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Lake County E-911 call center

Lake County E-911 call center.

CROWN POINT — Northwest Indiana officials are weighing the value of knowing emergency callers' special needs, their home's floor plans, even the names of their pets in advance.

The Lake County Board of Commissioners recently awarded a $40,000-per-year contract to access Smart911, an online profile app that promises to provide that kind of data to public safety and health responders so they will already know those details before entering an emergency scene.

Porter County officials, who have had Smart911 since 2011, are preparing to vote later this month on whether to shut down their relationship with the service, which only 5,000 people have requested.

"We have no record that indicates the Smart911 system saved a life," said Mike Brickner, Porter County executive director of public safety.

"Is servicing less than 3 percent of the population at the cost of $28,000 a year smart?" said Porter County Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North.

 "I can't justify spending that amount of money. I would rather take those resources and plug them in to somewhere else in our own operation to better serve all our residents."

Lake County E-911 Director Mark Swiderski disagrees. "It is the cost of a dispatcher, but it is another tool in our tool belt. We need to use technology to the best of our abilities," he said.

Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said he knows residents have questions about the technology.

"I've heard questions from the public about how we accommodate families with special needs kids. 'What if I have dogs in the house?' This answers that question. Is it worth $40,000 for that alone? I'm not sure, but how do you put a price tag on some of that stuff?" Repay said.

LaPorte County also is exploring whether to purchase the smartphone app for its residents, John Dudek, its E-911 director, said last week.

Lake is prepared in July to roll out Smart911, which is free to any member of the public who signs up at smart911.com/. They can enter their family members' names, including the four-legged ones.

They also can enter email addresses, dates of birth, photographs, home address, work addresses, phone numbers, emergency contacts, vehicle descriptions and license numbers, medical conditions, disabilities, language and a photograph of their home and a description of its interior.

Too intrusive?

Biggs said some find all this too intrusive.

"The elected officials who approved Smart911 didn't give a lot of consideration to the fact there is a lot of personal information that residents are asked to give up to be part of the program. I think the average citizen has a difficult time doing that," he said.

Lake's Swiderski said, "I have heard of Big Brother concerns. I'm assured it is not a searchable database. It is kept within Smart 911."

Repay said, "I've put my information into Smart911. I'm debating about whether to put my wife and child's name in."

The one piece of information 911 officials always need from callers is their whereabouts.

As anyone who has ever called 911 with an emergency learns, they are expected to answer a lot of questions; first responders want to know certain things before they go through the front door.

Public safety communications officials say some callers don't always provide complete or reliable information. Swiderski said the Federal Communications Commission only requires telephone services to provide a caller's location within 164 feet half of the time. "That is not good enough," he said.

Location is key in emergency

Swiderski said last month a 911 dispatcher in Hancock County, east of Indianapolis, received a call from a 7-year-old who said his grandmother had collapsed. "He couldn't give an exact location, but because his grandmother had signed up for Smart911, an ambulance found the home and rushed the grandmother to a hospital where she recovered."

The issue became a matter of life and death almost three years ago when 81-year-old Kenneth Booker, of Griffith, called repeatedly for an ambulance while struggling to breathe.

No coordinates showed up on Lake’s E-911 computers for one of Booker’s calls, and erroneous coordinates in Chicago showed up when Booker called again.

The dispatcher had to ask for Booker’s address, but typed the wrong street number into the system. By the time the ambulance found Booker’s correct address, 47 minutes had elapsed from his first call. He died shortly after.

"Finding a caller's location has been a problem since I've arrived here. We hope to fix it with this," Swiderski said.

He said Smart911 is partnering with RapidSOS, which recently did a test. "Before the they turned on the product, the location radius was 146 meters (479 feet); then they turned their product on and it went to 6 meters (18 feet)," he said.

Swiderski said that location improvement won't be available until RapidSOS concludes its working relationship with other app providers. "They haven't given us a timeline. We hope to have it sooner than later," he said.

Porter County's Biggs said the low number of Smart911 sign-ups by the public is the telling statistic. 

"There was a lot of promotion. We even went to parades, where firemen and policemen handed out fliers to get people to sign up. I don't know what we would have done differently here," he said.

"I think maybe the initial decision to buy into this was done on emotion and not enough information. We have now seen the results as they are. I believe we have come to a fork in the road," he said adding he personally intends to vote against a new Smart911 contract when it comes up for renewal later this month.

Christopher "CJ" Wittmer, a former Porter 911 official who became a Lake 911 deputy director last August, said he believes the 5,000 profiles in Porter County represents 5,000 households, so the number of county residents that represents is much larger.

Wittmer said the entire state of Michigan has signed up for the service, and Chicago is reported to be joining, too.

Todd Miller, a spokesman for Rave Mobile, said, "Of course we want those numbers to be higher, but the user registration is only one portion. Smart911 provides a suite of tools available to be used on any call regardless of whether someone has registered or not. We will be working with the great folks in Porter County to take full advantage of all those tools."

Miller said Smart911 permits two-say text messaging, which is important in a "drop call" situation where a 911 conversation becomes disconnected and a dispatcher's efforts to reconnect fails because the victim's caller ID may only provide the dispatcher's telephone number, not their 911 designation. He said with Smart911, the dispatcher can text their identity to the victim.

He said Smart911 also can swiftly provide floor plans of public buildings, like schools, in an active-shooter situation where time is a crucial factor. 

Repay said Lake County's five-year contract with Smart911, for a total cost of $208,500, "gives them an opportunity to prove their worth and gives us a chance to see what it is all about. We will need some outreach and see if we can do better than 5,000 profiles," he said.

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Lake County reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.