Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Emergency call centers will consolidate in U.P.

By DAN SMALLWOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING – Improvements to the capacity and reliability of some Upper Pennsula and mid-Michigan counties’ 9-1-1 systems are starting to be put in place.
Gary Johnson, the director of Marquette County’s central dispatch, is helping to consolidate systems with a $1.6 million federal grant and $400,000 from participating counties.
A new network will include seven individual counties’ systems and a State Police center and add failsafe mechanisms in case one system is overloaded with calls.
Johnson said the revamped system will enable emergency dispatchers to better aid callers, including making the network more compatible with cell phones as they become more common.
A similar project is underway in Clinton, Livingston, Ingham and Eaton counties.
The U.P’s virtual consolidation, which began in 2007, will allow call centers to share calls and dispatch resources. The streamlining will also shave maintenance costs and makes dispatch operations “much more nimble,” according to Johnson.
State 9-1-1 Administrator Harriet Miller-Brown said Internet, or IP-based, inter-connectivity is important, especially in major emergencies, such as a large accident or plane crash when 9-1-1 systems can easily get overloaded.
In such situations, Miller-Brown said the system’s inherent redundancy is helpful, keeping calls in the system until they are handled. Lines would have a backup in case of an emergency.
If one center goes down because of too many calls, thus overwhelming the phone lines, then another in the network will automatically pick up incoming calls. Right now, such transfers must be done manually, which can be time consuming in situations where time is of the essence.
While redundancy normally is a dirty word in government, in emergency work “redundancy is good, because it means public safety continues,” she said.
Johnson said the computer-aided dispatch system upgrades are underway and that Marquette County is getting ready to award a contract for the work.
He said he expects the first phase to be done by mid-2012.
When completed, the networked system will cover all U.P. counties, linking systems in Marquette, Chippewa, Delta, Alger, Iron, Menominee and Dickinson counties and an eighth dispatch center operated by the State Police in Negaunee.
The dispatch center in Chippewa County also fields calls for Luce and Mackinac counties. The center in Iron also takes 9-1-1 calls for Gogebic. The State Police-operated center receives calls from Houghton, Keweenaw, Schoolcraft, Ontonagon and Baraga counties.
Eventually, Johnson said, the IP-based system will allow 9-1-1 to receive text messages, photos and videos from callers.
The changes will also save Marquette County “thousands, if not tens of thousands, per year,” Johnson said, though he said he couldn’t give any hard figures until the contract was in place.
The effort reflects counties’ efforts to consolidate and collaborate where possible, Johnson said.
“It’s important that we work together,” he said, with budgets under severe strain. The proposed system, he said, “could work everywhere, but we have to share in the U.P.
“We have to be a little more creative” to make ends meet, Johnson said.

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