CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The collapse of a Baltimore bridge is on the minds of emergency first responders in West Virginia as work continues to expand 911 services across the state.

Shelley Moore Capito

The Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed just before 1:30 a.m. Tuesday after a cargo ship crashed into it. At least six people from a nearby construction crew were believed to be in the Patapsco River as dive teams search the water.

U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) each delivered remarks at the WVE911 Emerging Technologies Symposium in Charleston Tuesday morning.

Capito called the collapse “a devastating blow” to the region and to the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

“I do a lot of work with bridges. It was rammed by a cargo ship right in the most vulnerable part of the bridge,” she said. “You can imagine if the bridge is down, what stops the traffic? You got to respond quickly and I’m sure they did.”

The collapse in neighboring Maryland is bringing up old memories of the 1967 Silver Bridge Collapse along the West Virginia-Ohio border. There were 46 people who died in that collapse.

Kanawha County Metro 911 Deputy Director Russell Emrick said basic 911 started a year after that in 1968. Although the first 911 call was placed in Haleyville, Ala. that year, it wasn’t until 1999 that Congress directed the FCC to make 911 the universal emergency number in the U.S. for all telephone services.

Officials are now discussing an expansion of Next Generation 911 which includes text messages, photo/video sharing and other forms of communication other than phone calls.

“Next Generation will bring videos and pictures into 911 so you can help provide information straight from the scene and it lets us pass that along to the first responders who will actually be at your doorstep,” Emrick explained.

Next Generation 911 is also about establishing a faster connection time.

“It can take up to three rings just to connect you so that’s up to 18 seconds before we even hear your rings. Next Generation 911 shortens that into milliseconds,” he said.

Emrick said technology and the needs of the public are constantly evolving. He said it’s important to have an effective service that supports those needs in 2024.

“The needs for you to be able text us are clearly important. There are cases where it’s just not safe to talk or you have a poor cell phone signal, so text helps get that information to us,” he said.

Emrick said Next Generation 911 can help in situations like the Baltimore bridge collapse.

“Incidents like that can really overwhelm some of the 911 system, but it can have all of those calls go to dedicated telecommunicators and we can stand up additional personnel to take those calls,” he said. “There are still heartaches going on, people dealing with potential fire emergencies, auto accidents, that’s still happening, and we have to be able to take care of both at the same time.”

Capito said she attended Tuesday’s symposium to speak with 911 leaders in the state and express her support for more funding measures that promote advancements within emergency services.

“We want to make sure it’s well funded, that the Next Generation technology is available, and that West Virginia has the greatest availabilities. Senator Manchin and working together. We’re both on the same bills to try to enhance the level of service and to listen to what everybody needs,” she said.