I-Team: Big changes to NC's 911 system could save lives

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A statewide upgrade in the 911 system may lead to more lives being saved.

Thanks to a 60-cent fee that shows up on every phone bill in the state, the NC Department of Information Technology will be spending $99 million to upgrade every emergency call center in all 100 North Carolina's counties.

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"If you look at our system currently," said Eric Boyette, Secretary of the state's IT Department. "It was built in the '60s. So it's this old analog-type technology. We're moving to our new Internet-based routing and it will allow us to do a lot of things that we cannot do currently."

Boyette says a full 3/4 of emergency calls placed in North Carolina are from mobile devices and he says that has fundamentally changed the equation.

"In the future, we'll be allowed to send text messages, pictures, so the interaction between the 911 operator and the citizen will be more engaging," Boyette said.

The improvements will do more than just allow new ways of communicating with people experiencing emergencies; they are intended to cut down on 911 mistakes.

In late 2015, Alison Vroome of Cary made multiple pleas to a 911 operator but her call had gotten routed to a Chatham County 911 center because she was calling on a cell and a Chatham cell tower had picked up the call.

Her husband died, and while Vroome will never know if he would have survived had help come sooner, she said it would have made an enormous difference that night and to her peace of mind.

"911 failed me," Vroome said in an ABC11 interview, "Not EMS. Not fire. There has to be a better way for people making calls anywhere throughout the state, county to make sure their calls get to the right place."

That "better way" is on the way, according to state officials.

"It was heartbreaking," 911 Board Executive Director Richard Taylor said of Vroome's story. "It was heartbreaking from the standpoint that the technology exists that could have possibly made a difference in the outcome but unfortunately the technology that day was not in place for everything to happen like our citizens expect."

One of the biggest problems, Taylor said, is that the current 911 system doesn't account for cell calls.

"The most important thing is that we'll be routing our 911 calls based on geo-special location. Right now, everything is based on a civic address - 123 Main St," Taylor said. "Well, 75 percent of our calls come on mobile devices, and they do not know 123 Main Street. They know a latitude and a longitude.

"That's the most important thing when it comes to a 911 call," Taylor continued. "If we don't know where a caller is coming in from, we're kind of stuck. We cannot get a responder there; so that's the biggest thing."

Taylor also pointed out that 911 operators will be able to reroute some - or all - calls under the new system, something they can't do now.

"The ability to move voice and data from one 911 center to another is huge."

State officials are meeting with AT&T on Tuesday to launch the project. They still need to hash out details for the project's roll-out but told the I-Team it should be well underway by the end of the year.

The state contract with AT&T runs seven years, but officials said they expect the project to be finished within three.
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