911 Standard Could Speed Emergency Response

Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials approves standard for alarm companies to automatically alert 911 centers - eliminating millions of phone calls.

by / March 12, 2009

Bureaucracy faced a blow recently that could save lives. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) announced the approval of a national standard enabling alarm companies to automatically transmit alerts to 911 centers. Alarm vendors typically place a phone call to 911 centers when an alert sounds.

An automated standard could eliminate 32 million of these calls nationally, erasing minutes of processing time 911 call-takers need for obtaining information from alarm company operators, explained Bill Hobgood, public safety team project manager of the Richmond, Va., Department of IT. He led pilot testing of the standard in Richmond, which eliminated 5,000 calls during its two-year time span.

"That means police, fire and emergency medical services will get to the scene of an emergency two and a half to three minutes faster," Hobgood said.

Roughly 90 percent of the alarm alerts an alarm company receives never make it to 911 centers, explained Pamela Petrow, chief operating officer of Vector Security Inc., the alarm company that participated in Richmond's pilot. Phone call follow-up authentications reveal most alarms to be false. Under the new standard, once an alarm company determines an alert to be legitimate, alarm monitoring software transmits the alert to the appropriate 911 center, which then routes it to the local police, fire or emergency medical services computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system.

Getting Started

A 911 center or police department would likely be the entity initiating the national standard in its community. Hobgood highlighted the importance of building a coalition from the beginning. Richmond's pilot involved one alarm company and two 911 centers, one in Richmond - part of the Richmond Police Department - and the other in nearby York County.

Richmond Police Capt. William Smith enthusiastically supported the pilot.

"When you take away those two to three minutes, you get police officers responding to an incident that much quicker. The probability of catching the suspect goes up tremendously," Smith said. "It doesn't sound like that much time, but if you're in a fight, it's the difference between visiting the hospital and not."

Bad Directions Banished

One reason Smith said he supports the standard is that it will force participating alarm companies to purge their customer databases of address errors. Implementing the new system makes customer databases with 100 percent accuracy essential because the 911 center's CAD system will automatically reject alerts it doesn't recognize. Address errors send police officers on wild-goose chases when they discover no alarm sounding at the home or business indicated by the alarm company. Human error at the alarm company or 911 center is usually the culprit, Petrow said.

Hobgood played recordings of this misinformation happening between call-takers for Smith when soliciting the captain's support.

"Before, when we would just verbally give the information to a call-taker, they would sort of screen or decide what was passed on," Petrow said. Under the new standard, the alarm company passes specific information to the 911 center. This alleviates legal liability for the alarm company, which can avoid blame for inaccurately communicated address information.

Oftentimes an alarm company has a customer listed under the wrong police jurisdiction - often the result of customers submitting incorrect data when they sign up for the company's services.

That accuracy will be a welcome improvement for alarm company phone operators, who periodically endure long hold times when calling 911 centers, only to be told the address they're passing along isn't in that center's jurisdiction.

The 911 center can program its CAD system to accept batches of addresses from alarm companies to check for accuracy. The company then follows up on any rejected addresses. Every time the alarm vendor enrolls a new customer, it can run the customer's address through the 911 center's CAD system to check accuracy.

Deployment Lowdown

Preparing a 911 center for the standard shouldn't take its IT staff longer than a week, Hobgood predicted. However, the center's CAD vendor could need several months to conform its software to the standard. APCO is receiving numerous queries from vendors eager to reprogram. Hobgood said APCO is pleading with companies to spread the cost of adjusting their software across the many customers likely to convert to the standard.

"A CAD company may sit down and decide it's going to cost them $250,000 to develop an interface in order to make use of the new standard. We're saying, 'Don't put that $250,000 cost on the first [911 center] that comes along and wants to buy it. Just spread it out the best you can,'" Hobgood said.

A 911 center should also designate an employee, usually the 911 coordinator, to interact with alarm companies regularly, Hobgood insisted. This person would follow up with alarm companies wanting to double-check rejected addresses.

Hobgood expects alarm companies won't have trouble adopting the standard.

"The standard is XML-based. A complete package has been laid out for all CAD providers," he said.
Alarm company alert monitoring software providers also will need time to adjust their products. So far, Vector Security's monitoring software vendor, GE Security, is the only one capable of interfacing with the standard.

Job Security

Would the new standard prompt 911 centers to cut staff because there would be fewer incoming calls? Hobgood said he doubts that would happen. Fewer calls from alarm companies would free the call-takers to answer the remaining calls promptly, he said.

"The problem today is there is a de facto standard within 911 centers that all calls must be answered in 10 seconds or less. 911 centers are not meeting that because the volume of calls is increasing, yet their level of staff has remained the same," Hobgood explained, blaming funding shortages and high turnover.

Quicker turnaround time will be a relief to alarm companies, said Petrow.

"It has never been a problem for us in Richmond or York County, but there are some [911 center] alarm phone lines on which we could be on hold for an hour, 45 minutes, half hour or 20 minutes," said Petrow.

"We want to make sure these 911 call-takers are charged with a manageable level of calls and have more time to spend on the true emergencies," Hobgood said.

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.