The Future of 911 Calls: Wireless Direct

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Massachusetts State Police departments have started implementing the latest technology for 911 services, Wireless Direct, the Telegram reported. This program also includes a system called Next Generation 911, and the two used together can save crucial time on a 911 call, as well as provide accurate locations of callers in distress. According to Norm Fournier, deputy executive director of Massachusetts State 911 Department, Wireless Direct and NextGen 911 can “save 30 or 40 seconds” of time on an emergency call. Wireless Direct saves time by routing calls from cell phone users directly to the local dispatch center, or the public safety answering point (PSAP). According to the National 911 Program report, 80 percent of nationwide 911 calls made in 2016 were from cell phones.

The State 911 Department and MassGIS have been working together to implement NextGen 911 to be used alongside Wireless Direct. Phase 1 of NextGen 911 uses cell towers to provide a dispatcher with an approximate one-mile radius location of a 911 caller on their console’s map. Phase 2 is more accurate, because it gives the dispatcher the exact location of a caller, with latitude and longitude data, using cell phone GPS. According to the Telegram, Fournier explained how departments have struggled with the broad location radius Phase 1 provides for callers and the accuracy of Phase 2, where the real efficiency comes in. He said, “We need Phase 2 information and we need it fast.” 

Sgt. Timothy J. Burke of Uxbridge also commented on the efficiency of Phase 2, saying that the location information has been very helpful to his department. In July, police were able to quickly and safely rescue a group of kayakers stranded near Blackstone River after one of the boaters called 911 on a cell phone.

Sgt. Burke also discussed how Phase 1 is problematic, saying the state department has received several calls that weren’t coming from Uxbridge, because a caller’s cell phone pinged off of a tower in town. After a 30-day trial, the State Police department opted to stop using Phase 1 of NextGen, and have calls first directed to a call center to ensure the local dispatch was answering calls only appropriate for the area.

Beginning in December, it will also be possible for Massachusetts’ residents to text 911 instead of calling. Sgt. Burke says this option will be particularly useful for situations where an audible call could be dangerous.

Another part of the Wireless Direct system is Rapid SOS, a text box that pops up on a dispatcher’s screen with information about a caller’s location and number. If a caller registers for Smart911 online, personal information that they provide will also be shown to dispatch if they ever need to call 911, according to the Telegram.

Massachusetts began using Wireless Direct last year, and now 85 percent of the state is covered by it. The state is offering extra grant funding to cities that aren’t yet involved in the program to encourage enrollment.

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November 26, 2018

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