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Local counties ahead of planned Next Generation 911 system

By Travis DeNeal
updated: 5/7/2021 12:17 PM

SALINE COUNTY -- Saline, Gallatin and many other southern Illinois counties are ahead of the curve when it comes to a "next generation" 911 system, a 911 coordinator says.

Tracy Felty, Saline County's longtime 911 coordinator, said he and other 911 coordinators helped develop an improved emergency response system that exceeded state requirements several years ago.

On Wednesday, Illinois State Police announced plans to move ahead with a statewide Next Generation 911, or NG911, network.

"This will really not affect Saline or Gallatin County because of the system we already have in place," Felty said.

A statewide NG911 system is designed to provide multiple backup 911 response, Felty said. Prior to a law that changed in 2016, 911 systems were required to have only one backup call center. Usually, that process was sufficient for most emergencies.

That changed for southern Illinois in 2004, when a Union Pacific Railroad train derailed at an Interstate 57 overpass near Benton, sending seven train cars filled with about 800,000 tons of coal onto the highway.

"When the train fell onto the interstate, it didn't take long for their system to get overloaded up there," Felty said. "Then, their backup system overloaded, so then when people called, they just got a busy signal."

Though no fatalities or injuries occurred, the four-lane interstate was completely blocked.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the next year in 2005 further illustrated the need for a better emergency communication and response system, Felty said.

"It used to be that if you had a disaster, you sent volunteers to help, but sometimes you can't put people where bad things are going on. During Hurricane Katrina, there was a need for help and dispatchers, but some of those areas were under water."

Felty said he and others involved with 911 systems in southern Illinois saw the need for improvement.

The May 8, 2009 derecho, which caused several deaths and severe damage across much of southern Illinois, also underscored the need for better emergency communication between counties, he said.

That led to Counties of Southern Illinois 911, known as CSI 911. According to Felty, there are 14 entities in the network, which includes Saline and Gallatin counties, the city of Marion, and Williamson, Jackson, Union, Johnson, Pulaski, Alexander, Clay, Richland, Wabash and White counties.

"This is where Next Generation sort of started," Felty said.

CSI 911 was a pilot program in North America at the time, he said, and proved that a multi-entity emergency communication system could be developed reliably and efficiently.

Somewhat ironically, the last segment of CSI 911 went live just days before Illinois passed new requirements for improved 911 systems in 2015.

Telecom giant AT&T has been awarded the statewide project, according to the ISP news release. The NG911 network will be internet-based.

Felty said he's not sure how the state's new system will integrate with southern Illinois' current CSI 911.

"I've not really been briefed on what they plan to do," Felty said. "AT&T doesn't have a big presence here. How I envision it, and I may be off, is a network of networks. I don't see the state reinventing the wheel and putting in a whole new network. With some of the timelines the state is putting in place, I don't see AT&T burying fiber in some of these counties south of I-64 and getting their money back on it.

"I see northern, central and southern Illinois networks that are then connected and AT&T working as the manager of how those networks connect to one another."

According to the ISP news release, the statewide NG911 network will cost about $109 million over 10 years.

Statewide, work is expected to begin the last quarter of FY2021 according to the news release.