Synchronizing statewide 911 services discussed

October 22, 2021 | Headlines

OKLAHOMA CITY – Synchronizing statewide 911 services, especially for Oklahomans who live along county lines was the topic of discussion before the House County and Municipal Government Committee this week.

Rep. Jim Grego, R-Wilburton, requested an interim study after hearing from several constituents who have struggled to get ambulance service to their homes.

“We want to make sure anyone needing emergency services gets help quickly,” Grego said. “Today’s study shed some light on work that needs to be done and raised some questions for legislators as well as state agencies and local governments to look into to see how we can better help our residents.”

The study’s firs presenter, Larry Phillips, told of a night his son – an amputee – had fallen and needed to be transported by ambulance to a local hospital.

Phillips lives in Latimer County along the county line. When he called 911, his call was routed to Pittsburg County. After telling the dispatcher his address, his call was re-routed. Both dispatchers stayed on the line with Phillips while an ambulance was dispatched from nearby Hartshorne. Able to see the highway from his home, he watched as the ambulance driver missed the turn to his property multiple times while he tried to give directions to the dispatchers. He finally had to send a neighbor’s son to the highway to flash the lights of his car to show the ambulance driver where to turn. The problem was outdated maps supplied to the ambulance driver and the fact that Phillips’ rural home shows up in different locations on different GPS systems.

“The ambulance was two and a half miles from our house, three miles at most, and it took roughly an hour to get him there,” Phillips said.

Grego read a similar story from constituent Jerry McCrory, another Latimer County resident. In a letter, McCrory said his children suffer from life-threatening allergies, and he has heart problems. He’s called for ambulance service before, but his calls are routed to LeFlore County where he said he was told by dispatch that it’s illegal for their 911 service to cross county lines. Nor could they provide emergency numbers to Latimer County.

Marshall County Commissioner Josh Cantrell and other presenters explained why calls are sometimes routed to the wrong county – the nearest cell phone tower and public safety answering points (PSAPs).

For residents who live along a county line, their call might be routed to the nearest city. If it’s in a neighboring county, however, that county will need to have a mutual aid agreement with the county where the resident lives, and have the resources available to respond.

Several presenters at today’s study explained that in rural communities there is often only one ambulance. There’s also a shortage of emergency medical technicians, and counties struggle with funding to keep ambulance, fire and other emergency services running.

“Our ambulance service is not what you would consider a for-profit organization,” Cantrell said. “It’s a we’re hanging on year to year and hopefully we have enough money saved up to buy another ambulance when these are worn out. If not, we’re scrambling.”

As rural communities grow, keeping up with evolving technology is also an issue.

Daniel Nixon, 911 coordinator for Marshall County, said he’s been the guy who couldn’t find the address. When he started in fire services more than two decades ago, they didn’t have GPS. Instead, firemen had to know their districts and were tested on local maps. That has gone away with the reliance on GPS, he said.

The information in the state’s data bases is old, Nixon said. Counties and municipalities are having to remap all of the addresses within their boundaries.

Lance Terry, 911 coordinator for the state of Oklahoma,  said many states are ahead of Oklahoma in this area. Oklahoma is using technology to route 911 calls that was developed in the 1960s. It’s manipulated to work with wireless phones, but it needs to be updated.

Other states are using Next Generation 911, but it’s not free, Terry said. It also will not be cheap or easy for rural communities to connect to the network.

Terry said he Association of Central Oklahoma Governments is spending about $20 million to implement a Next Generation 911 system now that will spread from the Oklahoma City metro area.  Rural broadband providers will need to look at updating their 911 centers as well, he said.

The price to update systems statewide will go from about $2.5 million to $13 million a year, Terry said. To accomplish this, the Oklahoma Office of Emergency Management will apply for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grants to help kickstart the move, but the state will have to figure out long-term funding.

Terry said local governments also need to commit to the statewide standard. Many have not taken advantage of available grant money from the federal government to update geographic information systems (GIS) mapping. That will need to change to address constituents needs, he said.

Jim Grego serves District 17 in the Oklahoma House of representatives. His district includes Latimer County and parts of LeFlore and Pittsburg counties.