Iowa finishes wireless 911 system upgrade

DES MOINES – Iowa has completed the first phase of an upgrade to its wireless 911 emergency calling system that eventually will allow text messages, photos and video to be transmitted in emergency messages.

Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management officials said Wednesday they have upgraded the wireless 911 network to an Internet Protocol system.

That type of system has a much larger capability than older style technology analog circuit-based system used since the 1960s.

The new system should be more reliable and has increased flexibility, said Barbara Vos, the state’s 911 program manager.

For example, if a 911 center goes down or staff needs to relocate due to a tornado warning or coming storm, the calls can be routed through the new system to a neighboring center, a capability unavailable under the old system.

Iowa is one of the first states to complete the statewide upgrade, emergency management officials said.

“While the existing 911 system has been a success story for more than 30 years, it has been stretched to its limit,” said HSEMD Administrator Mark Schouten. “A great many Iowans use communication devices that offer text, video and picture messaging capabilities and we must be able to utilize this technology as a tool to increase the safety of our citizens.”

With the state system now upgraded, it is expected to take up to two years for cellphone carriers and local 911 call centers to install equipment to handle text, photos and video.

Vos said texting can be valuable for someone who may need to communicate without speaking.

For example, a person hiding from a perpetrator could text a 911 message without disclosing their location.

It also allows individuals who are deaf or those who cannot speak to use 911, Vos said.

Video could help authorities respond better. A caller could send a picture or video of a bad accident, for example, giving dispatchers a better idea of how many ambulances are needed. In the case of a crime, a picture of a getaway car could help investigators.

The upgrade of the state’s system is part of a national initiative called Next Generation 911 led by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Once implemented nationwide, it will result in an interconnected system of local and regional emergency service networks and will improve the ability of emergency services to share information.

A $1.3 million federal grant and a $1.3 million state match came from Iowa’s wireless surcharge provided funding for the upgrade of Iowa’s system.