By Brian Flinchpaugh
People needing help in St. Charles County may be able to text 911 on their personal communications devices, possibly as early as this summer.
The county’s upgraded 911 system has been operational since November, utilizing new technology that now allows more than 70 percent of 911 calls to be received from wireless phones and other devices. A major priority for the system this year is developing the capacity to receive 911 calls via text, said Jeff Smith, the county’s director of the Department of Dispatch and Alarm.
Smith told the St. Charles County Council at its Jan. 11 meeting that texting for help may be available as soon as mid-2016.
County officials began discussion about upgrading the county’s aging 911 system, which was put in place in 2004, several years ago. The new system not only utilizes new equipment, but also creates a single system for emergency providers and eliminates gaps in service.
In November of 2014, the council approved a $3.46 million contract with Emergency CallWorks Inc., of Birmingham, Alabama, to deploy and operate the system for seven years.
A year later – last Nov. 18 – all seven of the county’s public service answering points (PSAPs) that handle 911 calls began using the new system. Those PSAPs include the cities of St. Charles, St. Peters, O’Fallon, Lake Saint Louis and Wentzville, as well as the county’s Police Department and Department of Dispatch and Alarm.
Smith said the new system features equipment operated both in and out of the county, ensuring a backup in case of an emergency. The system also allows 911 operators to visually pinpoint where a caller is located on a map.
Smith said there also have been limited cost overruns during the installation of the system due to change orders, with the total cost now estimated at $3.48 million over the seven years of the contract.
As of Jan. 10, the system had responded to 24,667 emergency calls, Smith said. And the volume of calls is increasing. In 2015, the 911 system responded to 160,400 calls that broke down to 439 per day or 18 per hour. The system responded to 155,580 calls at a rate of 17 per hour in 2014.
The current 2 percent tariff on local service rates for land-based telephones helps fund the system, but local municipalities have entered intergovernmental agreements with municipalities to provide needed additional funding.
Smith said municipalities are expected to pick up $1.804 million of the cost of the system, with another $1.3 million coming from the county’s capital fund, and more than $350,000 from other sources.