911 centers adapt to changing technology - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

911 centers adapt to changing technology

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -

If you need help in an emergency, your first instinct is probably to call 911.

It's often a thankless job for the thousands of dispatchers who answer those 24/7 calls.

But this week, those dispatchers are being recognized as a part of National Public Safety Telecommunications Week.

Black Hawk County dispatch answers over 600,000 calls a year, 10 percent of which are emergency calls. 

During the past year, local dispatchers also manned the tip line for calls about Evansdale cousins Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins, a task which they'll be honored for next month.

The dispatch center in Waterloo is still one of just a handful of centers nationwide to accept 911 text messages, but that service is only available through one cell carrier -- so there's still a lot of work to do to keep up with constantly changing technology.

Black Hawk County dispatchers work around the clock to make sure when someone calls 911, emergency crews get to them quickly.

"Sometimes they do things like CPR over the phone, deliver babies over the phone," said Judy Flores, Black Hawk County Dispatch Director. "They listen to people getting assaulted. They hear it all, and they have to be able to calm that caller, and get the necessary information for them so we can get help to them."

In the past 20 years, cell phones have dramatically changed how 911 dispatchers do their jobs.

Dispatch center phone systems have been upgraded to accommodate, allowing them to get specific details on where a cell caller is.

"The latitude and longitude of where the call is coming from and the call back number -- it's evolved even more now," said Flores. "A few years ago, Black Hawk County -- in our 911 center -- was the first center in the country to start taking and receiving text to 911, and that's where the country is going at this time."

But upgrading technology to adapt to those changes isn't cheap, which is even harder to pay for as more people give up their land lines.

That's because cell phone users pay less for 911 fees than those with land lines. In Black Hawk County alone, that's led to a $300,000 funding loss.

The Iowa legislature is now looking at a measure to help change that.

"There's a bill right now that is to make the cell phone surcharge dollars equal to what the land line is, so that as people lose the land line phones, we're still not losing the funding," Flores said.

It would be a welcome change, and 911 centers know there are more changes coming, with a new push to get all cell phone carriers to allow 911 text messaging by next year.

While it's an added cost for cell companies and dispatch centers, Black Hawk County's dispatch director says it's worth it.

"If there's a technology that's going to help save a life, then we owe it to our citizens to do what we can so we can accept that type of technology," said Flores.

Right now, the Black Hawk County dispatch center only gets two or three 911 text messages a month, but as more cell carriers start offering that option, that number will likely jump.

However, dispatchers say your best bet is still calling 911 if you need help, because a conversation can help give them more information -- even things like background noise -- that can help them help you.

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