BY STEVE KUCHERA
NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
When an elderly woman having difficulty breathing called 911 from the Benedictine Health Center two years ago and hung up, it took precious minutes for emergency workers to find her.
The 911 center's computer system showed that the call came from the adjacent College of St. Scholastica campus. But it couldn't tell in which building, far less which room, the woman was located.
The incident illustrates a nationwide problem with multi-line telephone systems. When someone dials 911 through them, emergency dispatchers can't pinpoint the telephone.
But there are solutions. And later this month,St. Scholastica will receive an international award for upgrading its phone system and serving as an example to others.
"The College of St. Scholastica really stood out," said Courtney McCarron, spokeswoman for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International. "They recognized the problem within their system and decided to fix it."
APCO will present its leadership award to St. Scholastica Aug. 22 during an international conference in Denver.
St. Scholastica telecommunications manager Arthur Sasse began working several years ago to upgrade the campus's system. St. Scholastica spent about $75,000 to upgrade its telephone switch so911 would know from which telephone an emergency call originates.
Sasse also built a database showing the room and building for every one of the campus's 1,400 phones.
"There's not a lot of this kind of system around," Sasse said. "But it was the right thing to do."
The issue was highlighted in July 2003 when the Benedictine Health Center resident called 911 and hung up. Dispatchers called back to begin a search as emergency workers rushed to the campus. It took nine minutes to find the woman, who was transported to the hospital. She recovered.
Dana Wahlberg, assistant St. Louis County communications center supervisor, nominated St. Scholastica for the APCO award, not only for upgrading its system, but for assisting educational efforts and for Sasse's willingness to address groups considering system upgrades.
"Our new system went operational a year ago," Sasse said. "Since then, I've been touting it to everybody who will listen, saying, 'OK, I did it and this is what you can do to make it happen for your systems.' "
St. Scholastica also allowed Wahlberg to include the July 2003 phone call in a presentation she has used across the nation.
"They've not solved the problem for themselves, but they have provided information and allowed us to use that call to educate others," Wahlberg said. "That live example is so powerful."
She believes the example helped convince Minnesota lawmakers to enact a law last year requiring telecommunication managers to upgrade their system. Only 13 states have such laws.
Minnesota's law isn't perfect.
"There are a lot of exceptions and exemptions," Wahlberg said.
For example, organizations like St. Scholastica that staff their telephone switchboards around the clock are exempt.
Although not required to upgrade its phone system, the college did the right thing by doing so, Wahlberg said.
"They asked, 'How realistic is it that somebody at the switchboard is going to know where any one of 5,000 people is on that campus?' " she said.
UMD upgraded its system about three years ago, and the Duluth School District is updating its system now, Wahlberg said.