Arkansas counties begin to use new 911 system

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 444 views 

Sept. 13, 2011 started just like any other Tuesday, but ended in a hail of gunfire after a man opened fire inside the Crawford County Courthouse in Van Buren.

In all, James Ray Palmer fired more than 70 rounds, miraculously only wounding one county employee before he was shot and killed by police in a gun battle on the courthouse lawn.

Crawford County Information Technology Director Laura Hall can still recall the shooting in vivid detail.

"We all weren't sure it was gun shots until the second shot," she said. "We pretty much hit the floor. I was in the county clerk's office. Someone yelled, ‘Call 911.’ No one had a phone. But I had a phone."

She remembers telling dispatchers that there was a shooter in the building, but it was not until about four minutes into the call that she was able to talk to dispatchers across the street at the Crawford County Sheriff's Department.

"I thought I was talking across the street. I found out later (that the 911 call) got re-routed to Sebastian County."

Four minutes. And in that time, Hall said she heard what she recalls to be 12 shots or more.

"He was shooting all over the hallway and at the other end of the office," she said.

So how could something like what happened to Hall and many other Crawford County employees happen?

According to Tina Thompson, 911 coordinator and GIS manager for the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, 911 calls do not necessarily go to a tower within the caller's county. In the case of the courthouse shooting, many of the cell phone calls went to a tower in Fort Smith, which is just a few city blocks and a river away.

"In that case, (the calls) hit a tower in Fort Smith, so the calls went to Fort Smith (dispatchers)," Thompson said. "Until cell phone companies correct issues with routing, that will continue to be an issue."

And even if calls go to the right dispatch center, there is still a chance the dispatch center may not know exactly where the calls are coming from, she said. Calls now come into dispatch centers as either a phase one call or a phase two call.

"A wireless phase one call only shows the address of the tower that call hits, what sector of that tower it hit," she said.

Phase two calls can show location, though the accuracy of those calls are not always precise, Thompson added.

There are two ways to determine a caller's location – triangulation and GPS. Triangulation takes a caller's location and measures it between three different towers to determine a precise location, while a GPS coordinate transmitted by a cell phone can give a dispatcher a precise location within 10 feet.

"It's close, but it's nothing compared GPS off of the cell phones," Thompson said of triangulation methods, saying some wireless carriers are better than others.

In order to improve the system, she said many cell phone carriers are making upgrades to their towers to ensure all calls are phase two calls.

Arkansas politicians are also getting involved. U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., joined with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in urging the FCC to "reevaluate the current 9-1-1 location system, and ensure that wireless callers, regardless of the technology used or location from which a call is made, can be reasonably located by emergency responders)."

On a local level, Crawford County decided to upgrade their 911 system to be prepared for any emergency that may arrive. According to County Judge John Hall (no relation to Laura Hall), the county has spent $500,000 on a new NextGen system.

Thompson said such a system will allow for not only precise location, but also for those in an emergency, such as an active shooter situation, to send a text including photos or videos to a 911 center, instead of a phone call whenever the state installs a broadband service specifically for use in emergencies. The system also works to ensure calls are routed to the correct dispatch center, though as cell phone carriers continue to upgrade their towers, more phase two calls will start to be received, ensuring more location accuracy.

Other counties in the state are also working to replace aging systems, which Thompson said were previously provided by AT&T but will be removed by the company within the next five years.

"What's bringing about a lot of the 911 centers putting in the NextGen equipment is most of our 911 centers using equipment called Vest Palace provided by AT&T," she said. "They are no longer allowing them to use that equipment. They are pulling it out of dispatch centers so they are forced to look at NextGen equipment."

Among the counties to add the system are Pulaski, Scott and Sebastian Counties.

As for the next time an emergency such as an active shooter situation happens, Hall said she would likely do the same thing she did last time, but try to clarify her location through the chaos to ensure she is speaking to the right dispatch center.

"One of the news media said next time it happens, use a landline," she said. "I said, 'Next time, if I want to raise my head a foot (and risk getting shot), I will.'"