Meeting last week with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai (sixth from left) were (left to right) U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, Steve Galt (Gallatin County 911), Cindy Wagner (Randolph County 911), Doug Clark (Perry County 911), Crystal Gurley (Union County 911), Pai, Julie Irwin (White County 911), Juanita Kramer (Richland County 911), William Barrett and Ken Smith (Williamson County 911), Melinda Woker (Jackson County 911), Kyle Smith (Wabash County 911) and State Sen. Dale Fowler.
Members of an award-winning southern Illinois 911 organization met Sept. 19 with the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus and other officials.
The visiting officials toured the Saline County 911 facilities in Harrisburg and then met at Morello’s in that city with representatives of area 911 agencies for a
roundtable discussion of NG911 (next generation) operations and issues. Among those representatives were Julie Irwin, White County 911 coordinator, and Roy Kissel, chairman of the local 911 governing board.
The Saline County 911 Dispatch Center is one of the two data centers that serve the 13 agency counties of the southern Illinois consortium, which was formed more than 10 years ago by agencies that saw the ever-evolving landscape of technology as a challenge to the legacy 911 systems. The agencies agreed that something had to be done to get ahead of the curve to meet the upcoming challenges of emergency communications.
Over the last 10 years, the agencies have come together to acquire millions of dollars of grant funding, pushed legislation forward to allow for 911 IP connectivity and collectively agreed to many contractual obligations as a group in order to provide southern Illinois with NG911 services.
Though some agencies have dropped out over the years, the remaining 13 members constitute what was identified as the National NENA NG911 Pilot Project in 2011. The group was recognized by the National 911
Institute with an award of excellence for implementing a one-of-a-kind regional NG911 system in 2016.
The members gathered at the request of Shimkus to meet with current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and others to discuss how their experience as a member of the Counties of Southern Illinois (CSI) implementing NG911 can be duplicated in other rural areas in Illinois and around the nation. Shimkus serves on the National Next-Gen 911 Caucus.
The following items were noted by members as obstacles / challenges that were faced during the implementation process:
· Funding. There was no fiber connectivity in southern Illinois that could provide the backbone to the ESInet (Emergency Services Network). Through an NTIA grant and other sources, and in collaboration with Clearwave Communications, grant funding was acquired and connectivity achieved to further the project.
· Legislation. The group had to find support for and pass legislation (Public Act 096-1443) that would allow for 911 calls to be transmitted through an IP-based network.
· Cooperation. All participating agencies had to agree to many different contractual obligations as well as agree to work together for the betterment of emergency communications in southern Illinois through various agreements.
It has taken years of trips to Springfield, thousands of hours of data collection and scrubbing, network design and vendor selection to achieve what is the first of its kind in Illinois and across the nation, said Irwin.
The following were noted by members as current issues with NG911 deployment and operations:
· Wireless Location. Though required by the FCC, the accuracy for Phase II (caller location) information still lacks in rural communities due to the technology used by the carriers and the sparse tower locations.
· Subscriber Information Emergency Requests. Currently, 911 dispatchers have to manage law enforcement, fire department and EMS traffic in progress, in addition to answering active 911 calls. Irwin told Pai that it recently took her two hours to obtain caller information based off the request protocols established by the carriers. She
asked if the FCC could support a one number / one call national database for subscriber information to be used by emergency services.
· Uninitiated Phone 911 Calls. Uninitiated phones are typically old cell phones that have been discarded for regular use by customers or may be old, donated phones recirculated into the community by public service agencies such as ones that assist victims of domestic violence, to provide them with minimal ability to reach 911 services in an emergency. The phones cannot place any other calls except to 911. Unfortunately, 911 call centers across the nation are inundated with hundreds, if not thousands of calls each year from these phones, which only deliver an unreachable/unregistered number to the PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Point), usually (911) xxx-xxxx. These numbers cannot be called back by dispatch if the line is disconnected to assist the caller, and typically do not deliver Phase II location information with the call. Irwin noted that these types of calls make up about 10 percent of the overall calls received in her dispatch center. Usually the calls are from young
children using their parents’ old, discarded phones for games, or often, prank calls from younger individuals, who repeatedly call 911 for fun. These calls negatively impact 911 operations, as they can tie up the dispatchers’ time to answer the calls while attempting to manage other emergencies in progress.
· Text to 911. Though the CSI NG911 system is capable of receiving 911 text, video and audio, the wireless carriers have not made this service affordable to the 911 agencies. 911 agencies should not be negatively impacted by such a financial burden to provide NG911 service to the carriers’ customers.
· 911 funding sweeps by the State of Illinois. In order to attempt to balance the state’s budget, Illinois lawmakers are earmarking more than $5 million of 911 funds to be swept. If the sweep of 911 funds is completed, it will render the state’s 911 agencies ineligible for federal grant funding. The law further states that the sweep may not take place if an objection is made by a federal agency. The group requested that Pai support 911 in Illinois by filing his objection to the sweep
of any 911 funds for the balancing of the state’s budget.
Pai said he was grateful for the information and feedback, and he vowed to assist with attempting to alleviate the challenges that 911 systems face on a daily basis. Those present expressed their appreciation for his concern and attendance, as well as the presence of the other representatives, noting that the many years of work for 911 provided by Shimkus has been a tremendous help to the agencies in Illinois and across the nation.
Irwin said that she was proud to be a part of the consortium, noting that as the state is now requiring 911 systems to be NG911 compliant by 2020, southern Illinois is ahead of the rest of the state, including Chicago, as White County’s NG911 system went live in June 2015.
Those present included Pai and staff, Shimkus, state Sen. Dale Fowler, staff of U.S. Rep. Michael Bost and Patrick Halley, executive director of the NG911 Institute. CSI counties were represented by Melinda Woker of Jackson County and Julie Irwin of White County, chairman and vice-chairman, respectively, of CSI; Roy Kissel, chairman, White County 911; Lt. Tracy Felty, Saline
County 911 and CSI treasurer; Raymond D. Clark, Perry County 911 and CSI secretary; Ken Smith, Williamson County 911 and former CSI chairman; and these 911 officials: William Barrett, Williamson County and City of Marion; Juanita Kramer, Richland County; Crystal Gurley, Union County; Kyle Smith, Wabash County; and Steve Galt, Gallatin County.
Non-CSI members present included Cindy Wagner, Randolph County 911 and INENA Region 7 vice president.
Story and photo submitted by Barry Cleveland