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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Next-generation 911 will allow texting, with photos and videos to follow

Communications Officer Julie Oppedyk works at the Post Falls Police Department on Oct. 13. She soon will be using a next-generation 911 system. (Kathy Plonka)

You just snapped a picture of a car fleeing a collision with a bicyclist. Or maybe you’re watching a brush fire race up a hill toward some houses.

With all the technology packed into smartphones today, the temptation may be to send photos or video directly to 911, have a video chat with an emergency dispatcher, or at least send a text message.

Not yet, here in the Inland Northwest, but the day is coming.

Emergency dispatch centers are gearing up to handle communications beyond simple phone calls. Known as next-generation 911, it will roll out in some places as early as next year and is expected to be widespread within about three years.

People will be able to text 911 directly, with more advanced interactions to follow. Before long a witness to an unfolding disaster or a crime in progress will be able to send live video of the scene to a dispatcher, who can patch that through to first responders, giving them a glimpse of what to expect.

“The public expects that,” Post Falls police Chief Scot Haug said. “This 911 system has been in place for 40 years or more, and technology has outpaced the system that we have now. So it’s time for us and emergency services to step up.”

Post Falls recently upgraded equipment in its police dispatch center, which handles calls for the city as well as Rathdrum. A new digital phone system is in place, as are agreements with phone carriers to take the leap to next-generation 911.

Spokane County is in contract negotiations for a next-generation 911 phone system, which officials hope to install next year, said Lorlee Mizell, the county’s emergency communications director.

But before the local dispatch center can begin receiving texts, photos and video, Washington must upgrade the statewide 911 network, which routes calls to the appropriate jurisdiction, Mizell said. The state is getting ready to make those improvements now.

“Right now my anticipation is that text messaging will come first, because it’s much easier data to manage,” Mizell said. Photos and video likely would follow in 2017 or 2018, she added.

Crews racing to emergencies now rely on details passed along from the 911 center. Having an image of what’s going on at the location of the call could help them prepare for what they’ll encounter, Mizell said.

“Let’s say it was a large fire and somebody sent a video of that to 911,” she said. “That would definitely help the fire department response more than it would with my call receiver taking a structure fire call.”

Bob Kesson, communications services manager for Kootenai County’s 911 center, also sees the advantage of receiving photos and video.

“Heaven forbid, if you’re in a bank robbery situation and you can turn on your phone and hit 911, you should be able to turn on the video and set that phone down, and we should be able to get that video feed through the 911 call,” Kesson said.

That looks to be two to three years down the road here, he said, as phone carriers still must determine how to route video to 911.

Texting will come first, Kesson said.

“A lot of people do the texting and they want to be able to text 911.” he said. “Everybody’s working on different pieces of it, but it’ll come together soon rather than later.”

In southeastern Idaho, Bonneville County is about to become the first place in the state to launch 911 texting.

Elsewhere, groups of counties are talking about setting up regional hubs to handle the data loads and save money on equipment. In North Idaho, Kootenai County’s 911 center is the logical choice. Dispatching for 14 agencies, the center put in higher bandwidth to handle video three years ago, then upgraded its phone system. Now it’s capable of serving as a data hub for the five northern counties, with a capacity for 96 dispatch consoles.

“They’re pretty high speed and cutting edge there in Kootenai County, that’s for sure,” said Craig Logan, 911 program manager for the Idaho Emergency Communications Commission. “And then you lay in Post Falls as a backup, and that’s a very good mix. They have a lot of potential.”

The Post Falls Police Department is known for embracing new technology. The department was an early user of broadband wireless in patrol cars as well as vehicle and body cameras. It spearheaded a multiagency license-plate recognition system that identifies stolen or suspect vehicles passing cameras around the county. And it’s an enthusiastic user of social media, including virtual patrol ride-alongs that play out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“You can sit at home … and basically look into what the life of an officer is for that night,” Chief Haug said. “They’ve been very successful. As many as 2,000 people follow us on those ride-alongs.”

The department hasn’t waited for next-gen 911 to be up and running, either. Post Falls and Rathdrum residents already can use a text-a-crime service intended to supplement, not supplant, 911. Messages sent to go directly to city dispatchers. Senders can attach photos and video as well.

“Basically, what we’ve set up is sort of an off-the-shelf technology,” Haug said. “Immediately it gets to the dispatcher.”

It’s also a service that appeals to the hearing-impaired, who can have a texting conversation with a dispatcher, he said.

“All of us really look at technology as a way to make our jobs easier and be more efficient,” Haug said. “It’s having a team of people that aren’t afraid to try something new.”