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County 911 coming closer to allowing texts for help

Commissioners authorize dispatch to make hardware, software upgrades

WARREN — Hundreds of texts pleading for help in 2007 as a gunman made his way through the Virginia Tech campus were sent to 911, only to disappear into the ether.

The tragedy left emergency responders wondering if more lives could have been saved if the messages had been answered by trained dispatchers and then passed on to law enforcement, Ernie Cook, director of the Trumbull County 911 Center, said.

A vision for the next generation of 911 services began to gain traction across the country, and now, more than a decade later, Trumbull County is on the verge of adopting new technologies, Cook said.

The ability to text instead of call 911 could be beneficial in many common situations, not only during a mass shooting.

Any person who doesn’t want to alert an aggressor he or she is seeking help, like a victim of domestic violence, will be able to discreetly send a text and interact with a live dispatcher, Cook said.

Someone in need of assistance won’t just be able to type a text to 911, though that will be the first wave of new technology to come, Cook said.

“By spring we may have text 911, and that is only one feature of next gen 911,” Cook said.

Imagine an armed robbery unfolding and being able to livestream the scene to a 911 dispatcher who can send the information on to emergency responders so they can walk into the situation with the most information possible, Cook said.

Trumbull County commissioners on Wednesday authorized Cook to move forward with new hardware and software upgrades that will make the new technology compatible with the three primary connected dispatching centers in Trumbull County.

The new tech may be possible in the spring, Cook said.

Using $550,100 in wireless surcharge fees collected for county 911 systems statewide, Niles, Lordstown and the county center in Howland will get the new software and hardware. Some of the funds, about $112,000, also will be used to upgrade software at the former Warren city dispatching center, which acts as a backup center for the county center and so must have the latest equipment.

The three primary centers automatically share all of the call information and can answer calls for each other, so they all need to be on the system, Cook said.

The only other dispatching center is in Girard, but it is a secondary center. Because of that, any 911 call that comes into Girard from a cellphone must be answered by one of the primary centers and then transferred to Girard dispatchers, Cook said.

About 77 percent of 911 calls are placed on wireless phone now, Cook said. The county and the city do not have a contract, and no money is exchanged for the service.

So, once the county, Niles and Lordstown will be able to accept texts from people, it is still unclear what procedures will need to be adopted in order for Girard’s dispatchers or first responders to get the information, Cook said.

Perhaps the text would go straight to the county 911 center and then dispatchers could send it over other dispatching equipment to Girard dispatchers, Cook said.

However, it is unclear if the Girard dispatchers would be able to do an active text exchange just yet, Cook said.

“We will get it all connected and figured out,” Cook said. “It may be the city needs to buy some equipment.”

Girard is getting new software, too, and getting a hard connection data line to connect to the county center directly that is ready to come online, Cook said.

“They have the line hooked up and are waiting for the equipment to get it on,” Cook said.

Cook is applying for a $110,000 grant to get the final upgrade piece in the “text 911” puzzle. The federal grant is being awarded by the Ohio Department of Commerce, and Cook said he expects to know if the county got it about a month after the Dec. 31 deadline to turn in the application.

Cook said the system also comes with a safety feature that will “ping” a 911 texter to let him or her know if the message doesn’t go through and ask him / her to call instead.

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