Next Generation 911

WELLSBORO – Long time-Tioga County Emergency Services Director Dave Cohick is excited about some changes coming to his department – particularly, about the way people soon will be able to contact 911.

Calling it “next generation 911,” Cohick unveiled news that, hopefully by the end of the year, people will be able to text 911 from any cellphone and contact 911 via virtually any device, including refrigerators, gaming consoles such as PlayStation and X-Box – anything that is connected to the Internet.

In addition, the emergency services department, now in the basement of the courthouse, finally is getting a home of its own.

Work is slated to begin this spring on an addition to the new $5 million-plus center, at the former Fairways for Success building on the hill behind the Tokishi Building, if commissioners vote to accept bids for the project received late in January.

The project will be paid via Act 13 impact fee funds and other state grants.

Technological advances have brought the emergency services a long way since 1979, when Tioga County started dispatching for Wellsboro.

Cohick started working as a dispatcher for the county 29 years ago.

“We branched out after that to the entire county,” he said.

“On Apri1 1, 1979, the same number that we used for Wellsboro – 724-1234 – got pushed over to the communications center, then other fire departments started joining and we started dispatching them all,” he said.

The phone number for the public to dial was changed to 911 in 1989, and Potter County was added to the dispatch, Cohick said.

“We converted everything so if someone called 911, it quickly translated it to 724-1234,” he said.

That same year the comm center linked to that number from Verizon, “and we were able to see who the number belonged to,” he added.

Starting in 2000, the county began authorizing aerial photography to locate buildings and any

structures bigger than 10-foot by 10-foot on a map, he said.

The “dots,” which literally pop up as three dimensional, numbered 42,700 then, Cohick said.

“We had a dispatcher visit every one of those dots” to give each one that was a house an address and each road a name. “We were addressing south to north and west to east. It took her two years to visit them all,” he said.

More than 2,000 of the buildings are camps or hunting cabins, and each one is labeled a camp.

“There are churches, schools, dwellings, multi-family dwellings, businesses and so on, all labeled,” Cohick said.

The next step was to use a special computer program to measure every road and place an address point every 10.56 feet.

“So if you are a responder, you know exactly where you are going down a given road,” he said. “Even private lanes are given a name.”

As 911 continued to gain enhancements, “we knew where houses were and roads, and all that data is housed in a database at the courthouse and with Intrado, in Colorado and Florida.”

“When we became e911, we took phone numbers and outpulsed to a database and that gave us a name and address,” he said.

At first, data was produced at 55-percent accuracy. Now, for wired telephones, it is at 98 percent and continues to improve daily.

The network the comm center is part of is a complex mix of several surrounding counties that all work together to help each other and are hooked into each other.

“We dispatch for Tioga and Potter counties, except Stewardson Township in Potter County, because Clinton is closer,” he said.

Bradford County and part of McKean also are dispatched, but Bradford handles Canton.

In the same way, Morris and Liberty are dispatched into Lycoming County.

“Cameron County has 72 houses that have a phone number that comes from Potter County, so their calls come to us, we transfer to Elk and they dispatch,” Cohick explained. “Some in Lycoming are the same way; they call us and tell us there is a call.”

In order to make it easier with all the new phone numbers that have been added since cellphones became widely used, Verizon created a “tandem.”

“There is one in Altoona and State College, one in Scranton and Bloomsburg, and they are linked to State College and Altoona by reverse routing,” he said.

It doesn’t matter where calls come from. The system pinpoints each one and sends it where it needs to go, he added.

There are six dedicated 911 lines between Scranton and Bloomsburg, with six more business lines that are used automatically if the other lines are busy.

Cellphone towers of all the carriers are connected via a microwave network.

“When someone makes a call from a cellphone, your phone will see six or seven tower sites, and when it gets to a certain spot, it switches towers and you don’t even know it, via a switching network,” he said.

The way it works is each antenna has a phone number, so if someone dials 911, it hits that tower’s number, and dispatchers see that phone number, and “we know that the phone number is in a certain sector and what that footprint is supposed to do,” Cohick said.

If someone calls in on a cellphone with an emergency and doesn’t know where they are, Cohick said they look at a 1-mile radius around the nearest tower.

“We had a call come in on a cellphone from a guy who was lost, and his phone was hitting a Mansfield tower. The company said their antenna would cover 42 miles in Texas where the terrain is flat, but we know with our hilly terrain here, it is more like a mile.

“It took about an hour, but we found him,” Cohick said.

With all the PlayStation and X-Box consoles that are capable of sending messages to 911, there is bound to be some who will abuse the system and prank call.

Cohick said Tioga County already had to deal with that type of scenario several years ago, and he wrote about it for “Emergency Number Professional” magazine.

“Almost eight years ago, some kids on cellphones in Lawrenceville called 730 times and it took us awhile to find them, but we did,” he said. They were “charged with harassment by communication and they spent the rest of their teen years in detention until they were 18,” he said.

“With technology now, it wouldn’t take us as long” to find such culprits, he added.

All that needs to be worked out once the system officially is text-capable are the logistics.

“Carriers have two rules – the call has to be within 200 meters 67 percent of the time and within 500 meters 95 percent of the time,” he said. “With Next Gen and texting, we will get latitude and longitude.”

“There are three separate ways to get the text messages and we are not sure how we are going to do that yet. It doesn’t work now, but it will happen,” Cohick said.

“Now, anyone who tries to text 911 gets a “kickback” message that asks the caller to make a voice call to 911, because there is no text service to 911 at this time,” he said.

The counties have to get on board as well, which the state is trying to do as a whole.

“The state is trying to do it region by region,” he said.

An Emergency Services Internet Network, a private network between centers, will pass misdirected information.

“They already have it in Cameron, Clearfield, McKean, Elk, Warren and Erie counties,” Cohick said.

Those counties all are linked together. Elk and Clearfield have a 911 switch that can handle 100 positions, he added, so all the 911 calls in the other counties will be slaved to that switch.

“This will save money on maintenance phone costs,” Cohick said. “Right now, the county’s 911 phone bill is over $200,000 per year.”

Once the department moves into the new facility, there’ll be space to add dispatchers if call volume increases.

To date, 14 full-time and three part-time dispatchers are employed at the comm center.

“With the new facility and new equipment, we want to find the most cost-effective way to make this happen,” he said. “We will enhance even further, tying into Allegheny, Steuben, Yates, Schuyler and Chemung counties in New York. That project is in the works for hopefully within a year.”

About that same time, the 911 center should be in its new digs, he said, and he expects the transition to go “seamlessly.”