Thanks to wireless technology, the number of non-urgent, unintended and prank calls to 911 has skyrocketed. But dispatchers have a number of tools and strategies at their disposal to fight back.
Half a century after the first 911 call was placed, public safety telecommunicators now receive some 240 million such calls each year, according to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Of those calls, roughly 80 percent are placed from wireless devices. Nearly two in five of these calls turn out not to be emergencies, according to a MedStar study.
The spread of wireless technology and the growing volume of 911 calls are not unrelated. To be sure, the ubiquity of mobile phones means that those ensnared in genuine emergencies — even if they’re far from home — now have a much greater likelihood of being able to quickly reach public safety agencies than they would have a generation ago. But it’s now easier than ever for civilians to inundate dispatchers with non-urgent calls, pranks, or accidental pocket dials.
While the influx of advanced technology is proving to be a blessing for the 911 system, it is important not to ignore some of the curses that come along at the same time. What should be done to ensure that modern emergency professionals are able to focus on what they do best — addressing real emergencies and saving lives rather than spending valuable time on pranks and hoaxes? The solution lies in embracing better technology that can dramatically enhance responders’ effectiveness while combatting the resource-draining effects of non-emergency calls to 911.
How steep are the downsides of tech for responders? Irrelevant, non-urgent calls and pranks have long been familiar to public safety telecommunicators, dating back to well before the smartphone era. But the spread of wireless technology has increased the opportunity for citizens to place such calls.
From the Michigan child who called 911 to order from McDonald’s to the Chicago CVS employees who dialed 911 on baseless suspicions that a customer was using fake coupons, there’s no shortage of callers who treat 911 as a customer service number or an always-on complaint hotline.
Prank calls, meanwhile, can come with lethal consequences, as when police in Kansas shot and killed an innocent man after a prank caller in California phoned in a false hostage report.
But the link between wireless technology and non-emergency 911 calls is clearest in the rise of pocket dials. A Google study in San Francisco found that 30 percent of calls placed to dispatchers there were accidental, and FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly estimated in 2014 that as many as 50 percent of 911 calls nationwide were pocket dials. The problem hasn’t gotten any better in the intervening five years, exacerbated by design flaws in new devices like the Apple Watch, whose auto-911 call feature has triggered a series of false alarms.
With a record volume of calls coming in, many of which were either maliciously or accidentally placed, public safety answering points (PSAPs) are feeling the strain — and the situation is made worse by a nationwide shortage of public safety telecommunicators. While NENA standards hold that 90 percent of calls should be answered within 10 seconds or less, only 66 percent of calls met that standard in the first nine months of 2018. Three percent of calls took at least a minute to answer. In situations where every second is critical, the consequences of delay can be deadly: When a San Diego infant was mauled to death by the family dog in 2016, the baby’s parents placed two 911 calls that went unanswered, unleashing fury and outrage.
Technology should not be the enemy of effective emergency services. Quite the contrary. Call authentication technology carries the promise of helping systems identify truly legitimate calls and also helps thwart cyberattacks on 911 centers. Critical information like the caller’s IP address and location can be revealed to 911 centers, blocking illegitimate calls — a benefit that can help prevent potentially tragic mistakes like the Kansas police shooting.
Advanced Mobile Location (AML), already featured on millions of Apple and Google smartphones, automatically sends a caller’s location information to emergency dispatchers, enabling responders to determine a caller’s precise location, even down to a specific room within a home or building. As the European Emergency Number Association (EENA) notes, AML is up to 4,000 times more accurate than earlier location services. While AML technology is automatically installed on most smartphones, PSAPs will need to deploy AML-compatible call-handling technology.
Call authentication and AML may not thwart pocket dials, but by drastically reducing other illegitimate calls, these technologies can significantly relieve bottlenecks at PSAPs.
While there is a great deal of discussion about receiving images into PSAPs, streaming video is far superior for PSAPs, and safer. Jpeg images can carry viruses or cyberattacks and are easily falsified to create hoaxes. Real-time video is much harder to fake, particularly with a reliable location attached.
Dispatch centers can now integrate real-time video capabilities with legacy infrastructure, offering callers the opportunity to feed live video to PSAP facilities using their smartphone cameras. Responders can both verify that a response is necessary and gain better situational awareness regarding the extent of any injuries, the severity of an incident, the caller’s surroundings, and the number of responders needed. Armed with this information, dispatchers can not only rule out hoaxes, but more importantly, optimize emergency response.
Such tools not only help dispatchers identify true emergencies but can act as a powerful disincentive to illegitimate calls. To combat some of the negative and unintended consequences of technology, 911 facilities should strongly consider making new investments in smart technologies designed to enhance operational effectiveness and efficiency.
Leveraging tools like advanced location capabilities, IP-based technologies, and video streaming, dispatchers will be better able to differentiate true emergencies from fake ones and concentrate their time and resources on the most critical of cases. 911 has helped save innumerable lives over the past half century — and with the right technologies, public safety agencies will be better equipped to save countless more.