Local News

Tech upgrade will help NC 911 centers find cell callers faster

Posted January 29, 2018 6:24 p.m. EST

— "What is the location of your emergency?"

The first question by 911 dispatchers to callers gets help on the way as soon as possible. But older technology often hinders that when people use cellphones to call 911.

"We are in a technology-driven world, but unfortunately, our 911 center has not been driven to that," Richard Taylor, executive director of the North Carolina 911 Board, said Monday.

Cellphones account for three out of every four 911 calls in North Carolina, but at best, it takes at least 20 seconds for the system to get a fix on a caller's location. Even then, it's not always accurate.

"We’re constantly pinging back to see if we can get better information," Taylor said. "We have taken an analog system and have forced the way we communicate today into that analog system. ... It’s very important that we move toward a digital technology."

While Uber can track a caller's location instantly, he noted that people are connecting directly to the ride-sharing service directly through an app.

"Unfortunately, we don’t have a 911 app," he said.

To fix 911's communication problem, Taylor said, all 6,000 911 centers nationwide and every phone company that connects 911 calls have to upgrade their networks. North Carolina is moving on that front, having awarded a $99 million contract to AT&T last summer to build a new 911 network for the state.

The ESINet system will allow all 117 primary 911 centers statewide to connect through internet-based routing services, allowing the call centers to seamlessly communicate with one another. In addition to improved geo-location of cell calls and the ability to handle text messages, the high-speed connections will enable every center to serve as a backup for any other center in the state in the event of a natural disaster or an overload of emergency calls.

"Anything that speeds the response process can save lives and save property," Taylor said.

The Raleigh/Wake 911 center will be the first to be upgraded this spring, and it will take a couple of years to take the project statewide. Still, phone companies will have to change over their technology before the system is operational, but Taylor said he expects that will happen "within five years."