By Patrick Winderl
Hill County is one step closer to a better, more efficient emergency response system. The Hill County Commission on Tuesday submitted Tuesday an updated map of the county to a company hired to bring the next generation of dispatch services to Hi-Line residents.
The map is part of the enhanced-911 program, a statewide effort to provide better emergency services to rural residents. The new program will use the global positioning system to accurately route responders to emergency sites.
The system will lower response times, Hill County sanitarian Clay Vincent said.
"You can't change the distance you have to travel across the county," he said. "But you can cut the time it takes you to get there. This system will really benefit rural residents."
The enhanced-911 program will be in place by April 2004, Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway said.
A bill passed by the Montana Legislature has raised the money to fund the program over the past four years.
Montana residents saw a 25-cent surcharge tacked on to every monthly phone bill beginning in 1999, Vincent said. The money was placed in a fund managed by the state Department of Administration.
Hill County's share of the state money is $162,000. The money will be used to purchase the computer equipment required to operate the new system, Conway said.
A seven-member board is responsible for planning and implementing the new system in Hill County. The board consists of both city and county emergency response workers.
"The intent was to balance out county and city interests," said Vincent, who serves on the board.
The board wrote an initial plan that was approved by county and city law enforcement agencies and fire departments, Conway said. The next step in the process was obtaining approval from the state and receiving the funding for the project, he added.
The enhanced-911 program uses an extremely accurate map based on a grid system to route emergency personnel to their destinations. The Minnesota company GeoCom was hired to map all of the roads in Hill County, Vincent said. A GeoCom specialist drove every road in the county using GPS tracking to create a computer- generated map.
The project took more than 700 hours, Vincent said.
The map is accurate to within less than a centimeter, according to GeoCom's Web page. Roads are designated by numbers based on their position in the grid system.
The map divides Hill County into one-mile units. U.S. Highway 2 is the horizontal zero on the map. Roads are designated as north and south depending on their relationship to the highway.
The zero for the vertical plane begins at the west county line. As the grid moves east, the numbers increase.
"You'll notice that the mileage markers on the highway grow larger as you travel east, so we built the grid system around that principle," Vincent said.
Once the map was created, the County Commission was responsible for identifying the roads and selecting a preferred name if a road was known by more than one name.
On Tuesday, the commissioners finished their work and gave the map back to GeoCom to complete the project.
One advantage to the system is dispatchers can determine an address by tracing the calling number. Every phone number in Hill County will have information prelisted on a computer database.
"Under the present system, the dispatcher is dependent on the caller to receive information," Conway said. "Under the new system, the dispatcher will already have a name and address available. For instance, let's say a person was able to dial 911, but they were unable to speak to the dispatcher for some reason. The enhanced-911 program will enable us to trace the location and respond to those calls."
In addition to giving the dispatcher an address and the name of the resident, the computer will also give the location within the grid system.
One problem facing the program is people moving to and from apartments and new houses being built, Conway said. To combat this, the Hill County Commission passed an ordinance that requires residents to register a physical address with their local telephone company before utility lines can be activated.
The computer database for enhanced 911 will constantly be updated by doing this, Vincent said.
The mapping system will be multifunctional, Vincent said.
"The program is very versatile," he said. "Not only will it be used for emergency dispatch, but it is also a great tool to track sewer and utility lines, cattle guards and culverts."
The computer equipment needed for the system will be bought early next year, Conway said.