LINCOLN — About 2:50 a.m., a tipster clicked onto Lincoln's Crime Stoppers website and typed in a description of an “obviously drunk” guy behind the wheel of a white Ford Focus near the downtown jail.
In the description box, the tipster shared the vehicle's license plate.
The electronic tip popped into the server in the basement of the Lancaster County Hall of Justice at 2:53 a.m., Friday, Aug. 19. An after-hours monitor forwarded the tip to a 911 dispatcher — who then alerted an officer to look near the jail — but the information arrived five minutes too late.
The driver was gone.
In an ideal world, such digital tips would go directly to dispatchers, past the tangled mess of Crime Stoppers websites, Twitter accounts and police blogs that receive them now, Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady and Lt. Darci Tierney of the Omaha Police Department say.
In the real world, most 911 centers aren't yet prepared to receive tips via the texts, photo and video messages the digital generation prefers, though a national effort is under way to change that.
It's called Next Generation 911. The Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Transportation, cellphone companies and other governmental and communications organizations are working on how such future 911 systems would operate.
“It's sprung up and proliferated so quickly that the emergency communications field just hasn't had a chance to adapt to the consumer technology fast enough,” said Casady.
Some of the issues to be decided nationally: How governments down the line would share regulation responsibility and how to fund implementation.
Brian Fontes, CEO of the 911 organization National Emergency Number Association, estimates that the transition nationally would cost millions, if not tens of millions of dollars. Federal cost projections are expected in 2013.
Implementation locally could take years, Midlands emergency officials say. And it will be costly, if recent emergency communications efforts in Nebraska are any guide. A federally funded effort to help workers from different police, fire and rescue agencies talk to one another across the various radio spectrums and bands cost $17.3 million to implement and took eight years.
“You can't just build a Next Generation 911,” said Julie Righter, communications manager for Lincoln's 911 call center.
When the changes come, emergency dispatchers hope to receive eyewitnesses' texts and pictures and quickly share them with emergency workers.
Larry Lavelle, Sarpy County's emergency management director, said rescue crews heading to an accident scene could get real-time pictures from witnesses detailing the severity of an accident. A victim hiding from an intruder or attacker could text a dispatcher without making a sound.
Research shows that there are more cellphones, 331 million, than people in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, 315 million these days. A 2011 Pew Research Survey found that nearly one-third of cellphone users polled prefer to text rather than talk on the phone.
But newer forms of communication come with complications, said Mark Conrey, Douglas County's emergency communications director.
“God help the dispatcher or operator who doesn't understand what the text says,” he said.
Abbreviations used in texts might slow communication, while also adding more to what individual dispatchers must handle, Conrey said. Phone communication is more direct and interactive, he said.
So far, such problems haven't arisen in Black Hawk County, Iowa, where the consolidated 911 center already accepts texts from one regional wireless carrier, i wireless, a subsidiary of T-Mobile.
The back-and-forths for texting and calling 911 are almost the same, and a texting dictionary has prevented any delays in communication, said Judy Flores, the Waterloo center's director.
The center first enabled 911 texting in July 2009 for local i wireless customers. Now, the center takes 911 texts from i wireless subscribers statewide and shares the information with local dispatchers. In almost three years, the center has received no more than a dozen texts per month, said Flores.
A next-generation-capable phone system upgrade in 2008 cost the 911 center $400,000, but the center avoided the cost of its first text-to-911 software by agreeing to be a test site, Flores said.
There's no fighting the change, Casady said. The evidence comes in the emails, texts and Web posts Lincoln sees, Casady said. More people want to contact police about crimes or suspicious activities digitally.
Lavelle, Conrey and Righter said wider cellphone use has created an expectation that people can zip off messages quickly and get a response.
For now, though, each says calling 911 is still better than sending a text about the drunk guy picking a fight at the bus stop.
Said Conrey: “You're better off (calling) for assistance and telling them exactly where you need it.”
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