SEPTEMBER 29, 2016 - After years of planning, the City of Independence today launched the operation of its “Next Generation 911” (NG 911) system, designed to enhance the response capabilities of all local emergency services.
The city’s dispatch team, under the supervision of the Independence Police Department, has relocated to the temporary city hall facility at 811 W. Laurel (Building D), where a sophisticated new emergency communications system has been installed. Independence Public Safety Director David Cowan explained the new system offers more precise locator capabilities for callers using cell phones.
“While our old system could identify a cell phone caller’s location within a variance of up to a mile, the NG 911 system can pinpoint the location within a few feet,” Cowan said.
He explained the system uses “geo-spatial” technology which recognizes the signals generated from the cell phone’s GPS tracker function.
“This is a good argument for turning on the GPS or locator function on your phone,” Cowan said. “It could save precious time in finding you and getting you help in an emergency situation.”
Further enhancements to the system are coming soon, Cowan said, including the capability for the dispatch center to receive and respond to 911 text messages, which will be developing over the next six months as area cellular providers upgrade their technology for compatibility. Additionally, live video streaming from callers to the 911 center is expected to be available no later than early 2018, Cowan said.
“Video capability will be a tremendous advantage to allow our dispatchers to actually have ‘eyes’ on the scene of the emergency and even better inform our responders,” Cowan said.
Montgomery County dispatchers join city team
According to Lisa Helkenberg, Independence Police Department captain who has helped facilitate the relocation of the dispatch center, the new 911 system not only benefits the city’s emergency services, but also supports the Montgomery County dispatch service for sheriff’s officers and the rural fire department. Helkenberg explained that the city and county dispatchers have historically maintained a shared working arrangement, with the city dispatchers receiving and routing all 911 calls received from cell phones outside the city limits and the county dispatchers utilizing the city’s radio equipment and voice recorder system in their operations. To maintain this working relationship and prevent any hiccups with county dispatch services as the city moves its shared equipment, the county dispatchers have temporarily relocated along with the city dispatchers to 811 W. Laurel.
“While our city and county dispatchers have worked together for years, this is the first time we’ve shared office space,” Helkenberg said. “We hope to learn from one another and perhaps provide practical support back and forth, especially in the event either of our departments experiences a flood of incoming calls.”
Montgomery County Sheriff Bobby Dierks sees the collaboration between dispatch centers as a win-win-win for the county, city and residents.
“We are happy to be working with the city to improve emergency response services to our citizens,” Dierks said.
How 911 funding works and paying for the new system
Purchase and relocation of the 911 system, Cowan explained, was the most costly component of the city’s temporary move to Building D, at an estimated expense of approximately $200,000. However, he estimated the city saved an additional $100,000 in costs and six months of time thanks to the ability to utilize the IT (information technology) network already in place in the former hospital building. He noted the purchase and installation of the new system was already budgeted for February 2017, and the previous system was out of warranty. The Kansas 911 Coordinating Council inspected the former hospital building and determined the infrastructure in place allowed for immediate relocation, rather than investing approximately $25,000 to move outdated equipment. The state was then able to accelerate our February install date to September 10, after city commission approval.
“The state’s 911 authority maintains, updates and replaces our equipment according to their standards and schedule,” Cowan said. “We essentially have a ‘rental agreement’ and pay annual fees, in addition to the cost of providing the communications infrastructure network and accessory equipment, such as antennas, recording equipment and radios.”
Cowan also explained how “PSAPs” (Public Safety Answering Points/911 centers) are funded by the State of Kansas, and each center receives funding based on the area it serves. Last year, the Independence PSAP received approximately $88,000.
“Generally, the amount of funding received from the state is somewhat less than our actual operating expenses, but our arrangement with the state is crucial for maintaining our system,” Cowan said.
911 expenditures are restricted to PSAP use only and must be approved by the state’s 911 board, he explained. With the relocation of Montgomery County’s dispatch center to Building D with the city service, the state has approved 911 funds to cover some of its cost that otherwise would not be eligible.
Dispatchers do more than talk on the phone
Independence Police Chief Jerry Harrison explained that, while the city’s dispatchers were already highly trained in their roles, additional training and certification was required for the new 911 system. Dispatchers are certified in Emergency Medical Dispatch, Emergency Fire Dispatch and Emergency Police Dispatch, he explained, and complete 40 hours of continuing education annually.
“The training facilitates a formal method of call taking and protocols that ensure we are working efficiently and gathering consistent information on every call,” Harrison said. “Additionally, with extensive Emergency Medical Dispatch training, our dispatchers are able to guide callers through the process of providing assistance to someone in a medical crisis – such as performing CPR or the Heimlich Maneuver – while emergency responders are on the way.”
Six full-time and one part-time dispatcher work rotating schedules, Harrison explained, and their duties encompass much more than simply taking calls and dispatching the appropriate emergency response team. In addition to calls coming in via the eight dedicated 911 lines, three administrative phone lines also are answered in the dispatch center and routed to the appropriate departments. Dispatchers also take non-emergency police calls from citizens who wish to report crimes or other problems. They manage the police department’s records system and disburse records as requested. They enter all data related to police ticketing, warnings and police-initiated stops. They monitor security video at several city facilities, and, in times of natural disasters or other crises, dispatch serves as the central command center for all emergency response.
“The dispatch center is vital to the safety and well-being of our community,” Cowan said.