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Columbus Gets Upgrade of 911 Mapping System

Columbus will be getting a new 911 system that will help police officers, firefighters and paramedics respond faster to emergencies by mapping routes to the exact location of the calls.

"We do have maps, but it's not very good," said Jack Reall, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 67. "By the time the map generates and pulls up on the screen, you're already there. It's slow and clunky." The new system will have updated maps showing new buildings, waterlines and road construction. It also will let 911 dispatchers receive text and video messages, which they can't do now with the system that is 15 to 20 years old. "It's going to allow the officers to have almost desktop speed in their police and fire apparatuses," said Officer Ramona Patts of the police business-support services unit. "It will improve response times because it will be able to map the route to the location where they're going to."

The $7.2 million system includes new hardware, software and training throughout the two safety divisions. It was bought from Intergraph, an Alabama company, and won't be fully operational until June 2011. That's because Intergraph has to learn how Columbus safety forces operate, build a Columbus-specific mapping system and train almost 4,000 people, Patts said. Training for police officers and firefighters is to start in the next few weeks.

The new dispatching system has delayed any discussion about whether the city should change the way it responds to medical emergencies. Columbus Safety Director Mitchell J. Brown said he first wants to see how the new system works. Now, if someone calls 911 with a medical emergency, Columbus paramedics are sent whether the caller needs advanced life support or not. A committee appointed by city leaders recommended last year that the city compare the costs and quality of advanced life support -- what paramedics provide -- and basic life support -- what firefighters provide.

Last year, 68 percent of emergency medical calls required only basic life support, not advanced. Columbus used to have a tiered system in which some ambulances would provide basic life support and others provided advanced life support. Supporters of tiered systems say the paramedics are more proficient because they are always working on the most serious cases. "That's not an area we're going to focus on," Brown said. He said he doesn't agree that a tiered system would improve care or save money. While the 911 system is being upgraded, dispatchers will be trained to ask specific questions when taking medical calls. "We're going to try to make sure people know how to ask the right questions first on the front end before we look" at an advanced/basic system, Brown said.

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