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State 911 Coordinator Receives National Award

South Dakota Department of Public Safety

If a zombie attack, earthquake, or biblical sized flood hits South Dakota emergency communications are now statewide.  South Dakota is among the first in the nation to install a new statewide 911 network. While zombies are not a real concern –the state coordinator behind the project is being honored nationally for her efforts.

Shawnie Rechtenbaugh is the state 911 coordinator. Last week she received the National 911 Government Leader Award for her efforts to create a statewide emergency network. Currently South Dakota's 31 emergency call centers operate independently. But Rechtenbaugh and her staff are working to implement a new system called Next Generation 911? to prevent problems between different systems, such as when 911 calls are transferred between counties and information gets lost.  

“When they answer that call and find out, ‘oh you’re in Hughes County; let me connect with that Hughes County 911 center' they would transfer that call. While in the past, the data that’s provided with that call- like the call back number and location information- wouldn’t necessary be able to travel with that call, because again we’re taking about lots of different systems,” says Rechtenbaugh.

The next phase of the project is to install a specialized internet connection. Each 911 call center can then act as a backup when disasters occur in neighboring counties. 

“Say we have a blizzard over in the Mitchell area. And when that sort of event happens the 911 center can quickly be flooded with phone calls from accidents to whatever it may be. Well most of our center in our state have just a couple, maybe three people working in them. So after three phone calls they’re all on the phone. Today a lot of those call may just ring and ring and ring- maybe they get forward to an additional line may in the police department or somewhere if it’s during business hours. If it’s during night though, there’s not extra people there to answer those calls,” says Rechtenbaugh. 

Rechtenbaugh is receiving the national award for her dedication and leadership towards a goal that encompasses many challenges.

“When you’re at the very worst moment of your whole life, that’s the person that you call—you call 911 and they’re there to help you, they are there to stay right with you on the phone and to make sure you get those resources to you. And I just thought it’s just the most incredible job and such a very difficult job to do that I personally don’t know if I can see myself sitting behind the phone answering the calls like they do. But I knew I could be in this spot. I knew I could help coordinate the system,” says Rechtenbaugh. 

All emergency call centers should be operating under the new system by spring of 2017.