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Michigan’s 911 system is nearly half-century old, but big updates are pending

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Senate Bill 400 aims to modernize Michigan's 911 system.

Think of that moment when you have to make a 911 call. It's a crisis – often life-and-death. And that 911 call is likely going through a system that's nearly a half-century old.

Senate Bill 400 is now before the State House. It aims to modernize Michigan’s 911 system.

To understand the state of Michigan’s 911 system now, and what the future might hold for the emergency line in our state, Stateside spoke with Harriet Miller-Brown, the state 911 administrator with the Michigan State Police.

Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.

On the services 911 operators perform in Michigan

All this week we asked listeners to write or call in with stories and questions they have about Michigan’s 911 system.

We got a voicemail from Robby Ratan in East Lansing. He was on MSU’s campus around two years ago when he saw a bicyclist collide with a pedestrian. He said the pedestrian was bleeding from her head, so he called 911.

Within about five minutes, 911 had someone on the scene, but he was particularly impressed by what 911 operators did after that. Here’s what he told us:

Ratan wasn’t the only listener to call in and tell us stories of 911 operators doing more than just sending help to the scene of an emergency. We asked Miller-Brown to explain the additional services 911 operators perform in Michigan.

She focused primarily on “pre-arrival instruction” – when 911 operators walk a caller through their emergency during the period before help arrives.

She said pre-arrival instruction includes helping people perform CPR or deliver a baby. It also includes providing instruction for how best to handle an extreme burn or injury.

Why 911 may not be able to locate all landline phones

Jeff Hunt from Detroit also told us about a time he called 911. He wrote us this via Facebook:

“I had a grand mal seizure and my fiancé was panicked and couldn’t remember my address. Despite calling from an old fashioned landline, the operator demanded an address… no ambulance arrived.”

In response to Hunt’s story, we asked Miller-Brown when 911 operators can locate someone calling from a landline phone.

While she couldn't say exactly what happened in Hunt’s case, she said it’s possible the wrong address was programed into the landline phone he used.

“People get what we call voice over IP,” she said. “They get secondary providers, and it may look like a landline, but it’s actually an internet provider connection that they have for their phone service.”

Via their internet service, she said, people are required to program in their address. If that address is programed incorrectly, it is possible the 911 operator would have the wrong address.

Still, Miller-Brown said there are “several different ways that a landline phone can potentially work in the state of Michigan,” so there’s no way for her to be sure what happened in Hunt’s case.

How 911 operators interact with cell phones

Miller-Brown said all 911 centers in Michigan have the ability to process cell phone calls, and locate the cell phone in use.

Only about 54% of Michigan’s population, however, can text 911.

Senate Bill 400 is hoping to fill that gap. Miller-Brown said the goal is to create a funding system for a new, improved 911 network known as “Next Generation 911.”

To learn more about Next Generation 911 – the modernized plan for our 911 system –  listen above.

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