JONESBORO—On January 14, 2015, Union County 911 joined a very small club of 9-1-1 systems in Illinois to go live with Next Generation 9-1-1 services. In fact, they are only the second 911 system in the State of Illinois to meet this goal.
“This is a case where southern Illinois is really leading the state,” said Union County 911 Coordinator Jana Fear. “With Jackson County going live with NG 9-1-1 in December 2014 and Union going live today, this is a great example of how small counties sometimes have the flexibility to move ahead of the larger ones.”
NG 9-1-1 provides for two major changes from conventional E911 services: the platform and the content. The change in platform is from the data going over traditional copper lines to a dedicated, fiber-based IP network. The change in content is that NG 9-1-1 has the ability to receive live text messaging, photos and streaming video from cell phones.
Don’t start texting 911 just yet, warns Fear.
“We have the capability to receive content like texts and video but it’s still up to the carriers to implement those features. We’ve built the highway but it’s up to wireless carriers to get all the vehicles to utilize that highway.”
“It’s similar to when 9-1-1 centers first started implementing cell phones with 911 over a decade ago,” explained Fear. “9-1-1 centers had the ability to receive location data from the cellular carriers but only if their towers were upgraded and able to provide us with that data. In the same way, the way the cell phones make this happen is in their hands but as more NG systems go online there will be more incentive to start making the necessary upgrades.”
“How those upgrades will be used in emergency situations can be envisioned but is not yet completely known. As technology advances, we can’t predict how they will be used,” said Fear. “We can think of ways that pictures and videos will be important but it’s things we haven’t even thought of yet that may have the most impact.”
One of the largest potential impacts will be among the special needs populations, according to Fear.
“If you have a hearing impairment, you can’t just carry a TTY system around the way you can a cell phone so text messaging will be a huge benefit to you. If you have a visual impairment, you might not be able to describe what is happening in an emergency but maybe you can stream video of the scene instead. A person with very limited communications skills could use some sort of device to connect with 9-1-1 in a way that just hasn’t been possible before now. The possibilities are endless.”
While conversion to NG 9-1-1 is a multimillion dollar project, costs to Union County residents has been limited to just over $74,000 thanks to the foresight of the Union County Emergency Telephone System Board.
“It would have cost a fortune for us to do this on our own as a county, just to run all the fiber alone,” said Fear. “But when the grants were available Union County was a member of the Counties of Southern Illinois (CSI) and partnered with Clearwave and the State of Illinois to obtain BTOP grants to lay fiber within the CSI footprint. The time was right to start moving this direction. Fortunately, our ETSB was thinking ahead five years ago when NG 9-1-1 was just getting off the ground.”
Union County 911 will keep county residents posted as further improvements take place.