FOX 11 Investigates: The future of 911
(WLUK) -- In an emergency, 911 is the first-place people call to get help fast. Operators and dispatchers have become indispensable.
"We're the first line of defense so to speak. We're the first person that gets that call," said Cullen Peltier, the director of public safety communications in Brown County.
Last year, Brown County became one of a handful of counties to start accepting text messages to 911. It's the first stage of what's known as Next Generation 911.
"People expect that we can text, we can send pictures, we can send videos, we can do that sort of thing over 911. And they expect that because we do it every day on our cell phones and we do it between our friends. We're texting and we're snap-chatting and all these things that we can do, they assume that we can do that at the 911 center and that's not the case,” Peltier said.
That's not the case yet but it is coming. Thanks to a change that was included in the state budget, the infrastructure will soon start taking shape.
“Next Gen 911 brings it up a big, big step,” said Tom Czaja, the state's director of emergency communications. Czaja holds a new position that was created in the Department of Military Affairs to coordinate the state's 911 upgrades.
“It's extremely important right now because of the age that we're in of technology,” Czaja said.
He says the first step is to build what's called ESI Net, an emergency services, IP-based network that would connect every 911 call center in the state.
Czaja says communities would not be required to connect to the network but it would give them the ability to have additional back up as well as share information and records.
“If centers were on the ESI Net system then they can automatically transfer that call to any other center that's on the ESI Net system without having to dial up so it's a direct link to that other center,” Czaja said.
The state budget set aside $6.7 million to build the digital network.
We'll all be paying for it. The money will come from the Police and Fire Protection Fee. That's a 75-cent fee tacked on to every phone bill in the state. It generates approximately $52-million a year.
Once the network is built, the next step will be for local 911 centers to purchase Next Generation 911 equipment to allow them to receive data.
"As they upgrade, you can send photos, you can send videos. There would be enough bandwidth where people would be able to stream those into the 911 centers," Czaja said.
Joski who is involved in the statewide efforts, says the costs for local communities remain a challenge.
"It's a very large burden on local communities and so we as local communities have been doing the best with what we're given," Joski said.
According to a survey in 2016, only 12% of the 911 centers in the state were starting to implement Next Generation 911. The estimated costs of the upgrades ranged from $110,000 to $400,000.
A state report from May of last year estimated the total cost to upgrade 911 centers across the state to be around "...25 million." The report said that cost "...would have to be repeated every five years."
Joski says he would like to see the money come from that phone fee we're all paying: The Police and Fire Protection Fee.
"This next step is costly and it's not something that any community can really take on alone," Joski said.
However, the upgrades are paid for, Joski says they will happen one way or another
"I want people to know that we are doing the best we can and that we're going to be providing them with the latest and the best possible way to keep our community safe," Joski said.
There's no timeline yet for the implementation of the next generation of 911. Peltier says some communities could be up and running within a couple of years. He says the full, statewide network could take five to 10 years to complete.
The state budget also created a special committee to help implement next generation 911. The group held its first meeting in December.