911 system needs upgrade

Assembly to consider new selective router equipment

Posted: Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Imagine facing a desperate situation in which you need emergency services immediately. Now imagine your call to 911 is dropped or misrouted to the wrong agency.

That's a risk every resident in the borough faces whenever they summon police, firefighters or ambulance services, due to outdated and failing equipment at the borough's emergency dispatch call center in Soldotna.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will have a chance to fix that problem at its meeting Tuesday when it considers introduction of Ordinance 2007-19-40, which would authorize spending more than $511,000 on a new "selective router," equipment that routes calls to the appropriate dispatch center whenever 911 is called.

According to Scott Walden, the borough's emergency management coordinator, a properly functioning router performs split-second routing by instant electronic retrieval of a caller's location from a database managed by the borough.

In a memo to the assembly, Walden said the current system uses decade-old technology and is nearly obsolete.

It "has fallen into a pattern of chronic failures, requiring emergency repair call-outs for which the maintenance contractor, ACS, currently charges hundreds of dollars an hour," he said. "These failures are occurring days apart rather than monthly or annually, and during these failures, calls are lost, not able to be transferred, and when retrieved, require dispatch to dial a seven-digit number to route the number to the proper call center."

Walden warned that the borough was potentially liable for a system failure should a 911 caller be harmed as a result of a breakdown. Upgrading or replacing the router was determined to be the best avenue to fixing the problem.

The frequent failures of the system constitute "an immediate threat" to the welfare of the public, Walden said.

In an interview Tuesday, Walden said that so far, the system has never completely crashed. No emergency call has been left unaddressed. When callers have been dropped, they've been able to call back in immediately, he said, and if a caller has used a landline, the system has been able to pinpoint the caller's location even when the call was dropped.

Right now, however, the system can't easily pinpoint the location of a cell phone call. The new system will be able to do that, he said.

Walden said that if the assembly approves the expenditure, the new router should be up and running by mid-June, perhaps earlier. Replacing the equipment will significantly lower costs, he added.

Replacing the old router and installing a new one will cost around $510,000. The borough currently has $74,000 set aside in an upgrade account. The ordinance proposes spending another $310,000 from the general fund, and using about $63,900 currently in a 911 Communications Capital Project Fund.

In addition, the measure would shift about $62,000 in residual cash left over in a couple of project funds to the router project.

Because of the dire need for rapid action, the assembly will introduce, hold a hearing, and could conduct a final vote all on Tuesday.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.

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