Chicago ready to launch ‘Smart911’ system to upgrade emergency response

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Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, in 2017, when she said that a new computerized distach system will replace one that’s 20 years old and “clearly past its time to be replaced.” | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chicago is finally ready to launch what it calls “Smart911” — an overhaul of its emergency response system that will dramatically upgrade the quality of the city’s response.

The computer-automated dispatch that forms the guts of Chicago’s 911 emergency center has been replaced with an upgrade that will allow people to text and send photos and videos from emergency scenes.

In addition, the new system will enable Chicagoans to create a so-called “safety profile” — including home location and lay-out, emergency contact information, family members and pets –– that will automatically show up on a call taker’s screen when the registered individual dials 911.

With assurance that all data collected will be “encrypted at every level,” and not searchable by call takers, Smart911 will offer victims of domestic violence the opportunity to include images and descriptions of known abusers or former domestic partners. They can also declare their intention to leave their abuser and let first-responders know how far along they are in that process.

The long-awaited texting feature is likely to be a particular benefit during incidents of domestic violence and in other situations when the offender may still be on the scene or nearby. The texting feature will also help those callers who are deaf or hearing impaired.

The safety profile may also include specific health histories ranging from allergies diabetes and epilepsy to mental and behavioral health conditions.

That will help first-responders to know before they arrive on the scene what type of emergency they are likely to face and give them a better chance of responding accordingly and de-escalating the situation.

Last week, the City Council authorized a $16 million settlement to the family of neighbor/bystander Bettie Jones, who was shot and killed by Chicago Police Officer Robert Rialmo on Dec. 26, 2015, the same night Rialmo shot and killed bat-wielding teenager Quintonio LeGrier.

Two 911 center dispatchers were suspended without pay for hanging up on LeGrier and failing to dispatch police in response to the young man’s pleas for help in late December 2015.

In a news release announcing the new system, Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted Smart911 for its ability to “leverage every tool” to speed and improve the quality of the city’s response to emergencies “be it a burning home or a mental health crisis.”

“The information residents provide today can help save a life or de-escalate a tense situation faster tomorrow,” the mayor said.

Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, noted that 75 percent of 911 calls are made using cell phones that “cannot always determine” the caller’s precise location.

That makes the new Smart911 system even more important, since safety profiles will allow Chicagoans to “link their home, work or other frequented addresses to mobile phones,” she said.

“A weak cell signal or a dropped call only adds to the difficulty 911 dispatching sometimes have trying to locate you,” Tate-Nadeau was quoted as saying.

“Getting specific information on the location within a building, such as the apartment or floor number, is also important and can save time in a response effort. Information provided in your safety profile can potentially alleviate some of these difficulties, making sure you receive help fast.”

Chicago is facing a 2020 deadline to comply with, what’s known as “next generation 911.”

Last year, Tate-Nadeau, the Illinois National Guard’s first female general, told the City Club of Chicago that installing a new computer-aided-dispatch system while keeping the old one operating smoothly would be no small feat.

“Whoever is selected for this, that’ll be one of the key things that they look at. How we turn one off and turn the other one on without losing any capability,” she said on that day.

The city’s decision to replace the system that forms the guts of the 911 center coincides with Emanuel’s plan to turn the 311 non-emergency system into a two-way communication system.

Tate-Nadeau said that new system, too, has the potential to “revolutionize everything we do.”

“In the future, every time you put in a request, you’ll be able to see who touched that, how long they had it and when it’s going to be fixed. Now, people are truly accountable when we talk about their response to our residents,” she has said.

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