911 upgrades vital for public

By submitted, 08/11/18 7:42 AM

LITTLE ROCK – Every day in Arkansas more than 6,500 calls are made to 911.

Legislators heard a request for upgrades to the 911 system at a recent meeting, from a coalition of state, city and county officials who work in emergency management.  The name of the new system is New Generation 911, or simply NG 911.

The rapid growth in cell phone use is an example of how 911 systems are constantly adapting to new technologies.

More than 90 percent of the emergency calls made today are from cell phones. It seems as if every day, new phones expand our capacity to transmit images, videos, charts and graphs. Telephones became cell phones, which became mobile devices.

The innovations are driven by consumer demand and by marketing on the part of telephone companies. They’re possible because of advances in digital technology.

Yet most 911 calls made in Arkansas must travel along an analog circuit at least once before they reach an emergency dispatcher and the equipment that can locate the geographic source of the calls.

In states like Arkansas, which are trying to upgrade their 911 call systems, emergency responders point to an incident that occurred in North Carolina in 2016. Outdated technology was a factor when it took 11 minutes for responders to arrive, even though they were less than a mile away when the man called 911.

When the infrastructure of our 911 systems was created, landlines were the norm. Emergency dispatchers could pinpoint the source of a call from a landline, but not calls made with cell phones.

After the nationwide boom in cell phone use in the 1990s, federal regulations and upgrades by telephone companies allowed 911 dispatchers to trace the location of calls from cell phones.

But new technologies are becoming popular, such as messaging over social media and the Internet. The ability of current 911 systems in Arkansas has almost come to the point where it can no longer adapt to the flood of new technologies.

The response times of emergency dispatchers varies across Arkansas. The 6,500 emergency calls made in the state each day are routed to 127 call centers, officially known as Public Safety Answering Points. For example, in Craighead County in 2015, the county’s only PSAP handled more than 70,000 emergency calls. That same year, one of the six PSAPs in Lonoke County handled fewer than 3,000 calls.

Next Generation 911 will speed the routing of calls between the various local call centers.

Supporters of a new Next Generation 911 would like the legislature to authorize a single state agency to coordinate new technologies into a statewide network, so that the numerous separate local systems can connect more effectively.

They also would like an additional funding source. Phone users pay a charge on their monthly bills to support 911 services, but they generate only about half of the revenue needed to pay for the operating costs of the various systems in Arkansas. City and county governments pay for the remainder from local tax funds.

According to its supporters, other states are designating a state agency to implement Next Generation 911. They have saved money and increased efficiency by making a single state agency responsible, rather than waiting for numerous local systems to pay for adaptations to their systems.