The national 911 system needs an overhaul to provide faster, more reliable emergency communications and better location tracking.
An initiative is underway to upgrade the national 911 system to improve first responders’ ability to save lives and property in a wireless mobile society.
The U.S. and Canada are implementing Next Generation 911 to create a faster, more reliable emergency communications system that will not only allow phone calls, but also photos, videos, text messages, and Skype. Such information could provide firefighters, paramedics, and police with better locations and details to make staffing and equipment decisions.
For emergency call centers that dispatch public safety agencies, it will enhance their ability to manage call overload, natural disasters and transfer calls to the proper jurisdiction based on location tracking.
Smartphones and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies have put the nation’s 911 system to the test. That’s because the system was initially built using analog rather than digital technology.
Under Next Generation 911, emergency call centers across the country will need to upgrade to an Internet Protocol-based 911 system that works seamlessly and securely, according to 911.gov.
Some features have already been adopted around the country. For example, Text-to-911 is currently available in limited number areas.
As of 2017, 22 states had begun to implement Next Generation 911 system technologies, said Jill Gallagher, a telecommunications policy analyst for the Congressional Research Service. But funding has proven to be a challenge and progress has been relatively slow.
For some areas of the country, the transition can’t come soon enough. A 2017 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that only 3,302 of the 5,783 emergency call centers across the nation could receive wireless 911 calls that identified the caller’s location.
Another problem with the national 911 system is that many wireless 911 calls made from inside a building can throw off the caller’s location by several hundred feet.
This year, the National Association of State 911 Administrators celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first 911 call, which was made on Feb. 16, 1968. Two decades later, an Enhanced 911 program improved the system, routing calls from landlines to the correct emergency call center with a call-back number and location.
The FCC made more changes to the program in 1996 when mobile cellular calls became more common. Those changes required carriers to provide a call-back number and geo-based location for wireless 911 calls. The FCC updated its location accuracy rules in 2015.
The analog-based 911 system also needs an overhaul because emergency call centers don’t use the same technologies, causing services – and ability to interconnect – to vary from one jurisdiction to the next. This can cause confusion and delays.
“While 911 is the nationwide number to call for emergencies, there is not one nationwide 911 network,” Gallagher said. The network’s 5,783 separate state and local emergency call centers are each operated by a different entity and serve a specific area, typically a county.
“With 80 percent of 911 calls now coming from mobile devices (cell phones), 911 systems have had to be adjusted to accommodate wireless calls and their location information,” Gallagher said. “While [emergency call centers] can now accept calls from wireless devices, and some location information for wireless callers, most cannot accommodate text messages, photos, or videos – communications that are commonly used by consumers today.”
The implementation of Next Generation 911 is extremely complicated, demanding much more than adding new hardware and software. The process involves hundreds of stakeholders, including local, state and federal governments, transportation and public safety agencies, public utility commissions and other regulatory agencies, internet and wireless service providers and the public.
In 2011, the cost of deploying the Next Generation 911 infrastructure (not including equipment, software, and training) in Tennessee alone was estimated at $50-60 million, Gallagher said.
“The implementation is expected to be costly and complex,” she said.
Did you know? Google is having success with a pilot program for its Android Emergency Location Service, a 911 cellphone program designed to pinpoint the caller’s location. For more information, click here.
Have you or your colleagues struggled with a dispatch coming from a wireless call that sent you to the wrong location? If so, how did it impact your response time and effectiveness? Share your experience with us on MaltseseCrossMagazine.com.
911.gov. Next Generation 911. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.911.gov/issue_nextgeneration911.html
Gallagher, J. 2018. “Next Generation 911 Technologies: Select Issues for Congress.” Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45253.pdf
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2017 National 911 Progress Report. Retrieved from https://www.911.gov/pdf/National-911-Program-Profile-Database-Progress-Report-2017.pdf
Status of NG9-1-1 State Activity. Feb. 2, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.nena.org/page/NG911_StateActivity