Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

TOP STORY >>City planning upgrades to emergency calls

By RICK KRON
Leader staff writer

Jacksonville’s 911 Communication Center is spending $100,000 more than it had originally budgeted to upgrade its phone and computer system, but with the upgrade the system will be able to pinpoint and track most cell phone calls. In 2005, the center dealt with 28,665 police calls, 1,988 fire calls and 2,346 ambulance calls—about 90 calls a day. The $220,000 upgrade approved by the city council Thursday night also gives the center access to a “live” 911 unit that is ready to roll if the center goes down, and that’s important because the center has gone down before. Two lightning strikes over an eight-day period in July 2002 shut down the center on Harris Road for a period of time. “We were down at least overnight after the second strike,” said Brenda Skinner, director of 911 Communications.

The lightning strikes destroyed a server in the building and then followed a cable and blew a laptop modem off the wall, charred the wall, spewing smoke and bits of plastic and metal. The lightning also exploded the keypad off the security gate and a plastic faceplate on a related piece of equipment, hitting one of the two dispatchers on duty. The strike also destroyed the computer that operated the center’s phones and radio. “Since then we’ve spent a bunch of money grounding our building, equipment and the area around us,” said Brenda Skinner, director of the 911 center. “Lightning won’t be a problem anymore, but we are the highest point in the center and you never know about tornadoes or other disasters.”

She said it was just good practice to have the back up unit available. “If something were to happen, the unit could be set up in just a matter of hours,” Skinner said, adding that until the back up was on line, calls would be routed to Pulaski County.
“And we would be in contact with them through cell phones, computers or by whatever means possible,” she said. As part of the upgrade, the center will also be able to better zero in on cell phone calls, even the pay-as-you go phone which usually aren’t registered. “We be able to locate the cell phone caller and even tract any movement,” Skinner said. She said this element of the upgrade was very important with the influx of cell phone calls the center receives. Citing past examples where this would have been helpful, Skinner tell s of a teen who tried to take a shortcut through the woods at the end of Cory. The teen ended up lost in a knee-deep swamp with snakes. He called 911 on the cell phone, but the center didn’t have the ability to locate him. Police had to go to where the teen entered the woods and use an air horn to lead him to safety.

Another time dispatchers received a call from a panicky young woman who said she was being held kidnapped in a trailer somewhere in Jacksonville. The cell phone went dead after that and the dispatchers were just left wondering if the call was a prank or an authentic plea. Skinner said the city and AT&T are still working out some off the particulars of the contract and upgrade, but she expects the work to take five or six weeks and be done by the end of March.

And how does other are police forces receive 911 calls:

•Calls made to 911 in Ward are automatically sent to the Lonoke Sheriff’s Office first because Ward does not have a 24-hour dispatch. Lonoke then transfers the calls to Ward PD. If on a cell phone in the Ward area and the tower giving you a signal is just inside the White County line, your call will go to White County. Brooke Strain, dispatcher with the Ward PD, said dispatch at Lonoke Sheriff’s Office has an alarm on the wall that goes off if something happens to the line. If the cord gets unplugged, power goes off, whatever, the alarm sounds. Brooke said she worked there when the bad ice storm came in 2004 and the system didn’t have any problems. It worked very well, she said.

•According to Billie Curtis, dispatch supervisor for the Beebe Police Department, a 911 call never comes in directly to them. All calls are routed to the White County Sheriff’s Office first, and then transferred over to Beebe.

•All 911 calls made to Cabot Police Department are routed directly to dispatch at the Cabot Police Department, they do not go to Lonoke Sheriff’s Office first, they go straight to Cabot Police Department, a dispatcher with the sheriff’s office said.