June 22, 2013

Upgrades to bring texting to Maine's 911 network

By CLARKE CANFIELD, The Associated Press

PORTLAND — When upgrades to Maine's emergency call system are completed next summer, people will be able to seek help using text messages, not just voice calls.

FairPoint Communications has begun the process of upgrading the network and equipment at the state's 26 public safety dispatch centers for Maine's next-generation 911 system.

When the job is complete next summer, Maine will be among the first states to have a next-generation emergency response network in place statewide, said Maria Jacques, director of the Maine Emergency Services Communications Bureau. In the future, people will be able to send photos, video and enhanced data over the network.

"The problem with the current-day system is it's only designed to handle voice calls, and we all know there are many different forms of communication out there that everybody is using on a daily basis that don't involve voice," Jacques said. "This system is designed to handle data and voice. You can use your imagination on what that might involve in the future. We probably can't even contemplate all the ways people will want to contact 911 in the future."

The next-generation 911 initiative has been in the works for a decade with the aim of updating 911 infrastructure nationwide to improve public emergency communications services in a wireless mobile society. FairPoint Communications has a $32 million five-year contract to install and maintain the system in Maine.

Besides having the technology to handle video and data, the new system will be faster and more reliable than the network now in use, said Karen Romano, a vice president at FairPoint.

"Today's technology comes from 1968," she said.

The texting feature will bring immediate benefits to many residents.

"For people who are unable to hear or speak, or it's not safe to speak, this'll be a great thing," Jacques said. "But if you're able to speak, the most efficient way to call is by voice."

Some residents already can send text messages to 911. Verizon Wireless announced this month that its Maine customers can now send 911 text messages – but only using the existing 911 network, not the upgraded one that will be completed next summer.

The four major wireless carriers in Maine – Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile – have agreed to roll out 911 text messaging services next spring, Jacques said.

But it's the future that will bring the bigger changes to Maine's emergency call system.

The new system will provide the platform for 911 dispatch centers to receive video, images and enhanced data. But wireless carriers and others must still develop standards on their end to transmit them, so it'll probably be a few years before people will be sending that information, Jacques said.

But when it happens, it'll mean that vehicles involved in car wrecks can automatically contact 911 with accident information, she said, or that people can send photos or videos of a person's injuries or perhaps a crime scene. Dispatchers will then be able to forward those things to police, firefighters, hospitals and others who would benefit, she said.

For instance, if a person sends a photo of somebody's injury in a car accident, doctors at a hospital could look at it and prepare themselves for the patient's arrival, she said.

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