Tech Update: Next Generation 9-1-1

Updated at 9:10am, August 14, 2012

A year ago at this time, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled an action plan to bring the nation’s 9-1-1 Emergency Centers fully into the digital age, through the adoption of “Next Generation 9-1-1” (NG 911) technology.

The advantages of transitioning to NG 9-1-1 systems nationwide include increased public access, enhanced information for first-responders, and increased reliability of new, IP-based networks over old circuit-switched E911 systems.

So far, though, the new systems are still just in the planning stages.

According to Roger Hixson, Technical Issues Director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), “there are areas around the country that have implemented standalone methods for Text-to-911, MMS, Video, Photos, but not through NG9-1-1, which is a specific system replacing E9-1-1 that is typically implemented on a multiple county basis.”

Emergency Communications Center Deputy Commander Jeffrey A. Horwitz, of the Arlington County, VA Office of Emergency Management, says transitioning from a  legacy system that takes voice calls to modern one that supports IP-based communication of voice, text, data, photos, and video, is an extremely complex and lengthy process.

As a result, he says, there is no exact date either locally or nationally, as to when the transition will be complete.

“When you talk to the individual 911 centers, they’ll tell you that one of the challenges is that there’s more than one way to make this happen. There is more than one solution. We want to make sure we invest the money and the time to do it right the first time.”

Implementation will probably be in stages, he says, with SMS (texting) most likely being the first new capability available.

But even for something as basic as texting, a lot of technical details have to be worked out, such as how to accurately determine the texter’s location.

Horwitz explains:

“When you call 911 from a landline at a business or residence, you’re registered with the service provider that tells us your address. You may be aware that when you call 911 from a cell phone or wireless smart phone; it gives us latitude longitude coordinates that we plot on a map. It’s integrated with our system, and there are some variables that affect the accuracy of that location…not on our end, but there are some people who hold onto older phones forever…don’t upgrade their phone…or their provider may use a handset-based solution instead of triangulation between cell towers…but for the most part they are as accurate as landlines,” he says.

“But”, he continues, “if you implement Text-to- 911–because it’s not a cell phone call, it’s a text; you need to make sure that the location of the caller (is) part of the text. What if somebody texts “I’m being raped”, and you don’t have any location?”

While it might be possible to eventually get that information with wireless carrier assistance; he says,  that would take extra time–time you don’t want to waste in an emergency situation.

In addition, Horwitz stresses, “Even when we implement Text-to- 911 calls; they should only occur when a voice 911 is not possible or appropriate. I can foresee that it’s going to take longer to process a text 911 call, than it would a voice 911 call because of the interaction…the follow-up questions. Can you imagine us trying to give emergency medical dispatch; like CPR instructions via text message?”

Voice calls also provide a lot of important information other than just the spoken word, such as  background noises, gunshots, and even voice inflection.

“You might be telling us one thing, but we might be hearing something completely different, based on the way you’re saying it. Now, certainly, when someone is breaking into your home, and you’re hiding in your closet…or any scenario in which you cannot speak…certainly that (texting) would be advantageous.”

But text-to-911 is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to NG 911 capabilities. It will not only enable citizens to send texts, photos, videos, and other data to emergency operators; but it will also allow the 911 operators to forward that information to first responders.

So, for example, if you’re standing near a bank, and you see robbers rushing out with bags of cash; you could snap a picture with your cell phone, and send it to 9-1-1. Then, 9-1-1 operators could forward it to officers responding to the scene.

Sounds good, right?

Well, yes and no, according to Horwitz. First of all, he cautions; people shouldn’t put themselves “in harm’s way” just to take pictures of criminal activity. If they can do so without danger; fine, but otherwise, he advises that they hold back.

There are also legal issues to consider when it comes to police use of photos sent to them by private citizens. Who owns the photos? If you take the photos, would you have to go to court to testify at the trial of the alleged criminal?

Right now, Horwitz explains, state, local, and federal government officials nationwide are working to iron out all those details. But, he says, the most important thing, is to introduce the new technology in a “safe, effective, and reliable way.”

“That’s really critical”, he says, “because prematurely implementing functionality could be more harmful than delaying it.”

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