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Beaufort County is pursuing a next-generation E911 system that will let residents report crimes and other emergencies with text messages.
The new system, still in development, also will give dispatchers the ability to receive smartphone photos and videos -- information that could be passed to first responders.
"Our generation today is all about smartphones," says David Zeoli, deputy director of the county's Emergency Management Department. "The 911 system is just keeping up with that technology."
The county's current E911 network shows dispatchers the caller's phone number and address if it's a land-line phone, or the approximate location if it's a cellphone.
The new system builds on that framework. It has applications for people with disabilities and also will let residents seek help during situations in which a phone call is difficult or impossible.
"You could have the individual out there ... who might not be able to talk in an emergency; they can text us," Zeoli said. "Or you could have someone who might not be able to describe something very well, they can send a photo or video."
It's too soon to know what phone number residents would use to send text or multimedia to dispatchers -- those details are still being worked out, according to county spokeswoman Joy Nelson.
The county is among the first local governments in South Carolina pursuing the next-generation network, she said. It is close to awarding a 10-year contract with Hargray Communications for fiber-optic services that would become the backbone of the new system. The contract would cost the county $19,572 a month over the next decade.
The county's Finance Committee endorsed the contract earlier this week. County Council could award the contract as soon as Monday.
As proposed, Hargray would install two separate, 1-gigabit fiber-optic lines to link dispatch centers in Beaufort and on Hilton Head Island, according to county documents. The lines would be used solely for the county's 911.
A Hargray spokesman declined to comment Tuesday on the project.
Through a spokeswoman, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner declined to comment on proposed upgrades to the E911 system, noting that the plan is still in development.
Bluffton police Lt. Joe Babkiewicz also declined to comment, saying he was unfamiliar with the proposal.
Funding for the fiber-optic services and new electronic equipment needed to run the network would come from a state fund of monthly 911 surcharges on customers' phone bills.
Nelson said no county funds will be used for the upgrades.
Zeoli said the county is still seeking state approval to move ahead with the network. That decision could come this week.
If all goes well, he said, the new network could be online by the end of the year.