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New 911 system helps police departments respond quicker

November 26, 2018

UXBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — Uxbridge police knew they needed a faster way to respond to emergency calls.

A little more than a year ago, a couple called 911 from their landline when their infant was choking.

The department’s dispatcher got the address of the caller, but the family didn’t wait for help to arrive and started driving to the hospital. Emergency responders scrambled to track them down en route, but aid was provided minutes later than it would have been if responders had an exact location of the infant in distress.

The same family had a medical emergency again and this time used a cellphone to call 911. But at the time, all cellular 911 calls were routed first to a state police call station. The call had to be transferred to Uxbridge from Framingham, resulting in more time lost.

When the baby’s health emergency recurred yet again, the family called Uxbridge Police Department’s business line - which may not always be answered - because they didn’t trust the 911 system.

“Now I have a young couple with a medical condition that’s afraid to call 911,” said Sgt. Timothy J. Burke. “They were a push for us.”

Uxbridge police signed up promptly last spring with the Wireless Direct program, the latest aspect of enhanced 911 service that routes 911 calls from cellphones directly to the public safety answering point, or PSAP, that handles dispatch for the local community.

Updating the 911 system, which was built on an analog landline system decades ago, is critical for public health and safety.

In 2016, 80 percent of the nearly 179 million 911 calls made nationwide were from cellphones, according to the National 911 Program report for 2017, the most recent data available. Only 16 percent of calls were from landlines.

Starting in December, people in Massachusetts will also be able to text their emergency to 911 on their cellphone.

“It’s got potential to be an extremely useful tool,” Burke said. Texting 911 could summon help when a caller can’t speak, such as in case of a home invasion, domestic violence or active shooter.

The State 911 Department has been rolling out Wireless Direct over the past year, bypassing the need for a large number of emergency calls to go first to one of three state call centers before being transferred to local emergency dispatchers.

Even a slight delay resulting from a call having to be transferred, or the need to repeat an emergency description each time a call is transferred, can be deadly, as was highlighted recently in a Boston Globe story.

A Somerville woman having an asthma attack died just steps away from the door to Somerville Hospital’s emergency room in 2016, after she called 911 because the hospital door was locked. Among other factors, the 911 call went to a regional state police call center, which transferred the information to Somerville police but didn’t include key information about the woman’s location or status.

Cellular calls from communities that aren’t enrolled in Wireless Direct or that are unable to connect through that system still go through either the State 911 PSAP Operations Division in Framingham, the Massachusetts State Police in Northampton or the Essex Wireless Center in Middleton, based on location.

At the same time that Wireless Direct is being adopted statewide, with approximately 85 percent of cities and towns covered by the program, according to the State 911 Department, Next Generation 911 technology is bringing more accurate location mapping of cellphone calls.

The State 911 Department has been working with MassGIS to map the system that is the heart of what’s called NextGen 911 technology.

Phase 1 of NextGen 911 brings up on the dispatcher’s console a cellphone caller’s location on a map, with a circle around what could be a fairly broad radius of a mile or more. The Phase 1 location data is based on cell tower locations.

Phase 2 information is more accurate, incorporating location data with latitude and longitude from cellphone GPS and other sources.

NextGen 911 location data and Wireless Direct call routing to local responders can “save 30 or 40 seconds” on an emergency call, according to Norm Fournier, deputy executive director of Massachusetts State 911 Department.

“The challenge is the accuracy of location we get from (cellular) carriers and how quickly they get it to us,” he said. “We need Phase 2 information and we need it fast.”

At the Worcester Regional Emergency Communications Center, Michael E. Shanley, acting director of emergency communications and management, pointed to a roomful of dispatchers positioned at arrays of telecommunications consoles. When a call came in from Worcester or Leicester, a map popped up with a text box listing details on location, the caller’s number and any additional information that might come from the newest cellphones, which is called Rapid SOS.

The Worcester center has been taking Wireless Direct Phase 2 calls since April.

“We were getting the calls anyway. We get them the first time now,” Shanley said.

The system makes call times shorter and callers don’t have to explain themselves twice.

Residents who sign up for Smart911 online can register additional health or personal information that will also pop up if they call 911.

Burke of Uxbridge said the Phase 2 call location information coming in through Wireless Direct is “phenomenal.”

The pinpoint accuracy played a role in rescuing kayakers who overturned in the Blackstone River in July. The boaters got to an island and called 911 from a cellphone. First responders were able to quickly find the island and the best land access, rescuing the men without incident.

The department wasn’t so pleased with the Wireless Direct calls it was getting with only Phase 1 information, based on cell tower location.

One call came in mapped to a location area a mile wide that encompassed parts of Mendon, Millville and Uxbridge.

“It was a bit inundating,” Burke said about the increased number of calls from the Phase 1 system, many of which weren’t from Uxbridge callers but had pinged off of cell towers in the area.

With only one dispatcher on duty, the department pulled out of Phase 1 after a 30-day trial. Those calls are still routed through the Framingham regional center first and sent to Uxbridge if that’s the right destination.

Fear of directly receiving a high volume of 911 cellphone calls that may not be appropriate for local police and fire departments was what caused Auburn public safety officials to delay enrolling in Wireless Direct until October.

The State 911 Department was able to take out routing calls to Auburn dispatchers made from Interstate 395 and Interstate 90, which are under state police jurisdiction. “That factor is huge,” said Penny Ryan, Auburn’s first communications director.

Ryan said since Auburn started taking Wireless Direct Phase 2 calls, dispatchers have had to respond to a few more abandoned calls - often unintentionally dialed.

But the new system saves frustration among callers who don’t have to repeat their emergency, and allows faster response.

“To not have people frustrated and save seconds: That’s a no-brainer,” Ryan said.

Westborough Fire Chief Patrick Purcell was also enthusiastic about Wireless Direct because it cuts down on call-processing time and the time to get help to the emergency.

“For someone who’s not breathing for a minute, or whose house is burning an extra minute, that’s not good,” he said.

Only a handful of communities in Central Massachusetts, including Millbury, Milford, and Hopkinton aren’t yet taking Wireless Direct calls, according to state officials.

The state is trying to get all areas enrolled and offers extra grant funding as an incentive.

Millbury Police Chief Donald P. Desorcy said in an email, “We will be going in that direction soon.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2FGNEej

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Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com

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