Picture yourself driving down a road when you notice smoke. You head toward the smoke and see a house is on fire, so you take out your cell phone, snap a photo, and send it to the local dispatch center to let them know how many trucks they will have to send.
Washington County emergency officials say that scenario could be reality in the next couple of years thanks to a $1.7 million federal grant to Missouri to improve communications with wireless and Internet-connected telephones and cell phones. Washington County’s share is $52,305.
The upgrade would allow text messages and photo messages to be sent to dispatch.
“This would help hearing impaired and speech impaired people, because they can text their messages,” said Matt Jackson systems manager for Washington County Central Dispatch 911.
Madison County also will benefit from the E-911 grant program and is scheduled to receive $89,547 to upgrade its 911 system.
“Right now, we can only identify land lines,” said Steven Perkins, director of Madison County 911 Joint Communications. “This will give us cell phone numbers and the location of the caller.”
Madison County is part of a multi-county grant for an upgraded mapping system that will provide 3-D pictures of the map. The two upgrades will greatly improve the Madison County dispatch system, according to Perkins.
The E-911 grant was authorized under the Ensuring Needed Help Arrives Near Callers Employing 911 (ENHANCE 911) Act of 2004. The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Missouri’s grant will be distributed to counties throughout the state.
The money is designed to upgrade dispatch equipment to handle newer technology.
“The majority of calls to 911 now come in from wireless and Internet-connected phones, but too often, these mobile callers aren’t sure of their exact location,” said Gov. Jay Nixon. “This federal grant will help ensure that we can improve the ability to locate the emergency callers more quickly, and promptly get Missourians the life-saving assistance they deserve.”
The funds will be used to upgrade 911 systems and equipment. The money also will be used for advanced software mapping systems to map a cell phone 911 caller’s location, develop and transmit driving directions to emergency responders, and identify the emergency caller’s phone number and identity in case of dropped calls. It also provides the ability to instantly replay recorded 911 calls to extract additional information in case of dropped calls.
Grant awards were determined by a state review board after local jurisdictions proposed the areas in which they were most in need of assistance and agreed to provide the required matching funds.
Jackson said the money will allow Washington County to get a newer version of the map that already displays longitude and latitude of the caller’s location when someone calls on a cell phone.
The upgrade will allow text messages and photo messages to be sent to dispatch. Photos, for example, would help dispatch assess truck and equipment needs to accidents or fires rather than having to wait for someone to respond from the scene if more help is required.
Along with the updated map that Perkins mentioned, the new upgrade is expected to allow dispatchers to better track emergency vehicles/equipment. They also will be able to immediately update closures and other changes in roads.
“We will be able to mark in the map and it sends a message to the laptops in patrol car, ambulance or fire truck,” Jackson said.” It blacks out the roads in their map in the same way.”
Overall, the improvements should result in faster and more efficient responses to emergencies, he added.
In Madison County, the upgrade will include GPS locations for every house and for cell phones.
“Houses will have GPS locations,” Perkins explained. “I can finally identify cell phones. I should be able to get an exact location on my map to pinpoint the caller’s location and phone number.”
Currently, if a cell phone caller loses the signal, dispatchers have no way to call the person back. The new system will allow that. People also will be able to call 911 over the computer.
The current 911 system is about 10 years old.
“We were hoping we were going to get this grant, Perkins said. “This comes at the right time!”
Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at email@example.com.