Study: 911 regionalization would benefit from new technology

The study suggests it would be effective but expensive for counties to coordinate computer-aided dispatch systems and radio communications purchases

By Daniel Walmer
The Sentinel

CARLISLE, Pa. — Better coordination between Cumberland County’s 911 system and those in other counties would improve quality of service, particularly as “next generation 911” technologies such as texting 911 and sending photos and video to call centers become more common, a recently competed study found.

However, opportunities for cost savings would be limited, and some regionalization proposals could require significant up-front costs, said Sid McConahy, director of operations at Mission Critical Partners, which conducted the 911 regionalization study. He spoke during a county commissioners meeting Wednesday.

Those findings left the commissioners weighing the benefits of regionalization against the potentially overwhelming costs.

“We’re never, ever going to be able to buy the next latest, best, greatest thing — we’ll go bankrupt,” Commissioner Jim Hertzler said. “You can throw a lot of money at this problem, or you just have to be responsible in terms of when you actually jump to make these huge investments.”

Regional recommendations

The study examined 911 technologies in Cumberland, Perry and Dauphin counties. McConahy said one of the most pressing recommendations is the need for Cumberland County to install equipment to accept text messages from 911. This is especially important because Dauphin and York counties already have technology allowing 911 texting, so people might text 911 from Cumberland County, not knowing that the technology is not yet available here, he said.

The cost to accept text messages depends on the system used, but could be minimal, possibly as low as a one-time $480 instillation fee, he said.

The study also recommended the county begin working with Perry County on combining their customer premise equipment for 911 phone systems, something that could save the county $226,000 in capital costs over purchasing the equipment on its own the next time it needs to be replaced, he said.

McConahy then provided several longer-term but potentially more expensive recommendations. Nationally planned “next generation” 911 technology is expected to allow the streaming of photos and videos to 911 call centers, which will quickly use up available bandwidth, McConahy said. Within 10 years, 911 systems will have to use fiber connectivity for communication — but that is currently cost-prohibitive to install, and the state is negotiating with companies that own existing fiber connectivity lines for the right to use those systems.

The study also suggested that counties coordinate computer-aided dispatch systems and radio communications, but those initiatives could be expensive. It would cost an estimated $650,000 for Cumberland County to make its computer-aided dispatch compatible with Dauphin County or with York and Lebanon counties, the study found.

Cost and value

While the state had initially touted regionalization as a way to save money, the study found that many initiatives did not demonstrate significant financial savings unless there are many counties involved, McConahy said.

The cost of 911 services has been a topic of discussion in Cumberland County, which pays $2.5 million annually from its general fund to subsidize the county’s 911 call center. That amount would balloon to $5.4 million annually if the state Legislature does not authorize a renewal of 911 telephone fees set to expire at the end of June.

Some increased costs may be unavoidable as the county adapts its system to newer ways of sending messages to 911, such as texting, Commissioner Barbara Cross said.

“The responsibility we have at a county level is to answer however it comes in, and that’s an investment we have to make,” Cross said.

The regionalization study had been expected to involve an eight-county region when the commissioners approved it in May 2014, but the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency later allowed other Midstate counties to conduct their own studies, McConahy said.

That concerned Hertzler, who had expressed skepticism that the study would yield any meaningful results. He said he’s now puzzled that the state would fund the study yet not take any action based on its results.

McConahy said that it appears the state is not going to force 911 regionalization on counties immediately, leaving it up to the counties to develop arrangements with each other.

The Cumberland County commissioners have not yet announced any plans to pursue any specific 911 regionalization initiatives.


©2015 The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.)

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