Efforts during the past 7 years to bring next-generation 911 service to southern Illinois was extolled as a blueprint for others to follow as they contemplate similar migrations during a recent webinar presented by the National 911 Program Office.

A vast rural area marked by low population density and a depressed economy, counties in southern Illinois have been working for seven years to pool their resources; to date 18 counties have joined the Counties of Southern Illinois Next-Generation 911 Project.

It hasn’t been easy, according to Kenneth Smith, 911 coordinator for Williamson County. None of the counties previously worked together, which complicated the task of determining how to divide the costs of the network. In addition, funding had to be secured for the project. The U.S. Department of Justice provided an initial $600,000 grant, but $400,000 in matching funds had to be raised—a task that hit a snag when three counties backed out of the consortium.

“They didn’t want to spend the $30,000 each,” Smith said, noting that about $800,000 of the $6 million budget has been spent to date.

Despite these obstacles, Smith instinctively knew that a regional approach was their only hope.

“The alternative would have been to do nothing,” Smith said. “We needed to band together to get grants. If we didn’t, we would have been among the last to get next-generation 911.”

In addition to the financial hurdles, there were regulatory delays—the Illinois Commerce Commission still hasn’t signed off on the plan. Other hurdles included the absence of a statewide 911 system and Emergency Service IP Network (ESInet), which provides the underlying functionality that lets voice, text, data and video be delivered to NG-911 PSAPs.

“Nothing was in place, and there were lots of obstacles,” Smith said.

But Smith and his cohorts were undeterred. They hired a system integrator—NG-911 Inc., of Williamsburg, Iowa—that “understood regulatory battles and was willing to help us fight them,” Smith said.

“A key to our success was partnering with people who knew more than we did,” Smith added.

Another important decision was to partner with the Illinois Institute of Technology—which had seen the project as a way to fulfill its desire to establish a NG-911 test bed—to solve the challenge of interconnecting with the small local exchange carriers that serve the region.

“We spent just $65,000 in grant money, and received probably 10 times that much value from their geniuses,” Smith said.

Legal complications forced ITT’s role to be curtailed, but key participants Barbara Kemp and Dave Staub formed Assure911—a Groton, Conn.-based provider of NG-911 network management solutions—so that they could continue working on the project.

Meanwhile, in a true case of serendipity, Southern Illinois University provided hundreds of students who worked to compile accurate, NENA-compliant GIS map data.

“This time, one of our members was working on his masters in GIS, so he worked out an arrangement with SIU-Carbondale to use geography department students to perform hundreds of hours of work on our data,” Smith said. “We spent only $80,000 for what would have easily cost us 3 times that to have it done commercially.”

For all of their shrewdness, perhaps the most important decision made by Smith and his cohorts was to stay committed to the project, said Roger Hixson, NENA’s technical services director, who worked on this project at various junctures.

“I want to compliment them on their will power,” Hixson said. “They really held in for a long time trying to accomplish what they want to accomplish, and doing it in a way that I think is probably the way of the future.”

David Jones, a consultant with Mission Critical Partners, agreed.

“You have to be willing to work outside of your own little sandbox, you have to be willing to collaborate,” said Jones, a former NENA president and director of emergency services for Spartanburg County, S.C. “This idea that everybody can go it alone, you just don’t hear that as much as we used to. A lot of that is driven by the fact that we can’t sustain the current model.”