Dispatching on an outdated 9-1-1 System is Endangering 21st Century Citizens

A 911 dispatcher at the Camp Lejeune 911 Emergency Consolidated Communications Center.

From retail to healthcare, big data is now a part of every industry. Data analysts are identifying fraudulent credit card claims, making the consumer journey more meaningful, and ensuring educators are teaching effectively. Yet, despite big data’s prevalence and utility, the critical fields of public safety and emergency response seem to be stuck 50 years in the past. In fact, the constant deluge of information is causing life-threatening breakdowns in communication.

With 240 million calls made to 9-1-1 every year in the U.S. (657,534 calls a day), it’s astonishing that dispatchers are able to coordinate with first responders as well as they do on such an outdated system. To minimize response times and maximize the number of lives saved, such a critical position demands a more robust communication infrastructure within which to operate.

When it comes to public safety, data is a double edged sword. It’s what’s overwhelming the system, and also part of the solution.

To understand this dichotomy, SimpleSense looked at the evolution of 9-1-1, the outdated systems still in use, the overwhelming call volume, and why response times are actually increasing as opposed to decreasing. By underscoring these issues, we’ll have a better sense of how to solve this massive problem.

The Evolution of 9-1-1

Since the late 60s, 9-1-1 has become a critical public service. In its early days, there were no key questions for dispatchers to ask nor were there any pre-arrival instructions given to callers (e.g., CPR, ice injury, apply pressure to a wound).

Without specific details, dispatchers—with all the best intentions—were often sending the wrong emergency vehicles to the scene and/or over-utilizing advanced life support (ALS), ultimately pulling away community resources (e.g., police department, fire department) from others in need. The process for the original, “Basic 9-1-1” was simple:

  1. Caller dials 9-1-1
  2. Local public safety answering point (PSAP) receives the call
  3. Emergency dispatcher answers
  4. Caller communicates the location and emergency type

The problem is, communicating basic yet essential information by voice takes up valuable time and isn’t conducive to everyone, such as children and those with disabilities. Therefore, Enhanced (E) 9-1-1 aimed to eliminate the challenge of dispatching by garnering the critical details before voice communication even started. The process for E9-1-1 is as follows:

  1. Caller dials 9-1-1
  2. Caller’s phone number and address displays
  3. Call-taker and dispatcher send help immediately
  4. Call-taker gathers further details about the nature of the emergency

E9-1-1 was a significant step in the right direction. However, this technology only captured basic information if the caller called from a landline. Now that a staggering 95% of Americans use cell phones and Voice of Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a ubiquitous telephonic solution, Wireless E9-1-1 had to take shape quickly.

Wireless E9-1-1

In 2001, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated safer protocols for wireless callers and “Wireless E9-1-1” was born. This technology helped dispatchers to once again auto-capture basic information like callback number and “estimated location.” However, in the early 2000s, this location could be up to 300 meters (or a disconcerting 3.73 city blocks) away.

Thankfully, today’s standards set forth by the FCC are closer to 50 meters. Still, that’s more than half a city block away from the epicenter.

On April 4th, 2019 the FCC published a press release proposing technology that will allow 9-1-1 to find vertical (z-axis) locations with plus or minus three meters for 80% of indoor wireless E9-1-1 calls. To further minimize misdirection, VoIP providers are now required by the FCC to acquire the physical addresses of the organization that is using the service.

Text to 9-1-1

According to 911.gov, in 2014, the four largest wireless service providers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) worked with the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (APCO) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) to provide all 911 call centers with the ability to receive texts.

As of April 5, 2019, just under 2,000 of the 5,783 PSAPs in the US have notified the FCC that they can now accept text messages to 911. To put this in perspective, an astonishing two-out-of-three PSAPs have yet to accept Text to 9-1-1.

Next Generation 911

Because 911 systems were originally designed with analog, not digital, technology, PSAPs across the country are in various stages of evaluating and implementing upgrades to digital 911 systems, commonly referred to as Next Generation 911 (NG911).

NG911 promises to enhance emergency services, allowing voice, photos, videos and text messages to flow seamlessly from the public to the 911 network, managing call overload during major incidents, and resolving transferring of 911 calls to the proper jurisdiction based on location tracking.

According to 911.gov, 25 states and 2 territories have at least some NG911 capabilities up and running.

Communicating with CAD

It’s clear the FCC is taking the proper steps to ensure that the 9-1-1 system is recording location and callback numbers effectively, however, the real issue is how effectively dispatchers and first responders are communicating with one another as well as how they’re sharing information with private security/emergency teams.

Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) is currently used to dispatch emergency services by computer using a mobile data terminal (MDT), or ruggedized laptops installed in public safety vehicles. The system can generate messages (voice and SMS) and catalog information like radio logs, caller information, and field notes.

When an individual places a 9-1-1 call, the call-taker picks up and immediately starts inputting information into a CAD template (wireless E9-1-1 auto-generates location and callback number). With this information, they then dispatch the appropriate emergency personnel over the radio. First responders can ideally view the details of the incident via their MDT, if they have one available.

At a regional level, during major disasters, public-safety answering points (PSAPs) and separate CAD systems don’t communicate well with one due to incompatible data formats. While some decision makers believe consolidation is the key, this approach will potentially inundate the remaining PSAPs with calls and data—some helpful, some irrelevant, some distracting.

What’s Next?

Ultimately, the current emergency response system is overloaded and at risk for failure. Furthermore, a radio-based architecture for emergency services cannot handle the volumes of potentially life-saving data now available. NG911 promises to help, but still maintains the centralized design of the original 911 from 1967.

At SimpleSense, we think that in order to provide proactive crisis management for the 21st Century, we need to rethink the CAD system, starting with decentralizing emergency data to simply make sure that everyone responding to an incident has the latest, best information.

To be clear: the emergency planners, public safety officials, and dispatchers that make 911 available across the country, 24/7, do an incredible, under-appreciated job. The system itself is flawed, not the people who work tirelessly to keep it running. NG911 brings needed incremental change to the system, we think there’s more work to do and no time left to wait.

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In our next post, learn more about how sharing and decentralizing data can dramatically improve response times.

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