When people call 911, they expect to reach dispatchers quickly.
But sometimes emergencies happen – even at 911 dispatch centers themselves. Phone lines can be accidentally cut. Equipment can fail. Evacuations may be necessary.
That’s why Sarpy County has taken a significant step toward offering an even higher level of service and public safety to ensure your call is answered when you need it most.
No longer an island
Sarpy County Emergency Communications in August successfully merged its 911 phone system with the Omaha metro region that includes Douglas, Washington and Pottawattamie Counties.
The upgrade means Sarpy will now have automatic backup – and callers to 911 won’t face a potential gap in service – in the event there’s problems with the county’s phone lines.
Previously, Sarpy County dispatchers had to take extra steps to transfer calls when problems, such as a power outage or equipment failure, arose. The additional steps took time and had the potential to introduce human error.
Now, if there is an issue with the county’s phone lines, Sarpy’s calls will automatically reroute to another dispatch center within the region.
“Sarpy’s no longer an island,” said William Muldoon, Director of the Sarpy County Emergency Communications Department. “There’s now redundancy and there’s other people who can step in to help. With this new system, we don’t leave the public with the phone ringing or with a busy signal.”
The upgrade is also better for first responders because it allows dispatchers to instantly access Sarpy’s computer system and take incoming calls if they are working at another location, like from the regional backup dispatch center in Omaha.
That’s good news for people trying to reach Sarpy’s dispatch center, which in 2018 received 54,924 calls to 911 and another 162,407 non-emergency and administrative calls.
Most of the 911 calls – 81 percent – came from people calling on cell phones.
“At any time, any one of us can go to another dispatch center, log on as us and function as if we’re at our own center,” said Kimberly Kuszak, Telephone System and Technology Manager for the Sarpy County Emergency Communications Department.
Efficient use of resources
The changes to Sarpy’s system grew out of a 2014 report by Matrix Consulting Group that recommended the county take steps to “virtually” merge its 911 operations with Douglas County.
The counties continue to maintain their own 911 dispatch centers and dispatchers. But the counties have begun to share more resources in an effort to foster collaboration across the Omaha metro, while keeping costs low and providing excellent service.
“It’s the right thing to do for the region, to make as much redundancy for the region as possible,” said Kyle Kramer, Technical Manager for the Douglas County Emergency Communications Department. “There’s cost sharing, as well. No single county has to pay for all of the backroom equipment on their own. That’s a benefit to every agency that joins the region.”
Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly said that providing top-notch 911 service is critical because lives are on the line.
“From a public safety standpoint, it’s our primary job to make sure we provide this kind of quality service, so people have confidence and assurance these services will be effective when they need them most,” Kelly said.
The Sarpy County Board approved the phone system project last year. The Board also agreed to move forward with similar upgrades to the county’s 911 radios.
The radio project, called Dynamic System Resilience, or DSR, is expected to be completed later this year.
The Nebraska Public Service Commission (PSC) authorized Sarpy County to spend state 911 Service System Funds to complete the phone system project. That fund, which can be used to help pay for regionalization projects, includes revenue from the surcharge collected on wireless phone bills.
Such regionalization plays a role in Next Generation 911, an initiative that aims to update emergency communication infrastructure so it’s compatible with digital technology.
"Working together through regionalization is a key to the implementation of Next Generation 911 services in Nebraska," said State 911 Director David Sankey.
"Anytime PSAPs (public safety answer points) can work together to improve service, our citizens benefit," added Nebraska Public Service Commissioner Tim Schram, whose district (District 3) includes Sarpy County.
Sarpy County Board Vice Chairman Jim Warren praised the efforts to make Sarpy’s 911 system more cost efficient and commended the entire Emergency Communications Department for their work through the transition.
“We have a great staff with Bill Muldoon, Kimberly Kuszak and everybody who works with them on 911,” Warren said. “They’re giving us a way more effective system.”