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SD goes high-tech with new 911 system

The service will link all 911 dispatch centers in the state and will improve location accuracy of 911 calls

The Daily Republic

MITCHELL, S.D. — South Dakota is on the leading edge for 9-1-1 dispatch services with a new network that will link all dispatch centers in the state, and Mitchell was among the first to implement the new technology.

Dispatch centers, officially known as public safety answering points, around the state are implementing a system called Next Generation 9-1-1, which is a system of hardware, software, data and operational policies that includes a statewide digital telephone system and an IP-based network that links all dispatch centers together.

"This is a first for South Dakota," said State 9-1-1 Coordinator Shawnie Rechtenbaugh. "We are blazing new territory with this statewide deployment of our Next Generation 9-1-1 system."

With NG 9-1-1, a dispatch center that is unable to answer 9-1-1 calls due to a power outage or other disaster could route its calls to a neighboring center. As well as allowing PSAPs to transfer 9-1-1 calls to other dispatch centers, NG 9-1-1 will allow people to make 9-1-1 calls via text, photo or video messages.

Rechtenbaugh said the Mitchell Emergency Communications Center was the fifth PSAP in the state to cut over to NG 9-1-1. Eight have implemented the system so far. According to Marlene Haines, communications supervisor for the Mitchell Department of Public Safety, the department made the switch on June 10, 2015.

Before the switch, the Mitchell Department of Public Safety had a back room with an electronics bank solely to support the 9-1-1 system. The new system is backed up to state-owned servers, cutting costs for Mitchell's Department of Public Safety.

"For the most part, the state now owns this equipment. They'll be responsible for the installs and replacement costs from here on out," Haines said.

The Mitchell PSAP answers 9-1-1 calls from six counties — Aurora, Brule, Davison, Hanson, Hutchinson and McCook, as well as the Oacoma area in Lyman County — spanning about 3,800 square miles, making it the eighth largest coverage area in the state.

However, it ranks third in the state by population, serving more than 44,000 people and covering roughly 120 miles of Interstate 90.

"On any given day, we cover quite a stretch of interstate. The amount of calls that we can receive just from interstate people makes our center really, really busy," Haines said. "I don't know if we're the busiest, but we're among them."

The dispatch center covering the largest area of South Dakota is North Central Regional E9-1-1, based in Mobridge, which dispatches police, fire and EMS services to eight counties, from Harding County in northwest South Dakota to McPherson and Edmunds counties near Aberdeen, spanning roughly 11,000 square miles.

However, the Mobridge center covers about 20,000 people, less than half the population served by the Mitchell center, and there are few major thoroughfares located in the northern counties, Haines said.

NG 9-1-1
In 2008, Congress asked for a plan to implement an IP-based emergency network around the nation. The Federal Communications Commission and National 9-1-1 Office then worked with telephone carriers and vendors to produce the NG 9-1-1 system.

Multiple states have begun to implement the new system, but none have completed the process, and South Dakota is among the early adopters.

"We haven't had the luxury of seeing other states go first," Rechtenbaugh said.

Although the Mitchell dispatch center has the NG 9-1-1 technology in place, a nearby PSAP could not pick up Mitchell 9-1-1 calls just yet.

Rechtenbaugh tentatively expects all South Dakota PSAPs to adopt NG 9-1-1 by mid-2017. The new system is designed to operate on a broadband emergency services IP network, called an ESInet, which will not be deployed until a majority of PSAPs have installed NG 9-1-1.

Rechtenbaugh said the ESInet could be installed for some PSAPs as early as this fall.

"The ESInet is really the backbone of the Next Generation 9-1-1 system. Once the ESInet is in place and all of the PSAPs are migrated over to it, this will allow our 9-1-1 system to better handle all the different devices people use to communicate today," Rechtenbaugh said.

If power was lost in Mitchell today, calls would be redirected to the Davison County Sheriff's Office, but the mapping system and various other pieces of technology would be unavailable.

Although NG 9-1-1 will ultimately allow other PSAPs to pick up Mitchell's calls if necessary, it may not be able to send help.

The state's radio system is not being updated along with the phone line and broadband network, so a PSAP in Howard or Tyndall may not be able to tell a police officer, firefighter or EMT that help is needed.

"They can take our calls, but we'd have to figure out how to make that form of communication yet work. We don't have the radio system yet to back up what the phone system's going to do for us," Haines said.

Adding more work for some centers is the merging of dispatch centers with state radio locations. State radio was designed to dispatch Highway Patrol, Game, Fish and Parks and other state employees. At its peak, there were six state radio locations in South Dakota, including one in Kimball.

But over the past five years, most state radio locations have been closed, and the responsibilities were taken over by a local dispatch center. Only one state radio location remains, located in Huron.

"Will that one remain open much longer? I don't know," Haines said.

Haines said the state contracts with local PSAPs and pays them to take over state dispatch services.

In 9-1-1's early years, dispatchers couldn't see a caller's location or even callback number, so if a call was disconnected, there was no way to send help. In the 1980s, 9-1-1 centers sought access to more information and introduced enhanced 9-1-1.

With enhanced 9-1-1, dispatchers could see the caller's phone number, and a computer displayed a general location to identify where a call was coming from.

To fund the new technology, the state approved a 75-cent surcharge to every phone line. That charge was raised to $1.25 in 2012 and can be found on every bill for every phone contract, both cellular and landlines.

The new statewide system is being purchased and maintained using about $0.38 of the $1.25 fee from every phone line, Rechtenbaugh said.

Cell phones have caused funding problems for 9-1-1 dispatchers who rely on the surcharges, Haines said. As cell phones grew in popularity, landline use began to drop, but the surcharges received from cellular and landline contracts typically evened out.

Lately, however, wireless growth has virtually stopped, Haines said, but landline use continues to drop.

"How many cell phones can a family have? Everybody has wireless now," Haines said. "What we'll see is most young people ... aren't even putting in hard wire phones anymore. As of now, there is no way to make up the lost revenue."

Cell phones also caused problems with 9-1-1 technology. In cellular's early days, dispatchers could not see a caller's location or callback number.

"Wireless initially took us right back to where we were in the '70s, not knowing where anybody was or the number they were calling," Haines said.

These problems were eventually addressed, and Haines said she expects wireless providers to continue improving the degree of accuracy and speed of information sent to dispatchers.

Haines was not concerned about Mitchell's financial situation, and the station is even seeking to hire another dispatcher, which would bring its dispatcher total to 11.

The Mitchell PSAP is projected to receive $208,500 from surcharges, plus a $68,400 bonus for serving more than 30,000 people or three counties.

The revenue is initially collected in Pierre and is then distributed to counties based on how many phones are in the county. The county usually then pays a fee to the dispatch center.

Because the Mitchell Emergency Communications Center serves more than three counties and more than 30,000 people, it receives extra funding.

"There's efficiencies in that, rather than everybody trying to run a PCAP center, so what they're doing is encouraging becoming regionalized," Haines said.

Aurora, Brule, Hanson, Hutchinson and McCook counties also pay a fee to the Mitchell PSAP to handle their 9-1-1 calls. Davison County does not pay a fee because the county and city are "one in the same" when it comes to emergency services, Haines said.

Mitchell's dispatchers
Last year, Mitchell dispatchers answered 21,171 calls. Of those, 14,420 were 9-1-1 calls, and 14,836 were from people in Davison County.

Of Mitchell's 10 full-time dispatchers, seven have been serving for five years or more, the point at which Haines called them veterans.

"They're very quick to make decisions. They have a lot of confidence in what they're doing because they've done it many times," Haines said.

Haines praised her staff, saying each is required as part of the big picture to serve the public and to serve the emergency responders with whom they work.

Three dispatchers have even been awarded for their work. Ryan Titze was awarded American Legion Post 18's Outstanding Communications Officer of the Year award and the Top Student award at the training academy in Pierre in October 2014. In January, Jerry Fradet was given the Mitchell Department of Public Safety's Pursuit of Excellence Award, given to one DPS employee each year. And Kira Stammer was named Top Student during her time with the training academy last year.

"It would be very difficult to replace any of them right now," Haines said.

Haines said being a dispatcher is not right for everyone, and dispatchers must always be ready to respond to a variety of situations.

Among the best calls to come through the center was a couple asking for help in delivering a baby, assisted by Communication Officer Debbie Vaughn.

"To hear that baby cry, wow. That was the best," Haines said.

Among the worst was an August crash that killed four people after a man was spotted driving the wrong way on Interstate 90.

"That one just escalated and escalated, and the calls just bombarded this center. That was a bad one," Haines said.

Kira Stammer, who was working that day in August after taking the job about three months earlier, said the crash was the most memorable call she's taken so far, and it strengthened her resolve as a dispatcher.

"If anything, I think it solidified my desire to be here, because I got to be an important part of getting responders to the scene, and I saw exactly how important dispatchers really can be in situations like that," Stammer said.

Haines said a smaller town like Mitchell sees all the same problems as Sioux Falls or Rapid City, though probably on a lesser scale, but it can be more difficult because the chances of taking a call from a friend or family member is high.

When that happens, she said it's important to treat it like any other call, and no one has let her down.

Ultimately, Haines said the job is hard but satisfying. She's been with Mitchell DPS for more than 25 years, and she wouldn't change a thing.

"It's been a good 25 years," Haines said. "I wouldn't give it up for anything."

Copyright 2016 The Daily Republic
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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