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What a changing 911 means to fire departments

Here's a look under the hood at Next Generation 911 and how one department has implemented it


The first 911 call in the United States was placed in Haleyville, Ala., on Feb. 16, 1968. And for nearly 50 years the 911 system had done a good job of meeting its intended purpose.

But there is a new generation of technologies coming that will make the current 911 system seem like a Ford Model T. Next Generation 911 (NG-911) will create a faster and more flexible, resilient and scalable system that allows 911 to keep up with communication technology used by the public.

NG-911 will give better tools to Public Safety Answering Points and local 911 authorities, tools such as the ability to transfer calls, messages, and data between any PSAP on any interconnected NG-911 system anywhere in the country.

These tools also will include support for disaster-related 911 call control — those periods when the number of calls for service coming in quickly outpace the available PSAP staff's ability to answer and process all the calls.

Put simply, NG-911 is an Internet Protocol-based system that will allow information in digital formats — voice, photos, videos, text messages, etc. — to flow seamlessly from the public, through the 911 network, and on to the appropriate emergency responders.

Imagine you and your crew are responding to a reported structure fire. While responding, you receive video images of the building that's on fire on your tablet from the dispatch center that has received them from a civilian using smartphone.

It's here
The technology to implement NG-911 systems is available now. Yet, implementing NG-911 will require the efforts of many people to plan and deploy a continually evolving system of hardware, software, standards, policies, protocols and training.

We communicate much differently than we did in 1968. In just the past two years, the number of new wireless phone numbers activated has outpaced that for landlines for the first time in history.

What does all this mean for public safety agencies and the public serve? NG-911, particularly the text-messaging component, will greatly improve the ability for millions of people to gain access to the emergency services they need. 

The hearing-impaired will be able to communicate with a 911 telecommunicator without special equipment. The same is true for those who don't speak easily understood English. Hostages can text their emergency to 911 — and 911 can text them back — without alerting the perpetrator.

Dispatch centers will be able to transmit BOLO (be on the lookout) information that includes photos, security camera video and text, regarding a bank robbery to all public safety units, surrounding jurisdictions, media outlets or the public within minutes of law enforcement officers obtaining that information.

Ongoing case study
Metro 911 of Kanawha County, W.V., Metro 911 for short, was established in 1987 by the City of Charleston and Kanawha County that created one PSAP for Kanawha County and Charleston. Metro 911 is also the dispatching and communications center for 47 police, fire and EMS agencies in the 911 square mile Kanawha River Valley.

"Thus far, we've implemented the text-to-911 technology in our center," said Brooke Hylbert, executive assistant in charge of internal and external communications at Metro 911. "Text-to-911 was launched to the public on July 22, 2014 with Sprint and Verizon mobile service providers on board. In September 2014, we went live with AT&T." 

To prepare for launch, Hylbert said, they started small and grew. They wrote policies, created a public-education plan, updated equipment and trained staff.

"In order to avoid overwhelming our telecommunicators, we launched text-from-911 outbound service only in June 2014," she said. The telecommunicators would initiate a text from 911 when we received a 911 hang-up call from a cell phone."

'Call if you can'
Previously, the center called back all 911 hang-up calls from cell phones. Now, they still make the call, but if they do not receive an answer they send this text message: "911. We received a hang-up call from your cell phone. Do you have an emergency?"

"We did not tell the public about this service, because we did not want them to get confused and think they could initiate a text to us," she said. "This service only worked when Metro 911 initiated a text to a citizen."

Text-to-911 inbound launched a month later. Initially, telecommunicators were concerned about an influx of calls, she said. But, they were trained and the system proved very user friendly.

The public education component included a text information hotline, media outreach, flyers mailed with tax bills and Metro911's website, she said.

"The main point that we wanted the public to know was 'Call if you can; text when you can't,'" she said. "The public has really listened to our message and are continuing to call 911 when it is possible and/or safe for them to do so."

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