Upgrade to 911 needed

A 911 system that can receive text messages, photos and videos is in the works for Washington County, but still likely years away.

The system, dubbed Next Generation 911, or NG911, is already being installed in some metropolitan Ohio communities, but will not become operational until the major cell phone carriers make the necessary adjustments, said Washington County 911 Coordinator Sgt. Richard Hays.

Though the technology is in its infancy, Hays said the upgrade will eventually be mandatory, and the local planning committee is already exploring potential avenues for pursuing the change.

“They haven’t reached any mandatory dates…just like the phase II upgrade where you could receive cell phone calls, this will be mandatory,” he said.

The push for a county-wide 911 system began after voters approved a phone tax in 2001. The system was fully activated in July 2005 and Phase II of the enhanced system was completed in 2008.

Phase II not only improved the dispatch center’s ability to take calls, but also to respond to them, said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.

“We can track 911 (call) locations easier now that we did before. We still have to do some triangulation, and we still have to call phone companies in some situations,” he said.

A more focused upgrade was completed around 2010, which improved data capacity and capability of the computer-aided dispatch systems at each of the county’s three dispatch centers, located at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Marietta Police Department and Belpre Police Department.

That upgrade cost around $150,000 and was paid for through the county 911 fund. The fund is bolstered by 25-cent and 50-cent fees charged respectively to Washington County cell phone and land line users.

Hays and the 911 planning committee, which consists of Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews, Belpre Mayor Mike Lorentz and Washington County Commissioner Ron Feathers, have seen a couple presentations from companies who could furnish the upgrade equipment for the newest proposed change. The software upgrade would likely cost somewhere between $300,000 to $500,000, said Hays.

Much of the computer hardware is outdated and would likely need upgraded as well, said Feathers. While any estimates are very rough, Feathers thought it could cost between $500,000 to $700,000 apiece to fully upgrade each of the three dispatch centers.

There has been some discussion as to how to fund the project, but nothing definitive, he added.

Last year, $142,813 went into the county’s wireless 911 fund and $144,000 went into the wired 911 fund, said Feathers.

Also a possibility in the future of the local 911 system is the idea of consolidating the three dispatch centers into a single unified center.

The idea was met with mixed support and resistance when suggested by Mincks in 2010.

“I’m sure it will be revisited,” Mincks said of the idea.

Feathers agreed that a consolidation effort is almost inevitable.

“I know there’s no way the county has that kind of money laying around to be able to roll out three new (dispatch systems),” he said.

Lorentz said he hopes to reach a resolution where Belpre will be able to retain its dispatch center after the upgrade.

“If we have floods and storms like (Tuesday night), I like having a backup system. I hope we remain with at least two,” he said of the county dispatch centers.