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When Calling 911 Isn't Practical

SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. -- The burglar is inside your house, rummaging around in the next room. Does he have a weapon? Your heart beats fast.

You hide in the closet with the telephone, but you are afraid of being overheard.

"Help!" you type into the cell phone. "My house is being burglarized!!!!"

This situation would be impossible today because most 911 systems across the country cannot accept emergency text messages, pictures or video.

But the technology should be available within the next few years, and Sarasota County is preparing to update the local 911 system when a reliable alternative becomes available.

County officials said Monday that $600,000 in proposed federal funding would aid the transition from telephone lines to an Internet-based call-taking system, which is expected to cost about $1.2 million.

"We want to engage people in a medium they're comfortable with and make the public more of a partner with first responders," said Bob Stuckey, a former Sarasota County firefighter who runs the county's public safety communications center.

Emergency officials throughout the region say they are monitoring the new 911 technology, but so far Sarasota County is the only agency to set aside money for the transition.

"The way technology is changing, every agency is going to be looking at this, but budget-wise, things are tight right now," said Charlotte County Sheriff's Office spokesman Bob Carpenter.

Internet-based 911 systems will allow a flood of new information to reach call takers and radio dispatchers during the first critical minutes of an emergency.

To use a recent example, instant photograph and video feeds could have helped guide the response to the June 4 tanker explosion on Interstate 75 in Manatee County, Stuckey said.

"We can size up the situation before we get there, and that's huge," he said.

There is also the potential for better emergency response times. Under certain circumstances, information might be relayed more rapidly through instant messages, e-mail or telephone text messages.

But an Internet-based system also has potential drawbacks, such as "information overload" and security concerns, Stuckey said.

Computer hackers might disrupt an Internet system. And a flood of photos and videos could distract 911 call takers.

"You can be inundated to the point of just shutting down," Stuckey said.

For these reasons, Sarasota County and other agencies are proceeding slowly with the technology.

Sarasota County is soliciting proposals from private companies and will take at least six months to evaluate them, Stuckey said. It could be a year or two after that before the county adopts a new system.

Stuckey does not want Sarasota County to be the testing ground.

"We think this will help us connect the dots better and more quickly than we could before, but we need a system that's manageable and proven," he said. "We don't want to lose the public's confidence."

Others believe the public is ready and that emergency systems just have not caught up.

"We've got to start looking ahead at what the young people are doing because it's a whole new ball game," Carpenter said.

FUNDS FOR EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CENTER

In addition to $600,000 for 911 improvements, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, announced Monday that federal funds have been earmarked for a new Sarasota County Emergency Operations Center.

* The $1 million allocation will help jump-start architectural and engineering work on what is expected to be a $16 million to $20 million project, said Ed McCrane, the county's emergency management chief.

* The $1.6 million in earmarks were approved by the House but have not passed the Senate, Buchanan said.

Officials recently applied for an additional $1 million grant from the U.S.< Department of Homeland Security, but funds for the entire project have not been identified.

* Charlotte County and Manatee County both completed new EOCs recently.

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