By Joe Duggan
Omaha World Herald

LINCOLN — Say you walk out of a coffee shop just in time to see your car leaving the parking lot without your permission.

Think fast, snap a photo with a smartphone and eventually the image might help police recover your vehicle and arrest a thief.

With a next generation 911 system, you could text the photo to an emergency dispatcher, who in turn could transmit it to the police officer responding to the call.

State 911 Director David Sankey updated Nebraska lawmakers Wednesday on a plan to start implementing a statewide next generation 911 system in 2019. The system will cost an estimated $6.5 million annually and be paid for using an existing monthly surcharge on wireless phones.

“Our goal is to provide 911 service to all of our citizens and all those individuals traveling through our state,” Sankey said. “Whether they are in Scottsbluff, whether they are in Omaha, we want them to have the same level of service when they need it.”

A next generation system also could help save lives when callers can’t talk or don’t know their current location. That’s because the systems are linked to GIS (geographic information system) mapping that allows a dispatcher to pinpoint the call location.

Under the current system, if a caller using a mobile phone can’t provide a location, dispatchers hope to get the location within 50 meters, at best, via cell towers.

According to Sankey, it would be important to ensure that the GIS mapping systems currently in use by the state’s 70 emergency dispatch centers are current and have no “gaps or overlaps.”

All but a few of Nebraska’s 911 centers were developed during the landline era and are equipped to receive calls only. But eight out of 10 emergency calls in the state are placed via wireless phones, many of which have multimedia capability.

Under a next generation system adopted by states like Iowa and South Dakota, those needing emergency services can communicate with the dispatcher via text, photo or video. They also can contact 911 by landline phones and other devices, such as laptops or tablets via Wi-Fi connections.

State Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard expressed concerns about the number of dropped wireless calls he experiences in his rural district northwest of Lincoln.

“There’s a lot of places out there that have dead spots,” he said.

Sankey said the PSC has been working with the industry to improve coverage.

Under the plan, the state would be divided into geographic regions, and two 911 centers in each region would be provided with the enhanced technology. All other 911 centers would be connected to the main regional centers, which would allow the entire system to benefit from the advanced technology at a lower cost, Sankey said.

The network would require at least 10 gigabyte fiber optic cable, he said. The PSC intends to seek a request for proposal from a private vendor in 2019 to host the network.

The cost of new equipment and statewide network would be covered by the wireless surcharge funds, Sankey said. But individual counties would continue to cover the costs of staffing and operating their local 911 centers. The plan does not call for mandatory consolidation of small-county centers, Sankey said, but county officials would have the option of entering into cooperative agreements if they wanted.

The PSC has built up about a $12 million reserve from 911 wireless surcharge fees, which it would use to implement the next generation system, Sankey said.

To cover ongoing costs, the 911 plan asks for the authority to raise the wireless fee from its current level of 45 cents per phone per month to a maximum of $1.25. But based on costs of similar systems in other states, Sankey said he does not anticipate the need for a fee increase any sooner than 2021.

In addition, the PSC would compete for federal grants that could further reduce the need for a fee increase. Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln asked Sankey if the PSC or the vendor hired to operate the system would be held responsible in the event of a cyberattack. Sankey said the vendor would have responsibility.

The 911 plan also calls for training and certification standards for emergency dispatchers, which currently do not exist, Sankey said.

Sheriffs, police and emergency management directors expressed support for the plan Wednesday during a public hearing. Among them was Shelly Holzerland, director of the Fremont/Dodge County Communications Center.

“While there is more planning to do, this plan is a good starting point,” she said. “Local control is very important to us.”

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