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21st Century Emergency

​THE FEDERAL Communications Commission (FCC) recently announced that the nation’s top four wireless carriers have agreed to make text-to-911 services available to their customers by May 15, 2014. The FCC has also issued a related notice of proposed rulemaking requiring that all wireless carriers and Internet Protocol (IP)-based text messaging apps facilitate this capability. It is all tied to the move toward Next Generation 9-1-1 (known as NG9-1-1), an initiative aimed at updating 911 call center infrastructure to establish an IP-based foundation for receiving calls as well as data and multimedia.

Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are slowly making the move to accept more types of information, and location tracking for mobile phone calls to 911 has improved with advanced GPS technology. But more than a decade after the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) began pushing for NG9 1 1, most centers still cannot receive text messages and data. And many advocates say that is unacceptable.

Consumers have at their fingertips the ability to not only call a 911 center but also to enrich that call by providing a picture, video, or document (such as one with medical records) “that may help those who respond to the incidents to be better prepared to respond,” says NENA’s CEO Brian Fontes. “So, what we’re trying to do is to upgrade our nation’s 911 centers, which are pretty much tethered to 40-year-old last-century voice-centric communication.”

For example, there might be an individual who is diabetic, and when that person or someone with them dials 911, they may also want to send medical information that the dispatcher can pass on to the responding emergency medical technicians.

Additional means for contacting 911 will also provide greater ability for deaf or otherwise impaired individuals to get through to 911 when they cannot make voice calls, Fontes explains.

There are, however, potential drawbacks to accepting so much data. One consideration is that dispatchers may be inundated with information from one incident such as a highway accident or a fire. “They could get overwhelmed with photos from dozens, if not hundreds, of bystanders at an accident or incident site,” says Brian Josef, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents the wireless communications industry. NG9-1-1 raises a lot of operational and training issues, he says, adding, “I’m not sure that everyone understands what is implicated and what will be involved.”

Elaborating, Josef says, “I think we all know that if you’re on the highway and there’s a crash, a PSAP may receive, again, dozens of calls. Well, what if those are all text messages or photos, does that PSAP have the capability to accept all of those? Do they send a certain automatic bounce-back message and perhaps deny a call that was from somebody in the area that had a heart attack, so it wasn’t related to that specific accident that prompted the voluminous call?”

Another potential snag, says Josef, is that there is a looming spectrum problem. “What we’re worried about you already see in times of emergencies and incidents…. If you’re contemplating advanced services like dozens of people sending streaming video at an incident site, that can quickly overwhelm the spectrum resources,” he explains.

There has been some recent headway on the spectrum topic thanks to Congress mandating spectrum allocation for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), a public safety broadband network. Fontes says that is a step in the right direction.

It is also important for dispatchers to get trained in how to handle the new information they’ll be receiving, and for the public to get some instruction about when a call might be preferable to a text message or other type of contact and when other information might be useful.

The main impediment to converting all PSAPs to the new system, however, is that it requires costly, time-consuming infrastructure upgrades. Implementation would also require policy changes. NENA has provided the i3 standard as a blueprint for the NG9-1-1 technology, but it will still take work and funds. State and local municipalities are responsible for the funding right now; there is no federally funded initiative.
Many state statutes that define what 911 communications entail “have not been updated to reflect the current means of communication,” such as wireless, IP-protocol, and multimedia, says Josef.

States that are taking the lead in NG9-1-1 includeVermont, Washington, Texas, and Alabama. But Fontes says that the country may need to take a closer look at how 911 is funded if it is to get more states to move to a Next Generation 9-1-1 environment.