Next-Gen 911: First Responders Gear Up for a Whole New Wave of Technology
Imagine Robert, a deaf man, sitting on his front porch at the intersection of two roads. Suddenly, two cars collide. Robert calls 911. He can speak once he thinks he’s been connected to the call center but, he’s unable to respond to an operator’s prompts.
That’s 911 today.
Now imagine the same scene, but this time Robert is living in an area equipped with Next Generation 911 (NG911) technology. Dialing the call center on his smart phone, Robert provides video of himself using sign language. The operator immediately sets up a three-way conference call with a sign language interpreter, who asks Robert to share video of the accident scene and the cars’ license plates. Data from the phone provides precise coordinates for the location, and the license plates are quickly matched with database for information about the cars. Onboard communications systems in the cars, meanwhile, have already sent alerts that air bags deployed, indicating people in the cars might be injured.
By the time emergency medical technicians arrive, they already know who needs to be treated and have a good idea of the extent of their injuries. That information can be relayed to the hospital, so medics can prepare to receive and treat the victims.
That’s the scenario spun by Roger Hixson, technical issues director at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).
“Emergency communications internetworking and interoperability – it’s the future,” he says.
Indeed, since its inauguration in 1968, 911 has been one of America’s great technological success stories. Americans make an estimated 240 million 911 calls every year. Those calls can pack so much drama that, in the 1980s and ’90s, the “Rescue 911” television program developed a large audience by dramatizing 911 rescues.
But time and technology march on, and wireless technologies are driving rapid change in the way the 911 system is used.
Brian Fontes, NENA’s chief executive officer, points to the 2010 attempted bombing in Times Square when on-scene merchants called in reports of an unoccupied car with its engine running, its hazard lights blinking, smoke rising from its rear seats and a person fleeing the scene. Had NG911 been available, first responders might have had pictures of the car, its license plate and the would-be terrorist. And they could have more quickly cleared the area of pedestrians.
“That’s the difference between what happened and what could have happened,” Fontes says.
The past two decades have seen a revolution in consumer telecommunications, and the revolution shows no signs of slackening. Today, 70 percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones, and the percentage is growing. At the same time, consumers now have text, video, and photo capability in their pockets.
Since 2000, U.S. government agencies, first responders and private organizations have been working to bring the 911 system into the 21st century through NG911, a government-wide effort to adapt the old system to the new reality, with the Department of Transportation and the Federal Communications Commission playing leading roles.
The effort to implement full NG911 capabilities is ongoing and will continue for the indefinite future. But even as the system catches up with the Internet, 911 visionaries are looking out to the far horizons of providing public safety and emergency response – and incorporating even newer capabilities.
Location, Location, Location
Dispatchers at 911 call centers can reel off horror stories of frantic callers in desperate situations unable to pinpoint their locations. In December 2014, a Georgia woman drove her car into a pond at 4 a.m. and called 911 for help. As her car filled with water, a dispatcher repeatedly asked for her location – but caught in the dark and without signs for reference, the driver could not provide a useful answer.
Ultimately, that woman was rescued, but only after she called a colleague who was able to pinpoint the site. Ever since the first 911 call, dispatchers and system designers have sought to determine callers’ locations. And while the advent of cell phones would seem to make tracking easier, the need to triangulate a position has proven frustratingly difficult.
Even so, 911 developers are tackling the next challenge: determining indoor location, particularly in apartment buildings and office towers. Identifying elevation is what they call the “z-axis,” and it’s important so first responders know how many floors they have to climb once on scene at an incident.
“It seems like in 2015 we should have all those issues dealt with,” says Laurie Flaherty, coordinator of the National 911 Program at the Department of Transportation. “But it’s not quite that easy. Indoor location accuracy is a challenge. FCC 911 requirements really pertain to outdoor calls, but we’ve found that half of 911 calls are being made indoors.”
911 By Design
Flaherty’s goal is to have companies and designers build 911 capabilities right into networks, products, programs, or applications at the very earliest stages of conception. Too often, she says, 911 emergency calling is an afterthought.
“I get at least one phone call a week from someone who is working on the next great idea in communications, and I ask: ‘How will the product work with the 911 system?’” says Flaherty. “And they don’t know how the system works.”
Among her goals: Connecting remote alarm systems to the 911 system, once standards are established to make such connections possible.
Other new technologies will open up even more possibilities, said Jeff Cohen, chief counsel for law and policy at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.
“With the Internet of Things, there is so much possible from all forms of devices, from environmental sensors to personal wearable devices,” Cohen said. “The possibilities from devices is just astounding.” Inputs to 911 call centers – in technical terms, public safety answer points – could potentially include personal radio frequency identification chips, municipal cameras, and environmental sensors.
Getting alarms and alerts from all those sources would be overwhelming today. But with proper preparation, networks can be equipped with the data analytics tools needed to handle that flood of information.
“We’re looking at a data influx,” acknowledges Christopher Blake Carver, NENA’s director of call centers, or public safety answer points.
Challenges and Opportunities
The potential challenges to the Next Generation 911 system – and for future generations to follow– don’t stop there. New capabilities will require training, and increased inputs on the network raises concerns about cyber threats, from simple hacks to denial-of-service attacks designed to paralyze a network. Calls must be properly routed for fast, effective response, and the system must be impervious to telecommunications and electric power failures. And all of this requires consistent, significant funding, across every state, county, city, and town, a challenge that has proven very difficult.
Meanwhile, technology continues to advance.
“The public sector for the 911 system has always had a hard time keeping up with the private sector, but it makes sense to keep looking over the next hill,” reflects Flaherty. “I learned that the telecom business doesn’t sit still for long.”
Carver says 911’s future challenges must be part of an overall national public safety effort. In that light, the progress being made is transformational.
“The situational awareness and the analytics part is absolutely tremendous,” he says. “Whatever the technology is, and however folks end up dialing 911 into a center, making sure they’re routed to the right place, making sure we get the right location, making sure the system is reliable both for everyday use and for disaster-type use – and then seeing 911 as part of a greater awareness of what is going on in terms of emergency response or homeland security issues – those … have to be a part of 911 not only 25 years from now, but also 25 months from now.”
David Silverberg is a veteran government and technology journalist and a consulting editor with GovTechWorks.