By Christopher Vondracek
ESInet is making a more nimble 911 Center a possibility in North Carolina’s capital city.
The City of Raleigh, North Carolina and Wake County, a 1 million urban area who shares a 911 Center for dispatch, and recently they begun taking their first calls on ESInet (or emergency services internet protocol), a broadband-enabled network that makes PSAPs more resilient and effective. According to a release from AT&T, Raleigh-Wake County is the first public safety answering point system in the nation to implement AT&T’s i3 ESInet service. “We were working on a 50-year old technology, the old analog phone system, the old copper wire technology, and a lot of them still work,” said Dominick Nutter, director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center. “But with the phone systems going IT-based, we felt like it was time for a shift.”
Now, residents making the more-than one million calls annually in the Raleigh-Wake County area have their distress calls routed to a telecommunicator on the broadband system. And the shift happened just in time for hurricane season. “The big part is redundancy and resiliency of our individual 911 centers,” said Nutter. “If something gets cut between us and anywhere else, the phone calls can automatically be routed to another connection. There is a second pathway. On the old analog way, we could be cut anywhere, and we might lose that connection.”
The built-in dependability and flexibility of the new system was on display during Hurricane Florence. Even though they’re about 2 hours from the coast, they lent a hand to dispatch centers in the impacted area. “We were, during the middle of the hurricane, running dispatch for New Hanover County, which is Wilmington,” said Nutter. “They’re on the old system, and had they remained there, they likely would’ve failed. But we were able to, with AT&T, to revamp the architecture to connect their analog with our ESInet, and we took the phone calls from out on the coast of Carolina. We were also able to bring some telecommunicators to our center and then they were able to dispatch to Wilmington.” The model could be used in future disaster situations far away from the Carolinas. “It could be someone experiencing an earthquake in California, and we’d do the same thing,” said Nutter.
Late last year North Carolina opted in to FirstNet, and Nutter said Raleigh officials are also interested. “That’s something we’re evaluating, and we’re supposed to have a meeting in November with FirstNet.” But the latest upgrade in technology has meant that they’ve taken what a release from AT&T calls “the critical first step toward next-generation 911.” Already, Wake County and Raleigh are receiving text message distress calls. Within a month, Nutter anticipates building the capacity to allow videos and pictures, as well, to be sent. “This is a significant change, and it’s very important for our hearing and speech impaired community,” Nutter said. “Years ago, they had to be around a device near their homes. Now, the hearing and speech-impaired community will text us. Of if they see something, they can take a video or picture and then text that to us. It’s a tremendous shift.”
Nutter’s 911 center counts roughly 140 people in its ranks, including about 112 people who are answering phones. The fear of data overload isn’t felt by Nutter. He welcomes the public having more ways to share information. “It’s a good thing because we’re all human, and you see something and might not be the exact same thing that you remember. But having a picture of a suspect wearing a red and white sweatshirt that you may’ve thought was pink and grey, now you have that essential data.”
Nutter said approximately 70 percent of their 911 calls come in from cellphones, and while the technology may very soon be available to send videos or images, Nutter said he still relies on the old-fashioned phone calls. “We always encourage people to text if you must, call if you can. Texting can take much longer to process an emergency incident, and it really is a rare exception when people should be texting.” He imagined if someone were in a home during a break-in and the distress call was made in hopes of eluding the intruder. “It’s important to have the capability.”
While ESInet and the fiber-optic-based phone service may in the long run save taxpayer dollars by building efficiencies, Nutter says the reason for any change is primarily the improved quality of outcomes. “It’s like car insurance,” Nutter said. “We’re not in the business of saving money. We’re in the business of delivering protection to our clients. And that means we’re in the business of making sure we have the best products available.” The 911 Center for the City of Raleigh oversees the county fire and EMS dispatch. “I think the most important thing is the reliability and speed that has been greatly increased,” said Nutter.
Christopher Vondracek is a freelance journalist living in Washington D.C., most recently with Courthouse News.