2014-11-06 / Front Page

DiPalma Pushing for 911 Overhaul

By Tom Walsh

With an injection of a yet-to-bedetermined amount of money and cooperation among Rhode Island cities and towns, the state could overhaul its current 911 emergency system with a new program that will relay text, photo and even video messages to emergency responders.

“I think it’s a real opportunity,” said state Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, DMiddletown, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Shared Municipal Services. DiPalma’s panel recently received a report on the topic from Brown University’s Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions.

DiPalma said the commission is looking at emergency dispatch services as one of its first targets that could result in shared municipal services to save cities and towns money.

“I believe the state’s role is to enable the cities and towns to do this,” DiPalma said. “And I would recommend that the state pay the up front costs such as hardware and software.”That cost, he said, has not yet been determined.

The Taubman Center report recommends a consolidation of the current 72 local dispatch centers across Rhode Island to save municipalities money both in early funding to upgrade new technology and in long-term operating and maintenance costs. The report also maintains that moving in this direction “could also prevent inefficiencies created by incompatible systems purchased by different municipalities or the financial inability of some municipalities to purchase the new technology at all.”

Middletown Police Chief Anthony M. Pesare told Newport This Week on Nov. 4 that he had only received the Taubman Center report the day before and was still reviewing the document. “Once I’ve done that I intend to speak with Senator DiPalma and will share my observations on the report with him,” Pesare said.

Currently, all Rhode Island 911 calls are routed to the state “Enhanced 911-Center” located at State Police headquarters in North Scituate. Telecommunicators there determine the nature and location of each emergency and connect calls to the appropriate dispatch center. In turn, dispatch centers contact appropriate emergency service personnel. There are between 1,200 to 1,500 such calls every day.

According to DiPalma, the system is about to change.

The statewide center, he said, is upgrading its technology to Next Generation 911 (NG-911) that will be capable of reporting emergencies by text messages and, eventually, by digital media including photos and videos. However, unless local dispatch centers also upgrade their technology to receive the new information, telecommunicators at the North Scituate center will still have to verbally transmit emergency details they receive from texts or other media to local centers.

Vermont and Iowa both currently have statewide agencies overseeing implementation of NG-911 systems. Authors of the Taubman Center report interviewed officials in both states while preparing their recommendations.

DiPalma said he understands municipal budgets are tight—and for that reason he hopes to convince the legislature to appropriate state funds to help out. But he also said that if municipalities form regional dispatch centers they could share upgrade costs and at the same time avoid problems that occur when nearby cities and towns have incompatible technology.

The Taubman Center report recommended that if municipalities come together to form regional dispatch centers, the state should “engage in at least three pilot projects to test the effects of consolidation on the chain of communication, including urban, suburban and rural communities.”

“It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon to get this done,” DiPalma said. “But this is a real opportunity to achieve savings and to improve the system. It’s a way of increasing efficiency and effectiveness to improve safety.”

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