James Young, Deseret News
Valley Emergency Communications Center in Salt Lake County, along with 911 call centers in Davis, Weber and Morgan counties, upgraded its systems to the first Internet protocol-capable 911 call delivery system in Utah. In the future, people will be able to text, send photos and video to dispatchers.

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s being called the most significant upgrade to 911 in the past two decades, and it affects the emergency response for 1.6 million Utahns.     

Emergency centers in Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Morgan counties are now using the state’s first emergency services Internet protocol network for 911 calls. 

A 911 caller today is not going to see or experience any difference, but the technological upgrade means there will soon be more options for reporting an emergency and more flexibility for the 911 center to handle calls.

Valley Emergency Communications Center, which dispatches for several agencies throughout Salt Lake County, receives 1,600 to 1,800 calls on an average day. But that volume can spike to as many 4,000 daily calls when a snowstorm leads to a flurry of crashes, or a wildfire takes off in a neighborhood.

This new system links the communications center with Weber County and the Utah Department of Public Safety dispatch, which handles the Utah Highway Patrol, as the first Internet protocol-capable 911 call delivery system in Utah. Unified, Bountiful and Salt Lake police departments will join the network in the coming months. 

"Up until now, 911 systems have been voice-centric. A call comes in, and the call is answered," said William Harry, executive director of the communications center. The new generation 911 emergency system will mean that in the future, dispatchers will be able to receive data, such as videos, photos and text messages.

"The platforms that we are using will ultimately provide the 911 user more options on how to get a hold of the 911 center," Harry said.

With a data-based system, in just a few years, someone could send a text to 911, for example, if there's a robber in the house, but they can't make a noise. Someone could also snap a photo of a crime suspect and email that to 911, so they could send it out to the police.

And with video?

"If you witness a fire, you could hold up your camera, and a video stream would be routed to the fire department," Harry said.

The system isn’t there yet, but testing is under way across the country to establish the protocols that would enable the emergency data transmission.

"We've positioned ourselves so that when those standards are developed, we will be able to take advantage of the applications that ride on that system," Harry said.

If the volume of calls coming into any one of the 911 dispatch centers is too much for that center to handle, another one can pick up the excess.

For example, when a wildfire erupted in Herriman last summer, the communications center was bombarded with calls. Today, with this new system, calls unrelated to the fire could be offloaded to the Weber County-area 911 center.  That network capability can help in many different emergency scenarios.

"If one of the centers involved in the system has to abandon (shut down), those calls will be routed to a center that remains standing," Harry said.

If a dispatcher assigned to work in the Weber center cannot make it to that center, he or she can pick up their work at one of the other centers because the network is tied to computers at Valley Emergency Communications Center and Weber County.

"It provides a lot more flexibility and backup capability than our old system did," Harry said.

E-mail: jboal@ksl.com