan Communication Directors Association.
But under certain circumstances, text is the better option.
“If you’re a victim of domestic violence and the assailant is in the immediate vicinity and you don’t feel safe placing a voice call, you can use that text solution to silently notify dispatch and 911 that you need help,” Torrey said. “We’ve had that occur, right here in our own town.”
The feature is also helpful for people who are deaf or partially deaf, Torrey said.
Next Generation 911 is also more reliable.
“With the older system, one backhoe digging the line somewhere can take out multiple 911 centers,” said Torrey.
With the newer system, there is always another route so that call can be delivered, he said.
“There are so many opportunities and so much diversity that you can have with this new network,” said Torrey.
The bill was referred to Energy and Technology Committee.

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