Changes are coming to Lebanon County’s 911 communications system.

While county residents won’t notice any differences, the changes will embrace new technologies that move the county toward future capabilities and away from outdated services and technologies that are being sunsetted by telephone companies, according to Bob Dowd, director of the Lebanon County Department of Emergency Services.

“This is the (emergency services) industry moving to newer technology, that’s really what this is about,” said Dowd, who gave the example of 2G technology now being obsolete. “The legacy equipment that we currently use, and what I mean by legacy is how the calls get to us, is very old technology that is currently being handled by phone providers for most of us (EMS agencies).”

The county commissioners, at last week’s biweekly meeting, agreed to sign a Letter of Intent with the commonwealth to join a statewide 911 call system that uses Internet Protocol (IP) technology to handle incoming calls. The county should be using the system by 2023, he added.

Read More: Lebanon County Department of Emergency Services making improvements to 911 call system

The agreement opens the door to future technologies that will enhance emergency services and avoid a myriad of problems associated with technology that is outdated. There was no cost to taxpayers to join the statewide system, according to Dowd.

“Our current technology is technology that’s no longer supported. You can’t get parts for that equipment anymore and the technology is not scalable or adaptable,” he said. “When I say technology, I am talking about very specialized routers that send 911 phone calls to us over a standard two-wire phone trunk, essentially your conventional phone line. That conventional phone line has its limitations.”

Conventional telephone systems have, basically, become unconventional as 911 infrastructure is modernized to be digitally based and data driven.

“As technology changes and newer capabilities become available, we need to move to a platform that allows us to take advantage of those technologies,” said Dowd. “The way phone systems work now, pretty much across the board, is that everything is IP-based. It’s no longer a standard two-wire analog connection, it’s a digital connection or basically data.”

Digital technology has many advantages over antiquated analog systems, he added.

“That data can be voice, that can be text messages that can be whatever comes down the pike in the future as technologies change and newer methods of getting information to the 911 Center become available,” said Dowd. “So that’s what we’re changing — we’re changing the medium by way of how we get the information.”

Within the next six months, county residents will have the ability to use text messaging to contact the 911 Center, Dowd noted, adding that this type of technology is only appropriate in certain emergency situations. Text to 911 is currently an independent service that Lebanon County is working to implement. This service will get to emergency officials over a special network connection that is separate from their 911 voice lines, he said.

“It’s important to remember that it (texting) shouldn’t replace a phone call,” he noted. “The fastest way that we, as a 911 Center, can get information from you is by speaking to you. But there’s certain scenarios where that could be impossible. Examples I can think of are domestic abuse or as a hostage or where someone knows you are talking and that can put you in harm’s way.”

Texting, however, is a good way for people with certain disabilities to communicate with emergency personnel.

“Currently, we have something called TTY/TDD, which basically is a method of communication for those who can’t hear, but texting has slowly started to replace that and I believe that will continue,” said Dowd. “So if you are unable to speak or unable to hear, then text is the best way to talk to us.”

The 911 changes may not be noticeable but they do hold major implications for how emergency personnel communicate with those in need.

“This is one of those changes that really doesn’t have a big splash because no one sees it but what it allows us to do is take advantage of everything that comes down the road,” Dowd said. “In the future, it will give us the ability to take advantage of the latest and greatest.”

Other forms of communication that Dowd believes may become relevant in the future using IP technology include video, pictures, and live-streaming capabilities.

“It’s important to understand that I’m not saying these are coming but the types of things that can be done over an IP network,” said Dowd. “It seems to me that the next logical step when you are talking about information flow into a 911 Center is pictures, videos, or some kind of live-streaming.”

Dowd said these methods of communications also have their own appropriate uses in certain scenarios.

“If there is one thing for a picture that is useful is, ‘Hey, I just took this picture of a car that ran away from a hit-and-run accident,’ and that is something that would help us a lot or even a video,” said Dowd. “But if you can live-stream, which this technology would support, that’s big. And then, eventually, you get to the point where we can pass off that information to first responders.”

Dowd said his department is in the information business and using technologies that enhance communications is in the best interest of the county residents the department serves.

“Technology is always evolving, the possibilities are endless and the bottom line is that we’re in the business of getting information, trying to get accurate information, to the people who can solve the problem,” said Dowd. “And this is all an effort to do that in the best way possible.”

As far as costs, Dowd said since Lebanon County is joining a statewide system, there is no immediate expenditure to county coffers to join it.

He noted that the statewide system is still being built and is projected to be completed in 2023. Assuming everything stays on schedule, Dowd expects Lebanon County to make the transition to the new network towards the middle or end of that year.

“This is a statewide initiative and, as far as I know, all counties are participating in it,” said Dowd. “The state has a pot of money that they use for this type of stuff. That money is specifically for the regionalization of services like this. The network build out is being paid for by the state and all we are doing at the county level is opting in.”

Dowd added there will be costs down the road, which potentially could be paid by the county.

“I am sure there will be some costs over time, but I don’t know what they are because this is so early on,” he said. “I am sure there will be equipment costs and stuff down the line as there always are with things like this and that we may be responsible for some of it. But we will also save money by not paying for legacy phone lines.”

Dow said any future expenditures for new technologies that enhance public safety are funds that are well spent.

“The bottom line is this type of technology, when it comes to public safety and 911 services, is expensive because it is proprietary,” said Dowd. “It is a very small market and it takes a lot of expensive equipment to make sure it is always available.”

While it is too early to determine if the county will save money in the long run, there is strength in consolidation.

“Anyway we can regionalize this stuff and take advantage of economies of scale that are not only good for taxpayers but also good for services and availability because you end up with a broader footprint,” Dowd said. “And with that you have redundancy, so you can spill over into other 911 Centers or other technologies when they become available. There’s always advantages to regionalizing.”

And advantages to utilizing newer technologies that ultimately enhance public safety.

“The undertone to all of this is that technology is always evolving and you have to move forward or be left behind,” said Dowd. “You can’t be stagnant.”

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...