Calif. bill would let 911 dispatchers accept photos, videos, texts

A group of cities in California are moving to implement "Next-Generation 9-1-1" systems

By Diana Samuels
San Jose Mercury News

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Someday soon, a person whose house is being robbed will be able to text 911 for help while hiding inside a closet or send police dispatchers a cellphone video of the thief driving away.

As a group of Peninsula cities are moving to implement "Next-Generation 9-1-1" systems that allow emergency dispatch centers to accept photos, videos and text messages that have become standard fare for many cellphone users, Rep. Anna Eshoo is working to advance the systems on a national level.

Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, recently introduced a bill that would provide federal money to help local agencies buy the new technology.

"Our call centers are the first line of defense for people in emergency situations," Eshoo said. "Parents train their children, when they basically learn how to talk, what 911 is. ... (Dispatch centers) field more than 650,000 calls a day across the country -- imagine that -- but most are not equipped to receive anything other than basic phone calls."

Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos are preparing a "virtual consolidation" of their dispatch centers so they can share equipment and handle each other's incoming calls during busy periods. A key part of that consolidation will be implementing a Next-Generation 9-1-1 system, said Charlie Cullen, technical services director with the Palo Alto Police Department. The cities plan to go out to bid for a Next-Generation 9-1-1 system early next year.

"While there are some pilot projects in California that are going on right now, there is not a true next-generation solution in place that is being used on a regular basis," Cullen said, "We'd probably be one of the first."

The new technology likely will run the cities about $600,000 to $750,000 total, said Cullen, adding that the cost is in line with a standard 911 system.

Eshoo introduced her new bill, the "Next Generation 9-1-1 Advancement Act," with co-sponsor Rep. John Shimkus, R Illinois, on July 21. The bill would provide $250 million in grants for state and local governments over the next five years to implement Next-Generation 9-1-1 services and maintain an "implementation and coordination office" that was previously set up to help agencies transition to the new technology.

A similar bill that Eshoo introduced last year didn't make it out of committee, but she said this year's legislation could become part of another, larger bill working through the Senate. The "Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act" would let broadcasters auction off wireless spectrums to fund better public safety networks.

"If you don't have the tools that are available now that come with wireless, which are all applications that first responders can use, then you have a less-than-robust system," Eshoo said. "You have, at best, a mid-century system."

Reservations in San Mateo County

While their neighbors to the south are working to implement the new 911 systems, San Mateo County's dispatchers likely will wait a while.

Jaime Young, the county's public safety communications director, said she has some reservations about the technology and her agency is not looking at implementing it anytime soon. The county dispatch center handles calls for the sheriff's office, East Palo Alto Police Department, Redwood City Fire Department and several other agencies.

Young said she worries many different forms of media could distract dispatchers and ultimately require more employees to handle the stream of information.

Dispatchers "can toggle between a telephone and a radio, but (with the new technology) we're being tasked with typing back and forth to a text messaging conversation or looking at streaming video as it comes in," Young said. "It's asking, I think, too much of a call taker or a 911 dispatcher to manage too many mediums. ... It greatly increases the potential for error."

Copyright 2011 San Jose Mercury News

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