Next-generation 911 spreads to local Fla. departments

One county recently purchased a system using a $100,000 state grant

Jed Pressgrove
Government Technology

SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. — Sarasota County, like many Florida counties, must deal with emergencies on the water.

Sarasota's 911 Coordinator Sally Lawrence recalled a recent situation where a group on a boat called 911 because someone on board was injured. The group was ordered to take the boat to a particular island to meet responders. Through a real-time map produced by a next-generation 911 system, Lawrence’s team was able to see that the boat was moving toward another island, so another team of responders was sent to that island to assist the injured person when the boat arrived. 

“The old tech would have sent us to the wrong island,” Lawrence said.

Such next-generation 911 tech is slowly taking hold in other local areas in Florida.

Thanks to a $100,000 state grant, Manatee County recently bought the cloud-based Radius Plus package from RapidDeploy and plans to install it within a couple of months, according to IWCE’s Urgent Communications. This technology allows for texting in any language between callers and operators and for video to be sent to public safety answering points. And as in the aforementioned boat emergency case in Sarasota County, personnel in Manatee County will be able to better identify the locations of callers through mapping.  

“Most counties in Florida and the nation are on legacy (computer-aided dispatch) systems that were developed many years ago for a standard 911 call,” Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur told Urgent Communications. “The progression in 911 and public safety is that there are many different ways to get a 911 call for help these days.”

To Saur’s point about counties relying on older tech, recent data from the National 911 Program shows that only 23 percent of reporting states offer next-generation 911 to all of their residents. Many states, including Florida, reported that they offer no such services.

Despite these statistics, two Florida counties, Collier and Sarasota, have indicated to Government Technology that they have implemented next-generation 911 tech to some extent. 

Bob Finney, communications director for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, said his county has been using a RapidDeploy CAD for disaster recovery and special events since summer 2018. Although Collier is not yet using the system for day-to-day operations, Finney cites its adaptability — a benefit of being in the cloud — as a big deal for Florida specifically. If a hurricane knocks out 911 infrastructure for a number of counties, the product allows for the creation of an “ad-hoc CAD system” so personnel can still respond to emergencies. 

Finney also praised the modern interface, which is an invaluable aspect for 911 workers who are used to other systems. 

“The feedback we’ve gotten has been great,” Finney said. “It’s because it’s so intuitive … I thought we were going to get a lot of groaning.” 

Lawrence said Sarasota County implemented RapidDeploy’s mapping component late last year. As a 30-year veteran in the field, she has been awestruck by how much information one can see on the map, which will display various devices in the Internet of Things, whether it’s people’s cellphones or a smart refrigerator in a building. 

Lawrence added that unlike other comprehensive mapping technologies that can be difficult to retrofit with existing systems, the mapping component was easy to integrate. Additionally, her operators have been pleased with how the system extracts information from the phones of callers. 

“Instead of the operator having to open up another Web page and punch in the number manually, it now happens effortlessly,” she said. “It just shows up on the Radius mapping interface.” 

While most areas in the United States have been reluctant to change their 911 systems, these counties in Florida showcase some momentum behind cloud-based solutions. 

“I’m a big advocate for public safety in the cloud,” Saur told Urgent Communications. “The public-safety sector is very cautious and secure on data — and rightfully so. They’re slow to adopt new technology. But once you learn about the cloud and what it can do for public safety, you get more comfortable … I would suspect, in the [next] 10 years, the cloud’s not even going to be a conversation anymore; they [public safety agencies] will just be in it.”

The Texas-based RapidDeploy, whose headquarters were originally in South Africa, has gained a significant amount of business within the last year, including contracts with KansasCalifornia and Charleston County, S.C. Other companies, like Mark43 and Carbyne, have their own cloud-based products for 911. 

Lawrence pointed out that Sarasota County hasn’t added RapidDeploy’s texting feature to its system yet due to various legalities that need to be addressed first. While the opportunity to wield next-generation 911 is exciting, Lawrence would advise other local areas to make sure they check off all the legal boxes before implementing something. 

“There’s a lot of great technology out there, but you have to make sure you use it responsibly,” she said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.


©2020 Government Technology

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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