Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Southern Illinois Next Generation 911 project nears completion

When the counties of Southern Illinois organization power up their new, Next Generation 911 system for testing next month, they will be one step closer to completing a project that is nearly five years in the making.

Counties of Southern Illinois (CSI), a collection of 15 counties and the city of Marion, is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization preparing to launch the first system of its kind found anywhere in the United States.

Simply put, the Next Generation 911 system is 911 online and will allow users the ability to send pictures and videos as well as audio.  The CSI organization’s work was granted National Pilot Project status in 2009 by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and was made possible through partnerships with Clearwave Communications, Illinois Institute of Technology and Southern Illinois University’s Geography Department.  The more than $2 million project was largely funded through grants and built on the backbone of Clearwave Communications’ $43 million rural broadband initiative.

“It’s really exciting that we’re going to be able to do all this and that Southern Illinois is the only place in the nation that will have this when we come online later this year,” Johnson County 911 coordinator Jim Cuff said, adding that no where else in the nation is a project of its kind so close to launching. “It just speaks to the knowledge and cooperation that is going on down here.”

When the cooperative began, it consisted of nearly 20 counties throughout the southern region of Illinois.  Johnson County joined early with Jackson, Williamson and Saline counties laying the foundation for the project.

“We knew the more people we could get in this project, the better the project would be,” Cuff said of the snowball-like growth CSI experienced early on.

As the scope of the mission became clear and objectives identified, a few counties backed out deciding costs were too great and the feasibility of completion too uncertain.  Even with grants that covered the bulk of the costs, CSI members paid into development fees that in Johnson County are estimated to total $40,000 by the time the system is operational, said Cuff, adding that the cost to maintain the system will eventually reduce each member’s overall cost to maintain 911 Call Services due to the nature of consolidation.  Alexander, Pulaski, Massac, Union, Gallatin, White, Perry, Marion, Clay, Richland and Wabash counties are included in the cooperative that will share in the nation’s first NextGen-911 system to come online.

“Where else in Illinois, or likely anywhere else in the nation, do you have fifteen counties working together on a project? It’s unheard of; a feat in itself,” Cuff said.

Members of CSI will manage and share two data centers, with one located in Murphysboro and the other in Harrisburg, and have the capacity to reroute traffic and calls in times of need to any of the nearly 20 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) available on the network.  The Clearwave broadband initiative created a fiber optic infrastructure throughout all of Southern Illinois making NextGen-911 possible.  Cuff said emerging technologies such as telematics, text messaging, image support and video streaming are not part of today’s existing 911 services.

“Right now the only thing we can take is a voice call from somebody,” Cuff said.  “If you send a text to 911 it goes nowhere, and we’re not capable of receiving video or pictures either.”

Johnson County State’s Attorney Tambra K. Cain said emergency service providers would not be alone in using the enhanced data capacities of NextGen-911.

“In every criminal case, there is a certain amount and type of evidence that must be provided to any defendant,” Cain said.  “Often, the state will request 911 transcripts or audio recordings in preparing a case for trial.”

Cain said recordings play a valuable part in taking a case to its conclusion and adding video to the audio could provide useful for all parties.

“Not only would it aid prosecution in charging and convicting someone of committing a crime, but if a defendant is wrongly accused, it might exonerate him or her,” she said.

While Next Generation 911 has not yet launched anywhere else in the United States, the Emergency 911 system has been looked at as antiquated for some time, according to CSI project manager Pat Lustig.

“Over five years ago we realized that 911 systems had outlived the circuit switched based networks that have facilitated 911 call delivery for the last 20 years,” Lustig said in a 2012 BroadbandIllinois.org article.  “New technologies and consumer expectations were leading the way. There could only be one choice: transition to this new IP architecture.”

Lustig is one of four members of the CSI executive board, which includes chairman Ken Smith, secretary Jana Fear and treasurer Tracy Felty. The board overseas the management of the project and each CSI member supports the board through its 911 county coordinator.  Johnson County 911 coordinator said it is this network of teamwork that produced the project to begin with and would continue once it’s online.

“This started out with the vision of three 911 coordinators,” Cuff said.  “It started as a vision five years ago with coordinators coming together and looking at the system and saying ‘this is where we should be headed, and this is where we are now, how are we going to get to where we should be headed to get to the next generation of 911,’ and the fifteen counties have taken that vision and it’s becoming a reality.”

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