By Tim Eberly
Hill County wants to know where you live as part of a solution to track 911 emergency calls with more efficiency.
Today, if a Havre resident calls the police station with an emergency, their phone number pops up on the dispatcher's caller identification unit. It's then the dispatcher's job to ascertain the caller's location and to inform the proper authorities of the caller's whereabouts.
The Hill County enhanced 911 system plan is about to make the dispatcher's job easier.
If the enhanced 911 plan is approved by the state the Hill County commissioners will submit a proposal to the state within 30 days addressess of emergency callers will be immediately displayed.
"It's a great step for the safety of the community," Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said of the project, which will cost more than $100,000 to install and at least $4,000 a month to maintain. "As long as you're able to (dial) a phone, they'll know where they're going."
Sometimes, a person calls 911 and then has to hang up immediately to tend to the emergency in progress, or for some other reason, whether it be injury or other circumstances, they can't speak to the dispatcher. The enhanced system would display the address where the call was made.
"If somebody can't talk and they dial 911, we can't locate where they are because we don't have the address," said Clay Vincent, Hill County planner. "This system would give you the address before you talk to the dispatcher."
Local authorities have begun the process of giving each residence in Hill County a physical address. About 35 percent of the county residences have a physical address, Vincent said. Nearly all of the residences in Havre have addresses but many homes in Inverness, Rudyard, Hingham, Gildford, Kremlin and Box Elder don't have them.
"We just need to get to the rural areas," Vincent said. "There are a lot of people percentage-wise in those communities. We need to know who lives at what spot, give them a physical address and work from there."
In conjunction with the attempt to match residents with an exact location, the city of Havre has hired a Missoula-based firm, Baseline Technologies, to use the GPS to create a detailed map of Hill County with the help of several satellites. The firm's employees will drive around the county's rural landscape with a GPS receiver and antenna. As they receive geographical information from satellites, employees will glean each home's exact location. Scheduled to begin on Nov. 19, the map-making process should be completed by the end of December.
"It's nothing more than a little device to create maps," said Jackson Beighle, a manager with Baseline Technologies.
Telephone users have been paying for the installation cost of an enhanced 911 system for more than a decade. The basic 911 system, which cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to install, has been in place at least 10 years, and since that time, local telephone bills have charged customers a 50-cent tax each billing period to subsidize the enhanced system. Recently, the surcharge was bumped up to $1, and the county has saved $80,000 for the project.
The money "comes back to the county when they want to set up the plan," Vincent said.
About three or four city or counties in the state, including Billings, have enhanced 911, according to Vincent. Choteau County has recently received state approval, along with the necessary funds to purchase the modern technology.
"It's been a good experience for us to watch and see what the other counties have gone through, and see their pitfalls and successes," said Vincent of the 18-month project, which has been in motion for two months.
Once the new program is in place, financial responsibility rests with Hill County to maintain the system. Those familiar with the enhanced 911 program recommend the accuracy level to stay at or above a 95 percent, which will be a challenge, to prevent liability lawsuits.
"It's expensive and it's time-consuming to keep the data up," Vincent said. "You can't imagine how often people move."
One drawback of the new system is its inability to track the location of cell phones, which do not have a permanent physical address. So if a person places an emergency call from a mobile phone, they will need to verbally relay their exact location to the dispatcher.
By Nov. 20, a new county ordinance could be passed requiring the telephone companies to register new residents' addresses. Also, home owners would be required to give phone companies their address and to place that address on the outside of their home to make it easily identifiable. Violaters of this ordinance would be charged with a misdemeanor to ensure "the phone companies keep their records current with the movement of the people," said Kaercher.
Other than the anticipated cell phone problem, "we don't see any huge problems with it," Vincent said. "There might be a few minimum problems but those should be able to be worked out."