2013-11-29 / Front Page

911 calls pose issues

By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH – echnology has helped emergency responders better serve the communities they are committed to protecting, but improvements in phone technology has, in some cases, made it difficult for Scarborough residents and business owners to reach local dispatchers in times of emergency.

Scarborough Fire Chief B. Michael Thurlow said the problems tend to be with newer voice over Internet protocol phones that transmit calls over the Internet rather than traditional phone lines.

In some cases, he said, the Scarborough dispatch center doesn’t get enough information or in others, the calls are being diverted back to a company’s headquarters or other dispatch centers also known as public safety answering points, or PSAPS.

“There are some problems, but all PSAPS have protocols in place on how to transfer the emergency. We have identified it as a problem and we have a system in place,” said Thurlow, who also serves as the director of the town’s emergency management agency.

More and more people are relying on voice over IP for their phone needs.

“Compared to last year, we have doubled the number of voice over calls we have received,” said Kyle Jandreau, a dispatcher and Scarborough’s 911 administrator.

Although from time to time the calls are directed away from Scarborough, or in other cases erroneously directed to Scarborough, Jandreau said it is not much of an issue for dispatchers.

“We really don’t have any major issues,” Jandreau said. “The mapping software may have the address off a bit.”

Jandreau said residents and business owners need not wait until an emergency to see if their calls are being connected correctly.

“We’ve always allowed people to test the call with us. We try to be proactive,” Jandreau said.

Oftentimes, however, a connectivity problem presents itself during annual inspections of businesses in town.

“When we do those annual inspections, one of the things put on the list of things to check is the 911,” Thurlow said. “We physically call 911 to make sure it is going to Scarborough and to make sure we are getting the proper information.”

While cellphones have helped people stay connected no matter where they are, Thurlow said they have their liabilities at times connecting to 911 systems.

If the cell signal hits a cell tower in Cape Elizabeth or South Portland rather than Scarborough, “that call could get routed elsewhere.”

It is still “relatively new” that emergency calls made via cell phones get directed to local dispatch centers. Previously the state police in Gray fielded such phone calls.

Thurlow ensures it is not a problem with the 911 system, but rather the phone individuals may have.

Jandreau said when a dispatcher becomes aware of the problem, he or she will notify the proper parties, whether it is Fairpoint Communications or Time Warner Cable, as well as the caller.

“It has nothing to do with the 911 system. The system is robust and is working well. The problems I am aware of is more individual system issues,” Thurlow said.

Thurlow said when someone dials 911, more often than not the call comes to the dispatch center in the Scarborough Public Safety Building on Route 1. A data box pops up that shows the name, phone number and address where the call is coming from, as well as a map that shows the person’s location. If the call is made on a cellphone, similar data is sent, based on the capability of the phone.

Dispatchers convert the call into an emergency signal to “dispatch the appropriate parties,” including firefighters, police officers and emergency medical professionals.

Advances in the 911 system, he said, have made it easier for emergency responders to know what the emergency is and where it is, well before they exit the public safety building or neighborhood firehouse.

Thurlow said for example, when a teacher calls 911 dispatchers can pinpoint which classroom the call is coming from and more efficiently get to the scene of the emergency.

The Scarborough dispatch center, along with other dispatch centers across the state, are targeted for upgrade to the NextGen 911 system.

Scarborough’s system, Thurlow said, would be swapped over early next year, May at the latest. The new system will allow individuals to send text messaging, videos and photographs to dispatchers.

“They tell us it is state of the art,” Jandreau said. “We are one of the first states to implement it. It is going to be nice.”

“Technology is advancing so fast that sometimes it is difficult to keep up, but I think overall, the state of Maine has done an excellent job,” he continued.

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