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Alaska News

911 upgrades will track caller location, provide call-back numbers for dispatchers

Upcoming changes to the statewide 911 system are expected to drastically improve the ability of dispatchers to locate 911 callers in rural Alaska by recording cellphone call locations, according to the Department of Public Safety.

When 911 callers in rural areas use their cellphones to call for help, the state’s current system isn’t able to tell where the caller is located. Public Safety Deputy Commissioner Leon Morgan said this is worrisome because callers don’t always know exactly where they are located, especially if they are hunting or off the road system.

“Right now, the first thing out of their mouth pretty much has to be where they’re located,” he said.

Because of the way emergency calls are routed, call-back numbers are not automatically available. If calls drop, dispatchers have no way to call the number back to send help. More than 80% of 911 calls are made from cellphones, he said.

The updates will “make services consistent throughout the state,” Morgan said. The technology has been around for decades, and Morgan said some municipalities and villages are already using it.

Most states in the Lower 48 already track cellphone caller location at 911 centers, but Morgan said Alaska has been lagging behind.

There is an “expectation of service” from cellphone users when they call 911, Morgan said, regardless of their location. Cellphone service throughout the state has improved significantly in recent years, he said.

The state is required to give wireless carriers six months to make any necessary updates to their technology before the services begin. The state, however, is allowing carriers extra time before making a formal request next year so that the changes can be made during regularly scheduled maintenance.

During the next 18 months, the state will also consolidate emergency communications services into two locations. A communications center in Anchorage will be built to complement an existing location in Fairbanks.

The stations will be able to dispatch calls statewide but will not replace local public safety answering points in municipalities or villages, Morgan said. The services will impact about 20% of the state’s population that is spread across 80% of its geography, he said.

Right now, rural callers are often rerouted several times before they are connected to an emergency communications center that can dispatch troopers. The new system will eliminate the rerouting, Morgan said.

“It’s important to provide these services to all Alaskans,” he said. “We have areas in our state that are devoid of these services and I think it is a critical aspect of public safety.”