Upcoming statewide changes to 911 services have Caroline County supervisors worried.
The board heard a presentation last week from Chief Deputy Scott Moser about the state-mandated deployment of Next Generation 911 services.
Upgrades to 911 systems across the country are necessary because most were built using analog rather than digital technologies and are tethered to voice-centric communications, according to the federal government’s 911.gov.
Next Generation 911 will be based on an IP network. According to the Virginia 911 Services Board’s annual report, NG911—for which it says it has been planning for “nearly a decade”—will be able to deliver calls to the appropriate locality more quickly, using GIS, and will be able to receive multimedia communications like text, photo and video.
The 911 Services Board’s annual report for 2017 states, “The question is not if the Commonwealth should deploy NG911, but rather, how should the Commonwealth deploy NG911. There is no option for not deploying it.”
Moser reported to the board Tuesday that Verizon, which provides 911 services to the Commonwealth, has decided not to upgrade its technology to support NG911.
In August 2016, Fairfax County issued a request for proposals to replace Verizon as the locality’s 911 service provider in preparation for NG911.
The winning contract was with AT&T. According to Moser’s presentation, the Virginia Information Technologies Association reviewed the contract and “found it to be a viable solution” for the entire state.
It voted in January to encourage all Virginia localities to adopt AT&T’s solution by joining the Fairfax contract.
According to a proposal prepared for Caroline by VITA, the total cost of upgrading to the At&T system will be $367,378.88.
The monthly recurring cost to the county will be $5,796.57, an increase of $3,700 from the monthly cost of Verizon’s 911 services.
Moser said the advantage of jumping on the Fairfax contract is that the 911 board, which falls under VITA, is offering grant funds to cover all of the upgrade cost except for the monthly “data analytics” cost of $415.
It will also cover the increased monthly bill for the first 24 months of the new system.
Moser said there is some confusion over when the board needs to make a decision about joining the Fairfax contract. He said he’s been told different dates of Oct. 1, Nov. 1 and Nov. 30.
He said Caroline could choose not to jump on the Fairfax contract but would then need to issue its own request for proposals at a later date and miss out on the grant funds.
Supervisors expressed concern about the proposal, mainly over the fact that this is the first they’ve heard about the state-mandated upgrades.
Jeffrey Black said he’s heard nothing about 911 upgrades at any meetings of the George Washington Regional Commission.
“Why aren’t Spotsy, King George and the other localities talking about this?” he asked.
Lisa Harvey, dispatch supervisor for Caroline, said the county is on an earlier deployment schedule than the other localities in Planning District 16.
Caroline is on a router with Richmond and counties further south and east, which have a deployment window between July and December 2019, according to VITA’s proposal for the county.
The other PD16 counties are on the Fredericksburg/Winchester router and are scheduled for deployment between January and June of 2020.
Supervisors still feel they have been left in the dark.
“I’m curious how Fairfax knew and already got a contract, and we’re just finding out,” Jeffery Sili said. “That’s the real mystery to me.”
He said he contacted Caroline’s delegates and state senators about the issue.
“I can tell you, all of the delegates I’ve talked to have said we’re the first ones to call them and they haven’t heard a word about this,” Sili said.
He said most of Caroline still relies on landlines because cell phone and internet service is spotty over much of the county, making the proposed quick transition to digital worrisome for him.
He said he doesn’t believe the cost estimate for the upgrade is high enough.
“It’s gonna cost us more than what anybody’s thinking,” Sili said. “We’re gonna have other associated costs. We’re gonna be the guinea pigs for this.”
He said he worries that VITA is pushing the AT&T contract without properly studying it and stated that one of the members of the 911 Services Board, Robert Layman, an appointee of former governor Bob McDonnell, is a senior project manager for AT&T.
“Nobody’s prepared from this board to make a commitment that’s gonna be hundreds of thousands of dollars over the budget,” Sili said. “I don’t think they’ve been fair to any of us. I think it’s time to push back on our legislators and have them go to VITA and find out, ‘Why this rush?’”
Floyd Thomas said he thinks the State Corporation Commission should be involved in the issue.
“How can a utility [Verizon] all of a sudden stop providing a service that is Commonwealth-wide, especially an essential emergency service?” he questioned. “How can a single monopoly say we’re going to stop doing something that’s emergency-based?
“I called a Verizon executive that I know and they weren’t aware of this,” Thomas continued. “It’s appalling that a business would say we’re not going to help you do 911 service unless you upgrade to somebody else’s system.”
The board agreed to revisit the issue some time this month after staff had an opportunity to do further research.