Counties join forces for enhancing 911 switching system

BROOKVILLE — To save taxpayer money and provide better 911 service, eight area counties have formed a cooperative arrangement that will bring about a new 911 switching system.

Tuesday, the Jefferson County commissioners entered into an intergovernmental cooperation agreement for the establishment of the Northern Tier Regional Telecommunications Project with Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren counties for establishing and maintaining emergency 911 telephone systems within the territorial units of the participating counties.

“We’re doing things a little smarter now — working with each of our counties to provide a better service,” county Director of Emergency Services Tracy Zents said. “We’re pretty excited about the whole project.”

According to Zents, the project was necessitated after every 911 center received an end-of-life letter in 2010 for the current 911 switching systems.

Most of the systems were built in the mid- to late-1990s, including the county’s system, and when Zents learned it would take a little more than $400,000 to replace, he researched other possibilities.

Zents and the directors of Emergency Services in neighboring counties developed the idea for the Northern Tier Regional Telecommunications Project, which will not only save money, but will prevent any major disruption in 911 operations by creating some diversity for each county involved.

“If we had a catastrophic failure like we had here a few months ago with the short section of line here in town that killed our 911 system, we would have the ability that our neighboring counties would be able to pick up some of those services so we don’t lose 911 services,” Zents said.

In addition, the project will help Jefferson County comply with Next Generation 911 — the IP-based system mandated by the federal government, to support receiving text messages and photos from cell phones along with interacting with social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

“A lot of people communicate with those methods, and right now, we don’t have a way to do that,” Zents said.

Without the agreement among the eight counties, it would have cost a total of more than $3.2 million, but after several meetings with state officials, Zents said the new switching system will be built for just under $2 million, with Jefferson County contributing $200,000.

The county’s portion will be paid for through the wireless grant program, where the state collects a $1 surcharge per month on each cell phone provider. Zents said this grant money has been very helpful in the past, and has paid for technology upgrades, percentages of employee salaries and maintenance on equipment.

“It’s a big supplement; a huge help,” he said.

Zents said the switches for the system will be located in Elk and Clearfield counties, and they are the first items to be built.

“The nice part about this is, once the switches are built, we can bring individual counties in at any time,” he said.

Zents also hopes to have the county’s portion of the project complete by the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013.

Commission Chairman Paul Corbin said he appreciates Zents’ leadership behind the entire project.

Also during Tuesday’s county commission meeting, the commissioners reported they have received little word concerning the state budget.

“I’m sure they’ll pass something, but they’ll probably still negotiate afterward, like the past couple years, for months,” Commissioner Jeff Pisarcik said.

Children & Youth Services Director Brian Mowrey said it’s been the “most complicated” year in regard to monitoring the budget.

“I do try to monitor it as best I can, especially with our interests,” he said. “But it’s the most difficult process to have to guess one way or another that I’ve ever seen.”