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Next generation of 911

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07/27/2016 - Less than 50 cents. That's the amount the typical phone customer in Oakland County is charged each month to fund emergency 911 services provided by the state and local public safety agencies. However, exactly what services and capabilities are available varies by the location of the call and the type of phone being used.

First used in the late 1960s, the creation of a universal emergency number was initially suggested in 1957 by the National Association of Fire Chiefs. Still, by 1987, only about half of the country had access to 911 call centers, leaving others to keep a list of local emergency numbers handy in the event of a life-threatening situation. In fact, it wasn't until 1999 that a federal mandate was approved making "911" the official emergency code that we use today.

While at least 96 percent of the geographic United States now has access to 911 services, the vast majority of those systems run on telephone technology that is a half-century old. As a result, most 911 systems currently in use aren't able to provide precise locations of callers dialing in from mobile phones, despite a phone's capability to pinpoint its own coordinates. Likewise, newer VoIP telephones, or voice over internet protocol, which uses the internet to place and receive calls, relies on the user to regularly update their location when moved. Further, some multi-line phone systems used by school districts and large companies provide 911 operators with limited location data.

Ultimately, the majority of 911 systems in the country, including those used by the Oakland County Sheriff's Office and local public safety agencies in Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, and Rochester, were designed to work with traditional copper-based landlines.

"We are talking about 1964 technology that right now we are using to route 911 calls. It's insane," said Mel Maier, chief of emergency management operations for the Oakland County Sheriff's Office.

The Oakland County Sheriff's Office receives more than a half-million calls to its operations center each year, with about half of those coming from people that dialed "9-1-1" on their phones. Countywide, 911 dispatch centers, or public safety answering points (PSAP) as they are referred to by those in the field, received 676,864 calls to 911 in 2014. Of those, 106,088 calls were made on traditional landlines, with 533,149 made from wireless phones and 37,627 from VoIP phones.

"About 86 percent of our calls are from cell phones," Maier said. "It's not like it used to be when everyone had a landline."

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