Our nation is on a journey. Our destination is having well-informed emergency response services that have enough information to quickly come to our aid during any crisis. You may be thinking that we already have that in our 911 system. And in a way, you’re right. For decades, we’ve relied on 911 for police, fire and emergency medical response. But just as the first automobiles set the stage for the advanced vehicles we drive today, the national 911 system is full of potential that has yet to be realized. We need to implement the next generation of 911 to continue receiving the emergency services that keep us safe.
Where We Have Been
To get a better sense of our ultimate goal, consider how far we have come. The national 911 system was established in the 1960s, after a presidential commission recommended the establishment of a single telephone number that could be used nationwide to report emergencies. The early system made use of the first public-safety answering points (PSAPs) to dispatch the appropriate emergency responders.
During the era of landlines, the system functioned well, and in the 1970s enhanced 911 capabilities began to match the telephone number of the caller with an associated physical location. The Automatic Location Information (ALI) database was a revolutionary change that made it simpler for first responders to quickly get to the right address. It required significant investments by cities, counties and states to deploy the hardware and software to make it happen.
While emergency phone services have largely maintained their original architecture, during the last two decades we have seen an explosion in consumer communications technology — and it all began with the proliferation of mobile phones. Suddenly we had the ability to call anyone from almost anywhere. And over time these devices have transitioned from phones to cameras to multimedia devices to Web browsers to fully capable pocket-sized computers.
The amazing technological development has improved our lives greatly, but not without cost. One victim is the efficacy of our emergency services. PSAPs could no longer match calls to 911 from a mobile phone to a physical location. In a way, this great technology actually meant our emergency response abilities took a step backward. Making the situation more challenging is voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), which gives us even more flexibility in our phone calls. But now even landlines can be associated with a physical location far from the person actually making the emergency call.
Resource sharing is another challenge with today’s 911. Many of the nation’s 6,000-plus PSAPs utilize proprietary systems that make it difficult to share information outside of the local jurisdiction, and different emergency response agencies have a history of reluctance to share information due to privacy concerns and siloed thinking. As a result, necessary information may trickle between agencies slowly, making an emergency a potential disaster because of delayed response.
Our Destination: Next-Generation 911
So what will the next generation of 911 look like? It will follow the consumer model and be completely Web-based and flexible. And just as we can send each other photos, videos, GPS information and any other rich media conceivable with our mobile devices, 911 PSAPs will be able to use all of this information to pinpoint the nature of the emergency, the location of the people needing help and the right resources to dispatch. It will have to be just as reliable and secure as today’s system, but with much broader capabilities built on an open architecture that supports as many vendors and communication channels as possible.
One crucial area the next generation will address is the ability to text emergency information to 911. While it is many people’s preferred communication method, few PSAPs are currently able to handle text-to-911 calls, let alone other textual information they may see within a few years, such as data from biomedical devices uploaded directly to emergency medical services.
Consider these use cases demonstrating the value of next-generation 911:
• You are having lunch in a café when someone at the next table has a medical emergency. You dial 911 and the operator identifies an EMT near the restaurant who can provide treatment until an ambulance arrives.
• A hearing-impaired individual contacts 911 with a video call and is able to use sign language over the phone to quickly explain the nature of the emergency.
• A homeowner hides in the closet when burglars break in. A voice call might alert the criminals, but being able to text 911 brings help quickly and silently.
• A fire in a local office building will require a nearby hospital to treat a large number of injuries. When the responders dispatch the fire department, the hospital is also notified and can begin preparations.
• During an active shooter incident in the community, a witness calls 911. The geolocation information is used to dispatch the police, and at the same time the local media is alerted and is able to warn people to stay away from the area.
Unfortunately next-gen 911 has yet to be fully realized. According to the Industrial Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT), most states have not yet begun to transition to this new system. The entire process, including the planning phase, can take as long as 10 years.
Meanwhile, there are always budgetary concerns. Governments may not set aside funding for infrastructure when other projects are much more visible, and replacing outdated systems can be expensive — particularly when new systems might lock them into working with a single vendor for the foreseeable future.
Overcoming the Hurdles
While these challenges are valid, there are best practices for communities to follow in progressing toward a more capable and intelligent 911 system, beginning with the creation of system standards. Fortunately the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has already begun establishing voluntary guidelines for communities to follow that detail recommendations on interoperability and connectivity. These guidelines represent a good starting point for communities and are available by visiting www.nena.org.
In order to fund 911 updates, governments should evaluate their current 911 surcharge assessed on telecommunications devices. A modest increase may be necessary, but with most states charging in the neighborhood of $0.50 per month, small increases may see large differences in the capability of emergency responders, essentially saving lives for pennies a month on a per-citizen basis.
Interoperable, capable communications systems have been a concern of the federal government as well. Smaller communities can use the example of federal agencies that have adopted networked communications systems that have a high degree of reliability and meet the strictest security standards. Collaboration with technology providers in the private sector also yields innovative solutions that unify communication channels, including virtually any IP-connected device over LTE and local networks.
In the past, the physical security of PSAPs was most important. With Internet-based databases, communities will need to address cybersecurity to protect citizens’ personal identifying information. A wide variety of data protection solutions are available to maintain the security of communications and backup systems to ensure operability even when information is lost.
Finally, address the human component in emergency services. It begins with helping government employees to eliminate the “us versus them” mentality that can be common among different agencies. The best communication tools are useless without a willingness to keep one another informed. Shared situational awareness quickly becomes actionable information. Then educate the community, letting them know how they can share information with emergency services. Crowd-sourced data in an emergency aids community preparedness and helps create success stories.
While the road to successful next-generation 911 systems may seem long and challenging, we have the technological capabilities to greatly improve a community’s ability to handle emergency response. Combining the best tools with willing people is the key to a successful initiative. Start laying the foundation now, and you might arrive at your destination sooner than you expect.
John Linstrom is Community Manager, Public Safety at AtHoc, Inc.