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News : Douglas County Eyes Bond Issue to Upgrade 911 Call Center
Omaha, NE, USA, Feb 19, 2016 -- Douglas County officials are preparing to ask voters to approve a bond issue for 911 call center upgrades.
The potential bond issue has been in the works for about two years, long before last week’s incident in which it took emergency personnel, working on scant information, 40 minutes to locate a gunshot victim who had called for help on a mobile phone from inside a northwest Omaha house. But the incident will be on officials’ minds as they discuss what to include and prioritize.
Joe Lorenz, Douglas County’s finance director, said officials are considering "a $30 million to $40 million" public safety bond issue for the November general election that would include $8 million to $9 million for 911 digital equipment upgrades.
That could include equipment to help improve the tracking of wireless call locations.
Generally, the bond issue would improve the 911 call center and its services, in part by creating a new home for it in the former Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home at 156th Street and West Maple Road. Between $14 million and $15 million would be set aside to complete renovations on the building. The bond issue would also include upgrades of aging subsystems, including radio infrastructure.
Douglas County’s new 911 director, Jenny Hansen, said details of the bond issue are still being worked out. Last week’s incident will be considered in those discussions.
"Current events have a lot to do with next steps," she said.
Hansen called it remarkable that dispatchers and deputies were able to find the caller last week at all, under the circumstances.
The upgrades would not solve the problem of difficulty in locating wireless calls, which Hansen said is a national, even global, concern.
A 911 call center relies on information from wireless phone companies, Hansen said. Douglas County 911, like other public safety call centers, has to continually update its equipment to process that information, Hansen said.
John and Jason Edwards of Papillion were fatally shot Feb. 12 as they were helping their sister, Julie Edwards, move out of the house of ex-boyfriend Kenneth Clark, who lived at 2511 N. 140th St. in unincorporated Douglas County.
The Nebraska Public Service Commission is looking at why Douglas County dispatchers received information not much more specific than which cellular tower was transmitting the call, believed to have been made by John Edwards. The caller initially was unable to give his location — about a mile from the cell tower — or the name of his attacker. It’s unclear whether it would have made a difference if deputies had arrived at the home sooner.
According to the Public Service Commission, about 72 percent of calls to Douglas County 911 are made by wireless phones.
But it isn’t as if the 911 center could locate all callers if only it spent the money to buy the right equipment. There is no equipment or technology that can pinpoint the location of every wireless call in Omaha.
"Or anywhere," Hansen said.
In 2014 Douglas County voters rejected a $25 million public safety bond measure that allocated $8.5 million for the county to upgrade its 911 dispatch center and equipment. After the 2014 bond issue failed, county officials were told that $1.5 million was needed immediately for call center equipment that was "nearing the end of life," Hansen said.
"We have a lease purchase agreement with Motorola for equipment that allowed us to continue operations," she said. "Our purchase just covered new radios for the dispatchers’ workstations."
As the federal government requires wireless companies to provide better information, the 911 call center’s "subsystems have to be improved so we can accommodate that information on an ongoing basis," Hansen said.
The county has been maintaining and upgrading its systems alongside the wireless industry, Hansen said. Douglas County 911 is equipped to receive and process all the information the wireless companies can provide, and is in position to upgrade to higher levels when the industry has the technology, she said.
Meanwhile, the county’s radio equipment "is becoming obsolete pretty soon," Lorenz said. "After a certain point, you don’t get the technical support that you need, and we have to move (to the) next generation of digital equipment."
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More Editorial From Douglas County Emergency Management Agency
Published: Wednesday, February 24, 2016