911 with text, images and video: Chicago chases next-gen public safety system


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Chicago’s 911 center is about to undergo a major overhaul with the addition of a new dispatch system that can deliver texts, images and video to first responders in the field.

Melissa Stratton, a city spokesperson told StateScoop in an email Tuesday that the city is almost ready to solicit vendors with request for proposals (RFPs) sometime this quarter. The primary motivation for the update is to increase safety for first responders handling incidents and maximize the response efforts for residents.

“In general, the more data and information we can provide to call takers, dispatchers and other first responders, the better situational awareness they have,” Stratton said. “On the call taking and dispatch side, that situational awareness can go a long way in allowing someone to triage a situation without actually being there, making better use of the critical time between call intake and first responder arrival.“

The next-gen system is also hoped to allow police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians time to prepare for an incident before arriving on scene. This could include assessing a situation to see if backup is needed, if there are hidden threats and to know what emergency equipment might be necessary. 

The upgrade could be funded through a 28 percent hike to the city’s Emergency Services Telecommunications Fee, a monthly charge on landline and cellphone numbers billed to a city address. The Chicago Tribune reported that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s tax hike — recently approved but not yet implemented — would add an extra $1.10 per month to the current fee of $3.90.
It will be the second time Emmanuel has raised the tax since 2014, when it jumped up by $1.40. Based on previous returns, the fee is expected to bring in as much as $27 million per year.

The mayor has placed a high priority on the new system that is part of the Next Generation 911 initiative to have all 911 centers use an internet protocol (IP) based system that can send and receive digital communications. Following the recommendation of the NG911 NOW Coalition, many agencies are now attempting to upgrade their systems by 2020. 

But with a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system that is more than two decades old, the city is pressured to find a funding source somewhere.

“As smart phone and communications technologies have rapidly advanced, many of the capabilities made available to end users are not accessible by 911 centers due to aging networks and equipment,” Stratton said.

This push to update dispatch follows a parallel move by Emanuel to refresh Chicago’s 311 system so it can also accept digital images, video and texts with a refined mobile and user experience. When deployed sometime in 2019, it is expected to cost about $30 million, but draws its funding from Chicago’s Goose Island property that sits in the central part of the city.

Chicago’s move to next-gen 911 is just one of many around the nation as cities and states evaluate options for the significant upgrades to be deployed in the coming years. New Jersey — a state with hundreds of public safety answering points — is among the jurisdictions now composing an implementation strategy. Next-gen 911, said New Jersey Chief Information Officer Dave Weinstein, will bring “major differences in the ways that citizens interact with law enforcement” in the next decade.

This story was updated on June 13, 2017 to correct an error regarding upgrades to next-gen 911 by 2020 — this is not a federal mandate, but a recommendation by the NG911 NOW Coalition.

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