Pennsylvania Counties Using Fiber Optics to Improve 911 Capabilities

(UC) – For years, fiber-optic cables have been the gold standard in speed and reliability for telecommunication networks. Not only do they provide much faster internet data speeds for homes and businesses, they allow for larger and more complex data sets to be transferred at no loss to speed or quality.

A group of Pennsylvania counties is taking full advantage of this technology to improve the speed and reliability of their emergency response services. The Southern Alleghenies 911 Cooperative, a group of of seven counties in southwest Pennsylvania, unveiled its plans to build a fiber-optic network connecting the counties’ 911 dispatch centers allowing dispatchers to quickly and easily transfer misdirected calls and share critical data across county lines.

The $2.5 million project has already been entirely funded through a small telephone bill surcharge implemented across the state four years ago. The funds collected and provided by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Association were directly intended for improving 911 operations.

“The fiber project being unveiled today will not only strengthen our emergency service information systems, but (also) launch us into the future,” Joel Landis, director of the Somerset County Department of Emergency Services, told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat.  “This project, without a doubt, will enhance our current capabilities, provide cost savings and solidify the way the counties can collaborate to best provide emergency services.”

In the past several years the area has seen a drastic increase in the number of emergency calls going to the wrong 911 centers, largely due to the rise in cell phone usage. Wireless phone calls do not follow the same routing paths as traditional landline calls and, as such, can be automatically redirected to a dispatch center that is not in the best location to respond.

Safety communications consultant Sid McConahy said the Cooperative project will solve this problem by physically connecting all of the 911 dispatch centers via fiber optic cable, allowing “for other technology-sharing to occur so that they can … get emergency services to people in need as quick as possible.”

The physical installations will consist of segments from 10 miles to 31 miles of cable.

The long-term vision for this project extends far beyond the seven initial counties. Those involved hope to connect 911 dispatch centers in a total of 29 countries across southern Pennsylvania, allowing them to upgrade to a digital 911 system commonly known as Next Generation 911.

The Next Generation 911 technology and network “will enhance emergency number services to create a faster, more resilient system that allows voice, photos, videos and text messages to flow seamlessly from the public to the 911 network,” according to the federal government’s website for the National 911 Program. The reliability of the network will help dispatchers to manage call overload and natural disasters and will enable “proper jurisdictional responses based on location tracking,” the program said.

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