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Bringing 911 into the 21st Century

Return to the February 1, 2013 issue of On Scene

The way the public communicates is always changing. This not only affects how people interact with each other, but also how they expect to contact and interface with emergency responders.

However, the 911 system is forced to try to meet the challenges presented by advances in consumer technology with voice-only devices, systems and networks we were using last century. We must evolve to meet the telecommunications expectations of the public we serve in the present.

Right now, smartphones make up more than 50% of the wireless marketplace, and that number will increase as technology becomes more affordable and wireless providers continue to build out their networks.

More than 32% of U.S. households have gone wireless-only; there are now more than 330 million wireless connections for a U.S. population of 313 million. In many areas, mobile calls to 911 account for 70% or more of total call volume—nearly 400,000 wireless 911 calls daily.

Text messaging has exploded. Last year, Americans sent more than 8 trillion text messages, and that number is growing.

Ten years ago, no one could have predicted any of this; for far too long now, 911 has lagged behind consumer technology, forcing new communications technologies to adapt to an outdated 911 system rather than that system keeping pace. 911 is stuck in a voice-centric world, while consumers have voice, video and data at their fingertips.

The 911 system and all emergency communications need to harness evolving technology to bring about a fundamental change and improvement. That’s why the transition to next generation 911 (NG911) should be a top priority for all public-safety leaders.

NG911 is envisioned to enable access to 911 anytime, anywhere, on any device. Unlike current limited circuit-switched, voice-centric system, NG911 is internet-protocol (IP) based and software and database driven. It can accept high-bandwidth data and video communications of all types and is easily upgradable as new devices, systems and networks are developed and brought online.

Today, 911 and emergency responders need to share information but can’t do so efficiently. In an NG911 environment, the possibility exists for 911, fire, police, EMS, emergency-operation centers, hospitals, clinics, public-health agencies, transportation agencies, public-works departments and utilities to push, pull and share data as appropriate.

The significantly improved call-routing capabilities and data-rich information sharing enabled by NG911 will likely facilitate smarter, better-prepared response to everyday emergencies and large-scale disasters alike.

For example, 34 million Americans with hearing and speech disabilities have abandoned their old TTY devices in favor of smartphones; however, TTY is still the only effective way they can reach 911. The NG911 system is designed to enable both text and video connections to 911, significantly improving access to emergency services for these individuals.

Video capabilities don’t benefit only those with disabilities. A live video (or pictures) from the scene of a crime identifying a suspect or showing a car crash or hazmat spill could be transmitted directly into an NG911 center, allowing the right resources to be deployed more efficiently and safeguarding the lives of citizens and responders.

Other data sources would similarly provide for better response. Automatic crash-notification systems can automatically tell a 911 center where a crash occurred as well as produce valuable data. Did the car roll over? How many passengers were in the car? Were seat belts worn? Did airbags deploy? Is video available?

Today's 911 system is simply not capable of processing any of that data. Nor can it access building blueprints to help firefighters respond to a structure fire or transmit electronic medical records to an EMS crew en route to a heart-attack victim.

It’s easy to see how these types of additional information would be valuable during almost any request for emergency assistance.

NG911 is everything today's 911 system is not. It’s smart, adaptable and flexible, and it provides citizens and responders with the emergency-communication system they need. The potential exists for significant cost-savings to local, regional and state governments through shared networks and databases as well.

We must harness IP-based technical advances to bring about this transformation. 911 must be capable of technically and operationally interacting with other emergency-service systems, most importantly the FirstNet nationwide wireless broadband network for first-responder communications currently in development.

It makes no sense to continue to force new communication services to connect to an old 911 system designed for a fixed-location telecommunication world. NG911 implementation requires significant national coordination and leadership. Indeed, public safety's successes have always been a result of a collaborative and inclusive approach—one that brings together public safety, industry and government to realize real and necessary change.

Brian Fontes, PhD, is CEO of NENA, the 911 association.

Learn more about Next Generation 911 at NENA.org/NG.

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