RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Upgrades to Virginia’s outdated 911 system are underway but it will be a few years before the entire state has access to the new technology.
Virginia’s legacy 911 system is largely dependent on technology built in the 1970’s to process landline calls. The state is currently engaged in a nationwide modernization effort.
“You’re going from the stone age to the space age. It is just a 180-degree change in capability. Your limitations are being removed,” said Dorothy Spears-Dean, Virginia’s Deputy State Coordinator of the 9-1-1 & Geospatial Services Bureau.
A recent report found, of the roughly 4 million emergency calls made in Virginia annually, around 80 percent are made from wireless devices. That presents a challenge because cell phones aren’t tied to a specific location like landlines. Callers are sometimes connected to the wrong dispatch center based on the cell tower their phone is using, according to the report.
Spears-Dean said, under the Next Generation 911 Program, 911 centers are receiving calls faster with more precise location data. She said it’s also making the system more reliable by connecting Virginia’s nine locally operated centers to a statewide network for the first time.
“There is more resiliency. So in the event of a natural or man-made disaster, if a 911 center would need to evacuate, those calls could be more easily transferred to another 911 center,” Spears-Dean said.
Down the road, she said the new system will also be able to securely receive photos and videos.
Spears-Dean said the whole project could cost up to $60 million, but the state may be able to complete the transition with less money because they’re becoming more efficient as time goes on. She said the program is paid for through a fee on cell phone bills.
According to the program’s dashboard, 50 percent of Virginia’s population and 25 percent of the state’s service area are already covered by the upgraded system.
Spears-Dean said they’re prioritizing localities based on their readiness to make upgrades and the size of the population they serve. She said the first deployment was done in 2018 in Fairfax County and the state is now closing on 40 deployments, with 124 more transitions to go.
Spears-Dean expects the whole state to be covered by spring 2024.
“Virginia is at the forefront. We are unique because we are trying the most aggressive strategy,” Spears-Dean said.
Click here to check the status of each locality.