North Carolina 911 communications centers are implementing new digital technology that officials say will speed response times and could save lives.

North Carolina’s existing 911 system was built in the 1960s, and the centers rely on an outdated analog system to communicate with one another. Some centers cannot connect at all.

New technology will allow all 117 primary 911 centers statewide to connect through internet-based routing services, allowing the call centers to seamlessly communicate with one another. The new high-speed connections will enable every center to serve as a backup for any other center in the state in the event of a natural disaster or an overload of emergency calls.

“These technology improvements are essential to ensure that our 911 operators and our first responders are better equipped to best serve the needs of our citizens,” state Secretary of Information Technology Eric Boyette, who also serves as chairman of the North Carolina 911 Board, said in a statement. “North Carolina has developed a strong system to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies. This next generation technology will only make that system better.”

The NC 911 Board has contracted with AT&T to carry out the seven-year, $99 million project. The state intends to link all call centers through the AT&T ESINet system by 2020.

The upgraded system will also pave the way for advancements in the way people interact with 911 operators:

  • Call centers will have a more sophisticated ability to route calls based on a caller’s geographic location.
  • The centers will be able to manage and route advanced communications, such as text messaging, to 911.
  • Centers eventually will be able to receive pictures and videos sent by text message.

“Emergency response is often triggered by a 911 call, so the more information a 911 operator is able to receive and relay, the more prepared first responders will be when they arrive on scene,” state Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said in a statement. “The ability to communicate easily between all 911 centers will greatly improve the ability of counties to help each other during emergencies.”