Despite all the talk of a “broken Washington,” Clay County 911 Coordinator Jennifer J. Brown came back from the nation’s capital last week feeling like she had a sympathetic ear on Capitol Hill.

Brown was there for the annual 911 Goes to Washington conference. Over the course of four days, Brown and other representatives from Southern Illinois 911 boards shared their dreams and strategies with emergency responders from across the country, and let legislators know about their concerns and frustrations.

The Southern Illinois delegation was especially sought-after during the conference due to their work on the Counties of Southern Illinois Next Generation 911 project, or CSI. The cooperative effort of 19 Illinois counties, including Clay, Marion, Richland and Jackson, has gained nationwide attention for its efforts to bring the latest technology to emergency response communications throughout southern Illinois.

“We’re the pilot project for the nation,” Brown told the Clay County 911 board at its Thursday meeting, adding later that “a lot of other 911 centers are sitting back and watching what we’re doing. We’re testing the waters.”

The CSI initiative also caught the eye of a few legislators. During the conference, delegates took their plans to several congressional offices, meeting personally with Republican Congressman John Shimkus, and talking extensively about the project with an aide to Democratic Senator Rolan Burris. Brown said she left the meetings feeling encouraged about the project, despite recent financial challenges.

“We’ve got some people in Congress working on it,” she told the board Thursday.

Brown and others involved in the CSI effort envision a 911 system that would enable call centers of member counties to receive and relay text messages, automatic crash notification data and pictures or videos.

The new technology would allow someone who couldn’t have a traditional conversation with a dispatcher — for instance, in a home invasion where the caller is hiding from an intruder, or in the case of a deaf caller for whom TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) technology is too outdated — to simply send a text or picture message. Or, for a witness to a car crash to send pictures so first responders and medical personnel know what types of equipment to have ready and what types of injuries to expect. The possibilities would expand 911’s accessibility and keep emergency responders as prepared as possible, Brown said.

But that technology is already in use at some 911 call centers. What makes the CSI group unique, is the cooperative effort of so many government entities — and, in turn, the added complexity.

The group, led by Jackson County 911 Director Pat Lustig, gave a panel presentation about the project during the conference last week, and throughout the week they had plenty of questions aimed at them from 911 representatives from across the country, Brown said.

“They’re sitting back and watching and learning from us so they don’t repeat our mistakes,” she said, explaining that as the first, there are going to be mistakes.

Even with allies in Congress, the group faces significant challenges. Just Thursday, Brown announced to the Clay County 911 board that CSI’s application for a $3 million grant had been denied. On top of that, board members learned that Wayne County has plans to back out of the cooperative, bringing CSI’s member counties down to 18.

Despite the setbacks, the initiative continues “chugging along,” Brown said. She’s already working out plans to get to the 911 Goes to Springfield conference at the state capital next month.

Amanda King can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 138 or amanda.king@effinghamdailynews.com.

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