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A New Generation for 911

SEVENTY-FIVE percent of United States youths think they can call the emergency exchange number 911 via text message, according to a survey by the 9-1-1 Industry Alliance. That’s not really a surprise, given that text messaging is ubiquitous and a major form of communication for both young and old. But right now, 911 public-safety answering points (PSAPs) don’t have the capability of easily receiving or tracking text messages, not to mention other types of data, such as video.

Many groups are working to change that. For example, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is beta-testing PSAP technology that has as one of its objectives making it possible to receive and process those types of data communications. It’s all part of a program called the Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) initiative.

The reason most PSAPs can’t handle such data now is that their underlying architecture is a wire-line network that was installed before these newer forms of wireless communication was invented. The 911 technology currently in use is more than 30 years old.

“It’s capable of receiving a location, an address if it’s a home phone, or an estimated location from a wireless carrier, and a phone number callback in case of an emergency—and a little bit of identifying information on who the carrier is. That’s it,” says Patrick Halley, government affairs director at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which is one of the groups working with DOT on NG 9-1-1.

The beta tests are being conducted in cities and counties in New York, Washington, Minnesota, Montana, and Indiana. After the tests are complete, a report will be issued by DOT.

Not everyone is waiting for the test results. The State of Delaware is already beginning to install IP-based equipment in some of its counties so that it will be ready to take advantage of the new technology when it comes online.

The next step for Delaware is to get the infrastructure embedded throughout the state, says Delaware 911 Administrator Terry Whitham. The state has a head start, he says, because it already has a lot of fiber in the ground that it can use. When the infrastructure installation is complete, that network will enable Delaware to interlink all of the state’s PSAPs on the same IP framework. The final goal is to eventually link up to a national system.

Having all of the state’s PSAPs interconnected via the Internet will make it easier to operate from temporary locations if a disaster forces PSAP offices to be evacuated, explains Whitham. Staff from a vacated office would simply need computers and Internet connections to continue to be operational.

Linkage is also important because of the quantity of cell phone calls in emergencies. PSAPs often get dozens of cell phone calls on the same accident or incident, which can clog the centers. Currently, Delaware PSAPs are unable to dole out overflow calls to neighboring PSAPs when they get overloaded. With the IP connections, that would no longer be difficult.

Whitham says that his state has been able to make so much progress because it’s so small and because the state’s 911 fund has enough money to cover all the expenses.

A larger state that has plans to create a similar IP network to lay the groundwork for NG-9-1-1 is Texas. It is currently awaiting a preliminary cost assessment on the project.

“We’re going to have enough work when we really start implementing [NG 9-1-1] that we might as well get the things that we can get done now out of the way,” says Paul Mallett, executive director of the Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications.

A major reason for wanting the new text-messaging capabilities, Mallett says, is that they will benefit the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. The deaf community has been a driving force in NG 9-1-1, and meeting that need is one reason the initiative is so important, says Halley. Also integral is helping people who might not be able to speak in an emergency situation.

But the new ways of communicating will likely bring new concerns, says Whitham. Some examples of new problems due to the use of text messages might be weeding through text message jargon and being unable to decipher whether a message is a hoax, he says.

Still, “people expect that if they can communicate with everyone else on a daily basis in a certain manner, then they ought to be able to communicate [that way] with 911,” says Halley, adding, “I think that’s a reasonable perception.”