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Text-to-9-1-1 now available at county emergency call center

At the Covington-Newton County 911 Center there are five monitors and three keyboards at each station. Each 9-1-1 Call Center dispatch operators monitors the calls that come in, track them if it’s made from a cell phone and contact the appropriate emergency response service.

There are dispatch stations for the Covington Police Department, Newton County Sheriff’s Office, and the fire departments with Oxford and Porterdale police. Dispatchers are also able to track ambulances in the county and the emergency air-lift helicopter.

It’s one of only 86 internationally accredited 9-1-1 Call Centers in the country, and only one of eight in the state. Soon, the Call Center will be the fifth in Georgia to handle Text-to-9-1-1, which allows the center to receive text messages from mobile phones or devices. The other counties able to accept emergency texts are Alphretta, Cobb, Glen and Paulding.

“We knew it was coming out,” said Mike Smith, Director of Covington-Newton County 9-1-1 Call Center. “Text to 9-1-1 has moved a lot quicker than the industry was ready for. We didn’t want to be a guinea pig, but talking to those who have it up and running, we’re comfortable moving forward.”

Smith said Text-to-9-1-1 is another way to contact 9-1-1. However, he said, “we still want people to call. We’d rather talk to you for information. The time when Text-to-9-1-1 would be applicable is during a home invasion or if someone is kidnapped [and held] in the trunk of a car. Those are some of the cases when texting to 9-1-1 would be appropriate.”
He said that though there is already teletypewriter (TTY) service for those who have hearing or speech impediments texting has become so popular that TTY service may not be necessary.

Smith also said that Congress has already begun working on an initiative aimed at updating 9-1-1 service infrastructure in the United States and Canada. Called next generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), it would enable the public to transmit text, images, video and other data to a 9-1-1 Call Center.

“It’s the next step to true next generation 9-1-1 which will have a lot of good tools,” Smith said. “It will give the dispatcher access to more information, which, in turn, will help our first responders. It will allow video streaming, instead of just calling, and [we will] see video of a scene.

“That’s many years done the road in the industry as well as our 9-1-1 center,” he said. “There are not a lot of 9-1-1 centers ready to do it right now.”

Right now, Smith said, the Covington-Newton County 9-1-1 Center needs some serious upgrades, not just in equipment but in facilities. Consequently, the center will be requesting $10 million of the 2017 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds.

Upgrades needed

The center is located in the old Cousins School building in Oxford. The building is old and the equipment needs upgrading. In fact, the City of Covington Council approved the purchase of a $93,666 recorder from ExtraCom.

It was a critical piece of equipment, Smith said, and “we’re getting to the point where we are going to have to upgrade.”
“It’s not a sexy thing; it’s just a recorder,” Smith said. “One of the most basic things we [do] is record conversations and traffic. We tried to put band aids on [the current equipment] not knowing our future in this building. It records our phone traffic and even text to 9-1-1.”

Smith said the dispatcher can use the recorder for instant playback to make sure they heard the call correctly and to listen to sounds happening in the background. The other thing the recorder is used for is to provide evidence in cases such as murders or major accident scenes.

Replaying tapes allows dispatchers, first responders and courts to hear what happened during the emergency call. The recorder comes in to play as evidence daily, Smith said. “Our dispatchers testify in court quite often,” Smith said.

The tapes are also required by law under the Open Records Act. It’s used during murder cases, at major accident scenes, fires, death investigations and suicides.

“A lot of times our dispatcher is the last person someone talks to,” Smith said.

The new recorder the city approved will make retrieving messages more efficient. The equipment is also more secure because it’s digital and encrypted, Smith told the city council. It will “help with police department reports and retrieving them. Everything is time stamped and has a case number,” he said.

That’s just one piece of equipment. All equipment at the 9-1-1 Call Center needs duplicates because the system can never be allowed to fail. Batteries and backup generators keep the system working in power outages or natural disasters.

Smith said the center had made two 9-1-1 related requests for the last SPLOST money. Though the center received $5 million from the 2005 SPLOST funds, it was significantly less than the $12 million estimate to make upgrades and complelte the radio system, correcting ongoing issues with 9-1-1 in some areas of the county. A request for 2011 SPLOST funds to complete the system was not approved.

“With our radio system you have to have coverage where the engineers tell you it’s needed,” Smith said. “The system served us well, but it’s been 10 years. The system has holes in it. We’ve asked for money to finish the upgrade [to the radio system] and to replace existing, outdated equipment.”

“Even though it’s dedicated to 9-1-1 center, it’s really used by every city and public safety in the county,” Smith said. “That’s the beauty of shared 9-1-1 center – you share the cost across all agencies. No one has to do their own thing.”
Leaks don’t help equipment

Recently, the roof on the 9-1-1 Call Center sprang two leaks – one over the cabinet with the backup batteries; another over the stack holding the recorder. Mold has also been found in some of the walls.

“We’ve been struggling,” Smith said. “The roof has been fixed but when you get a leak o your most important equipment, it’s a problem. The maintenance on the equipment is getting expensive to maintain.

The old school building has served the center well, Smith said, “but it’s going to start to get extremely costly [to make repairs]. Our options are limited because we don’t own the building. We lease here.”

Part of the $10 million request for the 2017 SPLOST funds, Smith said, is to address the 9-1-1 Center facilities. When it moved into the Old Cousins school, it was intended to be a temporary solution, Smith said.

“We’ve been here 13 years, so it’s really time to do something,” he said. Equipment like air conditioning runs nonstop 24/7. “In the server room, it never shuts off. Our systems are at the point where we need upgrades, but I’m hesitant to make them because we don’t know where will be.”

The complication comes because the 9-1-1 Call Center equipment is needed constantly, and moving equipment means turning it off. If the center moves into new facilities, they will have to move and set up half the equipment, before shutting down the old facility and moving the rest of the equipment over.

“A move is the perfect time to upgrade our systems,” Smith said. “Redundancy is necessary because the center can never shut down.”

While the center could be moved into an existing structure, Smith said, sometimes costs more than new construction because of the adaptions that need to be made to a building for the equipment and infrastructure. There are halos and grounds to prevent damage to the equipment in the event of a lightning strike.

Smith estimates a new building could cost up to $3 million and the location is critical. “It’s not cheap to make the building safe and to equip it with the computers, recorders and systems that make it operational.

“We have to have access to infrastructure services like fiber optics,” Smith said. “It can be attached to an existing agency, but it’s also good for the continuity of operations to be independent. If something happens at a police station, 9-1-1 is still functioning.”

Smith said he doesn’t have an opinion whether the center should move into an existing or new facility. Either way, a move will be costly.

“Ideally, the best way is to fund it with SPLOST,” Smith said, “but if it doesn’t pass, we’ll have to find alternate ways to fund this. We’re getting to the end of the life cycle.

“It’s not one of these things where people need to panic, but it’s time,” he said. “Our vendors and IT people are telling us we need to have it on the agenda.”