SHERIDAN — A bill before the Legislature would initiate processes to upgrade Wyoming’s 911 system. The bill prepares the state to transition to Next Generation 911 technology, improving the ability of public safety response points — or 911 dispatch centers — to locate and track callers in an emergency.
Modern consumers have grown accustomed to companies collecting and using location data. Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft can find riders at specific street corners. The Domino’s pizza tracker notifies hungry customers when their pizza is approaching. Walmart’s Curbside Pickup feature follows drivers to ensure quick transport of items to a waiting customer’s vehicle. Why, then, can it be so difficult for emergency services to locate 911 callers?
“How come Lyft, Uber and Domino’s can find you so much easier than 911?” asked Monte McClain, communications supervisor at the Park County Sheriff’s Office and president of the Wyoming Association of Public Safety Communications Officers and the National Emergency Number Association.
The answer: 911 services across the United States, including in Wyoming and Sheridan County, are outdated and lack funding to upgrade them. The new bill would open investigations into the expansion of Next Generation 911 in Wyoming.
Since the first call to 911 in 1968, 911 systems have spanned generations, said Jenifer Shassetz, administrative manager for the City of Sheridan.
Under the original 911 system — which took place long before the cell phone era — callers had to tell dispatchers their phone number and location, and calls often lasted until emergency personnel locates a distressed caller, Shassetz said.
From there, Shassetz said public safety response points transitioned to enhanced 911, in which a phone number and the address associated with that landline automatically populates for emergency personnel.
The advent of cellphones, however, challenged enhanced 911, Shassetz said. As 911 calls began to come from places other than private homes, public safety response point technology had to adapt. This resulted in Phase 2 of Enhanced 911, which added triangulation capability to help emergency personnel find callers on cell phones.
Phase 2 Enhanced 911, Shassetz said, is the current state of the Sheridan County Public Safety Response Point, which is housed at the Sheridan Police Department. The county also uses an addition to its 911 system called RapidSOS, which repeatedly re-triangulates a moving caller’s location to track their location change.
Next-generation 911 would allow public safety response points to continuously geo-check a caller’s location, similar to Walmart’s grocery pickup system to track drivers as they head to the store, said Shasetz. The updated system would also allow callers to send photos, videos and texts to emergency personnel.
The problem is that transitioning to the next generation 911 would require a massive statewide commitment, Shassetz said. The system is intended to be a statewide upgrade, rather than a county-by-county change. Every agency in the state must upgrade to the new, next-generation 911 technology at the same time to experience the system’s benefits, including the ability to transfer calls between agencies statewide, Shassetz said.
“ going from a copper phone line to a… cloud-based 911,” McClain said.
This change would also require huge cybersecurity upgrades for public safety response points.
Likewise, public safety response points lack the funds to support a huge technology upgrade, McClain explained. In 1989, state law set a maximum emergency charge for 911—a monthly charge on each phone line in a particular area—of 75 cents.
For most response points, McClain said this tax does not adequately reimburse public safety response points for their annual expenses. In 2020, for example, 15 of Wyoming’s 23 counties spent more — sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars — than they collected in taxes, McClain said. To account for inflation alone, McClain said the tax should have increased to $1.60 per phone line by this year.
Seventy-five cents per call will not fund such a system upgrade, Shassetz and McClain agreed.
The proposed bill could alleviate some of these challenges. Importantly, McClain said the bill would amend Wyoming Title 16, which governs city, county, state and local powers, to allow public safety response points to use emergency 911 tax funds to acquire next-generation 911 communications systems or integrate older systems into next-generation 911. systems.
It would also amend Wyoming Title 9, which determines the administration of state government, by encouraging members of the Public Safety Communications Commission, a board empowered to develop and improve public safety communications systems. statewide, recommending regulations and implementation strategies for the next generation. 911 and expanding the composition of the commission.
The bill will not increase the maximum emergency 911 charge on phone lines or increase the annual funds available for public safety response points. However, Shassetz said federal funding may be able to help Wyoming public safety officials transition to next-generation 911s.
Although McClain and the Wyoming Association of Public Safety Communications Officers believe that existing sources of funding for public safety response points are insufficient, they nonetheless support the passage of the bill during the session. budget of the Legislative Assembly this month.
“[I]It is in the best interest of the State of Wyoming to review, then determine and agree to a statewide plan for eventual migration [from] Wyoming’s legacy 911 systems to next-generation 911s,” the association said in a recent position paper.