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New St. Charles County System Will Map Location of Cellphone 9-1-1 Calls

ST. CHARLES COUNTY • A driver in a rollover accident on the Page Avenue extension earlier this month used a cellphone to call 9-1-1 but was unable to give a precise location to the O’Fallon police dispatcher on the other end.

The driver knew only it was somewhere between Highways K and 40 — a 4.5-mile stretch.

“We could have gotten the proper agency involved quite a bit more quickly had the “X” marked the spot immediately,” said Capt. John Neske, who heads O’Fallon police’s administrative division.

Under a new countywide 9-1-1 system expected to be operating by late April, county officials say, emergency dispatchers will be able to immediately pinpoint and map the location of most calls coming in from cellphones.

Now the county’s police agencies can’t do that, said Jeff Smith, who heads the county’s Department of Dispatch and Alarm.

That’s a problem because more than 70 percent of the 150,000 emergency calls made in the county last year were from cellphones, he said. And the percentage is expected to go up in the future.

In contrast, dispatchers automatically get addresses and phone numbers for 9-1-1 landline calls.

While most cell users do give dispatchers a specific location, some cannot — like that driver on the Page extension, also known as Highway 364.

Others may not be able to because of their circumstances, police say. Sgt. George Grove, communications supervisor for St. Charles police, said about a week ago a woman used a cellphone to call 9-1-1 to report that her boyfriend was punching her but didn’t have the correct address.

Eventually, police figured out where they were. But the boyfriend left before police arrived, he said.

Unlike the police agencies, Smith said, his dispatch department — which handles fire and ambulance calls countywide — already has good mapping capability.

The new 9-1-1 setup, Smith said, also will have other advantages. For the first time, he said, people in the county will be able to text 9-1-1 from a cellphone. That capability will kick in by next year, he said.

“Now you get a message saying it’s not available,” he said.

He also said the current system is old, and its software can no longer be updated.

He added that all components are in his agency’s office in Wentzville, making the system vulnerable to a tornado or some other catastrophe. In contrast the new system will have cloud-based backup with data stored remotely outside the county.

The new countywide system will replace the current two-system arrangement with one run by the county and the other by St. Charles.

Emergency calls will continue to flow initially to the county’s six largest law enforcement agencies — the O’Fallon, St. Charles, St. Peters, Wentzville, Lake Saint Louis and county police departments.

The County Council in October approved a $3.5 million, seven-year contract with Alabama-based Emergency CallWorks to set up and operate the system.

The county is negotiating contracts with the cities to share some of that cost, which they don’t do now.

A countywide 2 percent tax on landline phones for 9-1-1 service no longer supplies enough revenue to fund the system by itself and state law doesn’t allow it to be applied to cellphone bills.

St. Louis County plans a similar upgrade to its system to improve on the limited mapping of cellphone 9-1-1 calls it has had for several years in many but not all locales.

Tom McCormack, St. Louis County’s 9-1-1 services coordinator, said the proposed upgrade also would extend reliable cellphone mapping capability to police agencies in the county that don’t have it now.

In Jefferson County, 9-1-1 dispatch chief Travis Williams said his agency has had cellphone call mapping for more than two years. The agency serves most of the county.

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