February 27. 2013 9:56PM

Extended 911 service planned in Rockingham County

Union Leader Correspondent

Laurie Roy, a dispatch supervisor at the Rockingham County Sheriff's Department, handles a call in the dispatch center. The center could soon be upgraded and expanded as part of a plan to improve emergency communication. (JASON SCHREIBER PHOTO)

BRENTWOOD - A few years ago, the idea of texting an emergency to 9-1-1 would have sounded far-fetched.

But with more people communicating through text messages than ever before, emergency officials say it only makes sense for dispatchers to start accepting texts and even pictures from accident scenes in the future.

With improvements to the nation's 9-1-1 system in the works, the Rockingham County Sheriff's Department is now preparing for this new high-tech form of emergency communication through a $900,000 proposal to upgrade its dispatch center.

According to Lt. Kevin Walsh of the sheriff's department, the three-phase plan calls for replacing furniture, radio consoles and the telephone system to make it compatible with the improved communication capabilities expected to come with the new Next Generation 9-1-1 system, known as NG 9-1-1.

"We don't know all the things it will do yet, but we want to be ready so when people start texting emergencies, we'll be able to receive those," Walsh said of the county dispatch center that serves 23 police departments and 18 fire departments.

One of the main features of NG 9-1-1 is the potential to receive and process text and pictures received from citizens, said Bruce G. Cheney, director of the state's Division of Emergency Services and Communication.

"How it will work is no different than how it works between cellular phones, and I can't think of a con other than the necessity for greater bandwidth between 9-1-1 and the local dispatch centers," he said.

Most of the other improvements under NG 9-1-1 are technical and won't be readily apparent to the user, he said.

In addition to electronic improvements, Cheney said mapping and addressing upgrades will improve the ability to locate callers based on a more discrete addressing modality.

Cheney said he's not sure when NG 9-1-1 will be available since the Federal Communications Commission and the National Emergency Number Association have not completed the standards-setting process yet.

Once the final standards are set, Cheney said New Hampshire will move to NG 9-1-1 quickly as the state has made many of the upgrades necessary to receive data already in anticipation of the changes.

The state hasn't required or even asked local dispatch centers to upgrade to meet the "next generation" requirements, but Cheney said, "it is a wish move on the counties' part to start the process in anticipation of NG 9-1-1."

The Rockingham County dispatch center can now accommodate four dispatchers but would become a six-person center under the upgrade and expansion plan.

Rockingham County Sheriff Michael Downing said there are no plans to hire additional dispatchers, but the expansion would allow extras to be brought in to handle the increase in call volume during major events like a hurricane or tornado.

The radio consoles are also 13 years old and need to be replaced, he said.

"Everything we're doing with these upgrades and expansion is with the thought that we have to have the equipment to be able to adapt to the technology coming down the pike. The technology is going to continue to change," Downing said.

As part of the plan, the sheriff's department is partnering with fire departments to secure grants to help fund the project.

Walsh and Epping Fire Chief Don DeAngelis met with Epping selectmen last week to get approval for Epping to apply for a federal Assistance to Firefighters grant on the county's behalf. The Epping Fire Department is the first to help with the grant process, but others are expected to assist as well.

Epping won't shoulder any costs associated with the grant as the town will receive 3 percent above the grant amount to cover its administrative costs, according to DeAngelis.