911 Technology Problems Plague First Line of Response

The move to implement next-generation 911 and other emergency call-related technologies forces some to ask the question: Should there be a nationwide standard for 911?

by / June 7, 2010

Recordings of 911 calls gone awry have been played repeatedly by broadcast media and published verbatim by print media. Sometimes blamed on outdated technology, other times on the call-taker, these phone calls highlight two of the common problems associated with 911.

Technology and call-taker standards and training vary by state and locality, where counties and cities, even those next to one another, sometimes have varying requirements. To make matters worse, the current fiscal environment, where governments at all levels are feeling pain, is forcing some states to raid surcharges collected to pay for new 911 technologies in order to fund other initiatives. Other states are stifled by companies that provide emergency call center equipment that doesn't connect with other vendors, therefore impeding the move toward next-generation 911.

The proliferation of cell phones has created the need for new technologies in 911 centers because people assume that call-takers automatically know their phone number and location, which isn't always true. As of December 2009, 285.6 million U.S. residents used cell phones and 22.7 percent of U.S. households were wireless only, meaning they lack a landline telephone, which for decades was the main way people called 911, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association.

Public safety answering points (PSAPs), the local centers that handle calls to 911, and wireless network carriers have been implementing E911 technology that will provide call-takers with the wireless caller's phone number and estimated location. The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 required the implementation of E911, to be executed in two phases.

Phase I required wireless carriers to provide the PSAP with the telephone number of the 911 caller and the location of the cell site or base station receiving the call. Phase II required the carriers to provide Automatic Location Identification, which identifies the address or geographic location of the calling device within 300 meters; this was to be completed by the end of 2005. Local call centers have upgraded or are in the process of upgrading their technology to use the data provided by E911. However, in February 2010 NENA found that about 10 percent of the nation's PSAPs hadn't installed the equipment to use that information. The issue is funding: According to a U.S. General Accountability Office report, "Not all states have implemented a funding mechanism for wireless E911, and of those that have, some have redirected E911 funds to unrelated uses."

Consumer technology is pushing the evolution of 911 technology even further. Popular technologies like text messaging, photos and videos and the need to transfer calls and data between PSAPs has led to the need for next-generation 911, which will run off statewide public safety IP networks. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Research and Innovative Technology Administration, "The next-generation 911 initiative will establish the foundation for public emergency services in this wireless environment and enable an enhanced 911 system compatible with any communications device."

Many consider Indiana a leader in the next-generation 911 initiative. It has a statewide IP network that's based on a redundant high-speed fiber network. "We have an IP network that is dedicated solely to 911," said Ken Lowden, executive director of the Indiana Wireless Enhanced 911 Advisory Board. "We have all the counties that we can connected to it and the ability to transfer both voice and data."

Indiana's PSAPs have been connected to the IP network for about three years, except those that are served by AT&T. He said the AT&T counties aren't connected because the company does a straight lease of PSAP equipment to the localities, which means it retains full control of the equipment and it refused the Indiana Wireless Enhanced 911 Advisory Board connectivity to its equipment. Counties that work with other vendors buy the equipment or do a lease purchase on it, so they control any changes made to it.

Lowden said calls can be transferred to the AT&T counties, but they must pass through the company's router, which causes them to lose the digital advantage. "If there's a Verizon county next door, they can't transfer the call out of the AT&T network into a Verizon territory," he said. "Once the call is inside the AT&T network it has to stay there." This can impede public safety because additional information, like the caller's location and phone number, won't be transferred to a PSAP operating on another vendor's equipment - just the person's voice - therefore eliminating the benefits of E911.

Indiana isn't the only state to run into provider-related hurdles. "In North Carolina, we have three major telephone companies that are 911 service providers: CenturyLink, AT&T and Verizon," said Richard Taylor, executive director of the North Carolina 911 Board. "And just in the county that I'm sitting in right now, Wake County, all three of those companies operate. We cannot transfer voice and data from the centers in Wake County to another center because one operates under AT&T, one under CenturyLink and one under Verizon."

He said the companies lack interconnection agreements to exchange information, which is fundamental in next-generation 911. However, similar to the situation in Indiana, North Carolina has found AT&T to be the most challenging to work with, Taylor said. "Companies like AT&T will absolutely refuse to allow us to have those interconnections agreements," he said. "In fact, they have gone through all kinds of lawsuits and not just in our state, but in other states, trying to keep other companies from being able to connect into their system."

"AT&T is committed to doing our part to make next-generation 911 available across the country," said an AT&T spokesperson. "We work closely with public safety answering points to ensure that customers are provided with the most advanced and reliable emergency communications services. In addition, we continue to engage in the timely resolution of interconnection negotiations for the provision of competitive 911 service."

Regulations from the FCC would help alleviate this vendor-driven problem for sharing calls and data across PSAPs that operate on different systems. Lowden said national requirements about technology are nice to think about but he doesn't think it would work from a practical standpoint. "I think 911 should be a local, interstate issue," he said.

Go to Emergency Management to learn about how 911 call-taker training standards and technology vary nationwide, and how some states are raiding their 911 coffers to fund other initiatives.



Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.