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July 20, 2007
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Tenn. gears up to use Internet to improve 911 calls

By Don Jacobs,
The Knoxville News-Sentinel

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Internet will change the way you call 911, and Tennessee is poised to be one of the first states to exploit the technology.

Already, thousands of Tennesseans have rejected telephones in favor of computers that offer Voice Over Internet protocol. But that's just the tip of the technological iceberg designated as Next Generation-911.

NG-911 will use the Internet and fiber optics to enable callers to send quicker, more comprehensive messages to 911 centers. Emergency dispatchers, in turn, will better communicate with first responders in the field.

"Imagine you witness a bank robbery and snap a picture of the robber on your cell-phone camera," said Lynn Questell, executive director of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board.

"With the new Internet protocol technology, you can send that picture along with your 911 call, and the call center will be able to send it immediately to the police officer who has a terminal in his or her squad car."

The technology also will enable emergency responders from one end of the state to the other to speak with each other.

Bob Coker, executive director of the Knox County E-911 Center, said the NG-911 technology will offer roadside fingerprint checks to law enforcement officers. Three-dimensional pictures of a building under siege with hostages inside can be sent directly to officers in the field.

"I can see a doctor in the emergency room looking at a video of a gunshot wound at a shooting scene and telling the emergency medical technician how to treat it," Coker said.

Last year, the TECB contracted a $156,500 feasibility study with L. Robert Kimball & Associates to determine if the state was ready to embrace the technology.

"Based on our findings and the information reported in this report, Tennessee is well positioned to move forward," the study concluded.

Of the state's 95 counties, 21 are not yet equipped with a fiber optic cable needed to facilitate NG-911, the report noted.

Posing the largest challenge is how to fund NG-911. The Kimball report estimated NG-911 implementation costs for the first five years would range from $8 million-$15 million.

"In addition, the board (TECB) anticipates that the NG-911 project will involve operational costs of $3,600,000 per year beginning in fiscal year 2007-2008," Questell wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

A study released in March by the National Emergency Number Association warned that funding for NG-911 will involve innovative thinking.

"Simply put, relying on the current patchwork 911 funding model is not sufficient to maintain the current 911 system, let alone provide for the essential evolution to NG-911," the report states.

The NENA study examined several funding options. Included were universal state or federal surcharges on every possible communication device, general tax revenues and user fees for calling 911.

"Maintaining the status quo, for the 911 system architecture or the methods that fund it, is simply not an option," the report states.

Copyright 2007 Knoxville News-Sentinel

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