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New 911 system to aid speed; Erie County's plan is expected to lead to quicker transfer of cellphone emergency calls to local police, fire in next year

A new 911 system that is being rolled out in Erie County over the next year will speed the transfer of emergency cellphone calls to a local police or fire department.

And for the first time, dispatchers at local emergency call centers outside the county's call center in Buffalo will see a map that can pinpoint the location of wireless callers as they move.

Officials hope that will mean officers and emergency responders throughout the county will get information more quickly as they respond to emergencies such as a heart attack or car crash.

"The quicker that gets out and somebody gets going, the better it is for the citizen," said Michelle Kerr, deputy director of law enforcement communications for the county's Central Police Services. "Sometimes, seconds count."

The new 911 system went live in March and April at the county's Central Police Services building on Elm Street downtown -- where calls are handled for Buffalo and the Sheriff's Office -- as well as in the City of Tonawanda and Cheektowaga.

Throughout the next year, the hardware and lines that connect all of the local dispatch centers throughout the county to the 911 system will be replaced, a necessity, officials say, because new parts are no longer made for the old system.

"There was no option about moving forward with this," said Central Police Services Commissioner John A. Glascott, who was appointed to lead the department in February. "It had to be done because the other system was antiquated, falling apart and no longer supported."

The project -- estimated to cost $8 million, including maintenance for five years -- has been in the works for three years and will be paid for primarily through Homeland Security grants.

"It's getting more and more difficult to maintain the system," said Marlaine Hoffman, deputy director of information services for Central Police Services. "So as a result, we needed to make a wholesale change sooner rather than later."

Hoffman compares the old 911 technology to a phone system in which all calls that come in through landline phones are routed by copper wires directly to a local emergency dispatch center.

"They have a little small black-and-green screen," Hoffman said. "And when it's a landline call, it tells you the name and address of the person that the phone is registered to."

In the new system, all calls are brought in through two sets of computer servers. Dedicated fiber optic lines connect all of the public safety answering points throughout the county. That gives call takers and dispatchers the ability to quickly transfer information and calls between departments with the click of a mouse.

"They don't have to look through binders; they don't have to look through folders," said Cheektowaga Police Lt. Cheryl Rucinski. "It's all right there at their fingertips."

Cellphone calls are automatically sent to the county's Central Police Services building in Buffalo, where call takers have been able to see location data and update Global Positioning System information for several years. But they couldn't easily transfer that data to local dispatch centers.

"We would have to stay on the line with them and do it for them," Kerr said. "With the new system, they'll be able to do that themselves."

The new system will allow all dispatchers in the county to see the location of a wireless caller based on GPS coordinates provided by the cellphone.

"We've had the same system for 20 years," City of Tonawanda Police Chief John F. Ivancic said. "Now you have the ability to actually see where the caller is no matter where they're calling from."

While the new 911 system will address the way calls are transferred between Erie County's dispatch centers, it won't address cellphone calls generated in Erie County that are picked up by towers in neighboring counties -- a situation that an Angola caller encountered in 2009.

And though cellphone technology has improved to provide better location data for callers, county officials warn that people should still be prepared to provide that information.

"The citizen is still the best source of information when a call comes in," Hoffman said.

Four dispatch centers -- Central Police Services, the City of Tonawanda, Cheektowaga and Buffalo Fire -- are already running on the new system after the first phase was implemented in March and April.

The City of Tonawanda was included in the first phase so that the county could test the system on a small dispatch center. The new system was installed in Cheektowaga as a new police building was constructed.

The second phase of installations will happen in the fall in towns that handle the highest call volumes, followed by the remaining dispatch centers early next year.

The new 911 system also will prepare the county for future software upgrades when federal agencies approve "next generation" 911 technology that can handle additional data such as incoming text, pictures or video, Glascott said.

For the most part, he said, residents shouldn't notice the change if the changeover goes as planned. "I'm hoping that most of the citizenry, when they make the phone call, is going to find this very seamless," he said. "Ideally speaking, they don't even notice what's going on."