NextGen 911 is coming to Harvey County, with the new system planned to go live by the end of October, according to Communications Director Don Gruver.
Opting into the new statewide system, Harvey County was not alone, with 80 of the 105 Kansas counties doing the same. As of Friday, Gruver noted 64 of those 80 counties have already been linked up with the new system, including four (Butler, McPherson, Sedgwick and Reno) of the five surrounding Harvey County.
In the past, Gruver said that each county has bought its own 911 operating system. However, with the state putting out a request for proposal for its own hosted system (and allowing the counties to opt in) there are a lot of advantages of being part of a uniform communications network — not least of which are the mapping and location resources that will be immediately available.
"The new system is almost entirely map-based from the word go, so as soon as that call hits the system it'll rely on mapping that each county has provided to the state," Gruver said. "The mapping will mean a lot more accuracy on who the call gets routed to and then for us to be able to find where the caller is from the time we pick up the call, because right now there's a little bit of a delay as to when we can actually pinpoint where the caller is if they don't know."
Presenting a memorandum of agreement to the county commission on Monday to officially implement the NextGen 911 system, Gruver pointed out just how beneficial it has been to neighboring counties. He said Reno County, having opted in as of 2015, has reported much faster and efficient location of callers on the new system.
Costs to utilize the state-hosted system will be a littler higher (between $25,000 and $30,000 more, Gruver said) as compared to operating under the county's ownership, at $93,000 per year, but Gruver said the 911 fees collected by the county will cover that.
Additionally, the benefits of the NextGen system are more than worth it, as Gruver noted the state will be responsible for maintenance of the system and numerous counties opting in means that if there are issues with the Harvey County Communications Center the department will be able to set up easily in a secondary location — like the back up center in Yoder — simply by logging in at the new site.
"Things like that all add up to a much quicker and better response for everyone involved," Gruver said.
For Harvey County, the new system is set to go live on Oct. 26, with training occurring the week prior. In addition to NextGen 911, the department will also be learning the new Text to 911 initiative that is being enabled through the new system.
Going live across the state on Oct. 1, and in Harvey County Nov. 1, Gruver said there is also a new mantra that comes along with the Text to 911 capabilities — "call if you can, text if you can't."
With the Text to 911 capabilities (which staff will also be trained on), Gruver noted those attempting to contact 911 should use full text, with no abbreviations or emojis, though he noted calling is still the quickest recommended way to receive assistance.
Receiving approval from the commission to proceed with the agreement for NextGen 911, Gruver noted this won't be the end of changes for local emergency communications, as reliant as the department is on technology.
Though a definite timeline hasn't been set yet, another change coming for Harvey County Communications in the near future will be the advent of a dedicated cellular network for first responders, with Kansas opting in to the nationwide FirstNet plan last month.
Noting there were tens of thousands of missed calls in the first night of the the active shooter incident within the county last year, Gruver spoke to just how important this new network could be to allow emergency personnel to best operate in disaster situations.
"In the first few hours to a day or two, it's very critical that the responders be able to communicate. Maybe radios are not working and they need some way to contact other resources and help, and to be able to use their cell phones to do that is what is needed," Gruver said. "The first thing that happens is the cell systems get overloaded, if they're even working, and for first responders to get out to a scene and not be able to make phone calls or send data or pictures back and forth doesn't work real well when you're trying to save lives."
Having a dedicated network for first responders in emergency situations is something that has been in the work for several years and, as part of the contract with AT&T, will also potentially help coverage in rural areas with the construction of more cell towers. Kansas was the 13th state to opt in to FirstNet, with that total up to 21 currently.
For more information on these 911 initiatives, visit FirstNet.gov or 911.gov.