MONTPELIER -- Vermont is upgrading its emergency 911 technology from the traditional telephone network to a system that transmits voice, data and graphics using Internet-protocol, or IP-based technology. The new approach will greatly improve Vermont's emergency-response capabilities, eventually allowing 911 operators to receive and send video images from the scenes of car accidents, locate callers who are lost or dialing from Internet phones, and alert entire communities about a natural disaster or terrorist attack.
When the next-generation technology is fully operational, expected by the end of this year, Vermont will be first in the nation to have a statewide, IP-based 911 system.
Each year, Vermont's 911 system receives about 250,000 calls to its 10 call centers around the state, according to Jim Lipinski, information technology manager for the Vermont Enhanced 911 Board. The new system will not only give the call-taker numerical data -- the caller's name, address and phone number -- but also maps showing the nearest police, fire and EMS stations, hospitals and other geographic features.
The new IP-based system, Lipinski says, will be able to reroute calls to other parts of the state if one region is experiencing unusually heavy call volume. A good example was during the 2004 Phish concert in Coventry, he recalls.
"While Phish was going on, there was probably a large number of 911 calls being generated in that area that all went to Derby. Yet for the rest of the state, it was business as usual and [other 911 operators] weren't able to help out," Lipinski says. Once the new system is in place, he notes, "We can do more with less."
Looking to the future, "the sky's the limit," Lipinski adds. For example, the system will be able to locate VoIP users; currently, VoIP customers must register their addresses with their services providers. But that information is not automatically updated if the customer moves.
In addition, 911 callers will eventually be able to send photo or video images from their cellphones directly to the 911 operator, who could then forward those images in real time to police, fire or hospitals.
Another benefit of the new technology, Lipinski adds, will be a statewide emergency notification system that could be used in the event of widespread threats to public health and safety, such as a flood or accident at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. "If there were a tanker with hazardous chemicals that flipped over on the Interstate, we could then bring up our maps, draw a 1-mile radius around the incident, and have the system pull up every phone number in that circle and initiate a phone call," he adds.
Lipinski points that out although the new technology is an IP-based platform, 911 calls will not travel over the Internet, as the name might suggest, but over a private, closely managed network that uses Internet software and protocols. That system is being set up and maintained by MicroDATA GIS, a private contractor based in St. Johnsbury.
In recent years, Vermont's enhanced-911 system has been managed by Verizon Communications, Inc., whose contract expires at the end of this year. Serra emphasizes that the decision to switch to MicroDATA GIS was based on a competitive bid process and had nothing to do with recently published reports about the possible sale of Verizon's landline network in Vermont.
"Verizon has practiced good corporate citizenship, and we've had a very good relationship with them over the years," Serra adds. "But MicroDATA had a system most closely matching our desires and needs."
The Green Mountain State has long been on the cutting edge of 911 technology, Serra notes. In 1998, it was the first in the nation to implement a 100 percent digital enhanced-911 system, around the same time that the cellular phone industry was transitioning from analog to digital technology. The new enhanced-911 system, which costs about $3 million, will be paid from the Universal Service Fund surcharge on all telecommunications bills.