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Walworth dispatch to get upgrade

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Pedro Oliveira Jr.
September 25, 2009
— Video from 911 calls soon could give police details about emergencies before they arrive.

That’s where emergency technologies are headed, said Walworth County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Maritz, who heads the communications division.


The county is installing a new computer-aided dispatch system that should be ready for use by February.


The system will allow dispatchers to receive cell phone messages containing pictures, video and other data. It also would help dispatchers locate callers faster, Maritz said.


“It is something that has some potential in some instances of being a life saver,” he said. “Being able to send video feeds of crashes and damage to vehicles and things like that, that might allow the dispatch center to better send more appropriate personnel units.”


Although the new equipment will make Walworth County ready for video, it might be a while before telephone networks are ready.


Maritz said telephone companies need to develop the technology for transferring video and other data to 911 dispatchers.


“It’s going to be a whole new set of issues as to how we’re going to receive that new 911 data and how we respond,” Maritz said.


He expects phone companies to come out with updated technology as early as 2010.


“It’s going to occur in the most populated areas first because it’s going to be more cost and technologically feasible in those areas,” he said.


Walworth County will be ready.


“We’ll be in a position where the hardware we’re going to be installing already has those capabilities,” he said.


In addition to making the dispatch center ready to receive images and video, the new computer aided dispatch system will save keystrokes.


Dispatchers now have to enter call information two or three times. The new system will automatically capture and record the caller’s phone number, address and other information.


State support

Walworth County taxpayers are paying $340,000 for the upgrades, but not all dispatch centers have the same financial support, said Paul Logan, president of the Wisconsin chapter of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials.


APCO, along with the Wisconsin chapter of the National Emergency Number Association, has worked to pass legislation to increase funding for 911 centers across the state. Without more state assistance, they say, dispatch centers can’t stay up to date with technology.


“The technology we have today works,” Logan said. “People call 911 and we get them. But in order to move to the next generation, the funding isn’t there. That’s what’s holding us up the most.”


Training standards

Association officials want a state agency to standardize training and quality assurance at dispatch centers across Wisconsin.


“One of the things that has always concerned me is the fact that there is no certification for dispatchers,” said Jay Loeffler, vice president of APCO’s Wisconsin chapter.


“There are certifications for bartenders and hair stylists, but a 911 dispatcher doesn’t have to have any major qualifications in order to accomplish those duties.”


Departments develop their own training strategies, and they do a good job in their own terms, Loeffler said. But he said it is important to have state oversight and funding to improve services.


That idea was almost signed into law in the latest budget cycle but was removed because of Wisconsin’s budget shortfall.


“Right now, Wisconsin doesn’t have any centralized 911 authority of any kind, whereas most states have some kind of office that coordinates other centers,” Maritz said. “Probably the first starting step would be to get that coordinating office up at the state level, obviously when economic times are a little bit less unsettled than what they are right now.”


Local concerns

At the county level, Maritz’s biggest concern is locating cell phone callers because it’s still not an exact science, he said.


“The ability to find those people and get them the help they need is what probably does cause us the most concern,” the captain said. “We wish it could be more exact.”


The location of callers using older cell phones without GPS chips is calculated by triangulating the signal from towers connected to the phone. It’s a convoluted and imprecise system.


All new cell phones have GPS chips built in, giving dispatchers the precise location of the caller.


Penny, a Walworth County dispatcher who asked that her last name not be published, recalls saving a man’s life because of GPS technology.


The call came during a spring flood a couple of years back. A man got trapped while trying to clear a clogged culvert near Bowers Road, and his daughter called for help.


“She dialed 911 and couldn’t tell me where she was,” Penny said. “It mapped almost exactly to where they were at—Bowers Road, somewhere between Elkhorn and East Troy.


“That was just amazing,” she said.


DOS AND DON’TS OF 911

-- If you call 911, stay on the line. Even if it’s a mistake, officials ask that you stay on the line and confirm everything is OK. Dispatch center policies mandate dispatchers follow up on all hang-up calls.


-- Sometimes 911 calls take longer to connect with a dispatcher than it would take you to call another person. That happens because your telephone company has to process the call as an emergency call and send your location information along with the call. If your call is taking a while to connect, don’t hang up and call again. That would make a dispatcher have to call you back for that original hang-up call, and that would make two dispatchers busy trying to reach you.


-- Pay attention when you let children play with your phone. Dispatchers frequently get calls from kids playing with their parents’ cell phones.


“We get a number of misdialed calls,” Walworth County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Maritz said. “It’s not a problem; it’s accidental; they didn’t mean to call, we understand.


“But it’s much easier if they stay on the line.”



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