The next generation of 911 is coming to St. Charles County, after the County Council voted to authorize an agreement between the County and the cities of Lake Saint Louis, O’Fallon, St. Charles, St. Peters, and Wentzville to modernize the emergency phone system.
“911 is the one service that everybody will need at some point in their life,” says County Executive Steve Ehlmann, “And when you need it—it’s the most important thing in your life.”
Eighty-five percent of all 911 calls in St. Charles County are placed on cell phones. The old system, designed to route landline calls has been adapted to route wireless calls as best as possible, but can cause delays in locating callers using the latest wireless technology.
“It’s not a matter of if we do the switch, it’s a matter of when,” says Director of Emergency Communications Jeff Smith.
Smith says the new system will help callers in several ways:
- Will provide callers’ location received directly from their wireless device.
- Instead of cell tower location, or multiple tower triangulation, calls will be routed to the appropriate dispatcher based on the caller’s actual physical location.
- More accurate routing will result in less need for the transfer of calls between dispatch agencies, resulting in lower overall average response times from call placement to dispatch of assistance.
In the future, Smith says the same system will allow dispatchers to see the elevation of the person calling 911, which could help locate what floor someone is on in a house fire. Plans also call for allowing callers to send photos or videos from the scene of an emergency.
The new system comes at a cost of just under $12 million spread out over the next seven years for new hardware, software, and 911 call routing. The system will come online in phases over the next 18 months. The cost of the system will be shared by the County and the cities of Lake Saint Louis, O’Fallon, St. Charles, St. Peters, and Wentzville, each of which is a primary system answering point for 911.
Funding to help pay for the new system will include primarily money from the county and municipalities who answer 911. The County’s capital improvement sales tax will fund approximately 55 percent with the remainder coming from the five municipalities. The only dedicated 911 source in St. Charles County is a tax on landlines that generates less than $250,000 annually in a county of 419,000 people. Twenty years ago, before cell phones dominated, the same tax raised $571,000.
More than 118,000 calls have been placed to 911 in St. Charles County this year through October. Of those, 98.7 percent have been answered within 10 seconds. The average answer time is 3.5 seconds.
In late summer, the St. Charles County decided to hire some contract 911 dispatchers as a temporary measure to offset staff shortages. So far, a handful have come on board and a total of eight are expected.