SOMERSET – A planned network of fiber-optic cables will allow 911 dispatchers in seven counties to transfer misdirected emergency calls to the appropriate 911 centers more quickly and easily, according to the project’s organizers.
Officials from the seven counties of the Southern Alleghenies 911 Cooperative – Cambria, Somerset, Bedford, Blair, Centre, Fulton and Huntingdon – met on Monday morning at the base of a Somerset Township cell tower to officially unveil plans for a fiber-optic network that will connect the counties’ 911 centers, allowing dispatchers to share critical data across county lines.
“This is truly a great day in public safety communications,” said Joel Landis, director of the Somerset County Department of Emergency Services. “The fiber project being unveiled today will not only strengthen our emergency service information systems, but (also) launch us into the future. … This project, without a doubt, will enhance our current capabilities, provide cost savings and solidify the way the counties can collaborate to best provide emergency services.”
Sid McConahy, vice president of client services for Mission Critical Partners, a State College-based public safety communications consulting firm that is providing subject-matter expertise to support the project, said that the decline of landline telephones and the growing use of cellphones have driven a spike in the number of emergency calls that go to the wrong 911 centers.
“Wireless calls don’t follow the traditional county boundaries, so on a daily basis (911 dispatchers) get misdirected calls,” McConahy said. The planned fiber-optic network will allow dispatchers to transfer those calls to the appropriate 911 centers “almost seamlessly,” he added, “and it will also allow for other technology-sharing to occur so that they can … get emergency services to people in need as quick as possible.”
When the project is complete, each of the seven counties’ 911 centers will be connected to all the other 911 centers, according to McConahy.
“We’re leveraging the existing technology that’s already in place, but the fiber doesn’t go to each of the 911 centers, so there is a physical build that will have to occur,” he said, adding that the longest such fiber-optic cable will run 31 miles from Somerset to Bedford. Other segments of fiber-optic cable constructed as part of the project will not exceed 10 miles in length, he said.
Funding for the $2.5 million project was generated by a $1.65-per-month surcharge on telephone bills that was implemented at the state level in 2015, designed to boost funding for county 911 operations. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency awarded funding at the beginning of 2018 that will cover 100 percent of the costs associated with the project.
Zito Media, of Coudersport, will provide the fiber-optic network. Each of the seven counties has signed contracts with Zito Media for the implementation of the network after a request-for-proposal effort led by Somerset County in the spring of 2018.
The long-term vision of the project’s leaders is to interconnect the 911 centers in 29 counties in southwest and south-central Pennsylvania and to enable each of those counties to transition at some point in the future to a digital 911 system, commonly called Next Generation 911.
“This network will set up everybody in the region for what’s considered ‘Next Generation 911,’ where it won’t follow the traditional landline telephone systems,” McConahy said.
Next Generation 911 “will enhance emergency number services to create a faster, more resilient system that allows voice, photos, videos and text messages to flow seamlessly from the public to the 911 network,” according to 911.gov, the website of the federal government’s National 911 Program. It will also help dispatchers “manage call overload, natural disasters and transferring of 911 calls and proper jurisdictional responses based on location tracking.”
The Southern Alleghenies 911 Cooperative was formed in 2015 when leaders in Bedford, Blair, Fulton and Huntingdon counties OK’d an intergovernmental agreement to work together on ways to improve 911 service in their jurisdictions.
The cooperative expanded to include Cambria, Somerset and Centre counties in 2018.
“In 2014, a fair amount of panic set in,” Mark Taylor, Blair County’s 911 director, said at Monday’s ribbon-cutting. “We’re all wondering, ‘How are we going to survive if our centers go down?’ We kept looking at the costs associated with trying to make the improvements we needed. My colleagues from Huntingdon, Fulton and Bedford got together … and we started thinking about how we can work better together.
“One of my biggest concerns has always been redundancy. ‘What happens if our 911 center goes down? Who’s going to handle our calls? How does 911 continue to survive?’ That, and all the things we’ve done, are pretty much getting rectified with all these different programs that we’ve done over the past several years. … I believe this project with the fiber is going to make things even better.”