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St. Charles County moves closer to finding cellphone users in emergencies

cellphone 911Pinpointing where a 911 emergency telephone call from a cellphone comes from in St. Charles County is not an exact science.

That’s because the county’s present 911 emergency response system can’t always immediately find the source of a cellphone call – a case of new technology outpacing an older technical system.

It’s a situation expected to improve when the county’s new enhanced 911 system goes into operation later this year.

The current 911 emergency response system was designed based on the idea that most calls for help would come from land-line telephones. However, more people are using cellphones now, which cannot always indicate an exact location.

“We have the ability in a limited capacity to be able to track them down today,” said Jennifer George, the county’s assistant director of administration.

George was responding to a question from County Councilman Dave Hammond (District 4) who had asked, at the council’s Feb 23 meeting, about the county’s ability to locate 911 calls from cellphones.

George said that only one of the county’s 911 operators or Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), presently has the ability to find caller locations more precisely, including those using cellphones.

The county’s Dispatch and Alarm Center, which dispatches for nine fire districts, one fire department and the county Ambulance District, can use a “rebid” process to try to find data to determine a more exact location. It’s more of a “manual process” where the dispatcher can talk to callers to help in getting information from the GPS device in the cellphone, she said.

The county’s other PSAPs, which dispatch for police in St. Charles, St. Peters, O’Fallon, Lake Saint Louis and Wentzville, do not have the same mapping capacity presently.

Last October, the county council approved a $3,467 million bid from Emergency CallWorks, Inc., to build, deploy and operate a new 911 emergency response system for seven years.

Using the new system, George said the county’s PSAPs will be able to “automatically rebid” calls to find more exact locations. With that process, a dispatcher can see the caller’s phone number and the location of the cell tower that picks up the call. The dispatcher will have to request the caller’s GPS coordinates from the wireless carrier that operates the tower.

County officials say callers also will eventually have the ability to text 911 calls.But George said there are still issues that have to be resolved.

“Regardless of that automatic rebid that the system itself can do, that doesn’t necessarily mean your carrier is doing any better job in providing you with the capability to send back out that information,” she said.

Being able to “automatically rebid” a call doesn’t solve all those problems, she said. “There are still some hurdles on the provider side that will limit the ability of us to locate you.”

Still, county officials say the upgrade will create a single, unified system for law enforcement, fire, ambulance and public works communications that will help eliminate the gaps in service from a patchwork of systems.

But paying for it may be expensive, particularly for the county municipalities, who didn’t have to pay for providing local dispatching. Cities now have to share in that cost. George said the county must enter new intergovernmental agreements with St. Charles, St. Peters, Lake Saint Louis, Wentzville and O’Fallon that will set their costs.

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