How emergency dispatch is catching up with consumer technology

Next Generation 911 combines mission-critical public-safety information and leading-edge technology to improve fire, EMS, and police emergency response


By Mike Rubin, FR1 Contributor

Not too many years from now in a town like yours, emergency services might share a moment like this: A civilian calls 911 about a break-in next door, then transmits a photo of a trespasser leaving the building and getting into a car. The call-taker forwards that photo, the car’s registration from the license plate and any face-recognition hits on the trespasser, immediately to the closest police cruiser.

Seconds later, another 911 operator hears from a different caller who sees smoke coming from the same building. That operator, who already knows about the first call, updates the police department while dispatching the nearest fire department and transmitting a copy of the structure’s floorplan.

A third 911 call concerning the same building is routed through a less-busy call center and received as a text message from a resident who is short of breath due to smoke inhalation. That caller's medical records are sent to the nearest EMS unit at the same time police and fire units are advised.

That may sound like a scene from some futuristic Hollywood rendition of emergency services, but those high-tech call-handling capabilities are a lot closer to reality than you might think.

The system responsible for coordinating emergency calls, call centers, expanded call data and essential services in the above scenario isn't just 911; it’s Next Generation 911 (NG-911), an ideal but achievable marriage of mission-critical public-safety information and leading-edge technology.

"The goal is seamless communication in all of the ways wireless consumers have at their fingertips," said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, an 8,000-member organization dedicated to optimizing 911 service in North America. "NG-911 offers those who respond to emergencies access to the same kinds of data most of us take for granted on non-emergent levels."

Multi-media dispatch
Fontes is referring primarily to text, photos and videos, attachments that are readily available across wireless networks. The problem is that most 911 systems can only receive voice across those networks. That can lead to awkward and frustrating attempts by call centers to piece together disparate details about phoned-in emergencies.

On Jan. 4, for example, 41-year-old Ryan Pritchard fell 150 feet down a cliff while hiking in California’s Putah Creek State Wildlife Area, about 30 miles east of Sacramento. Pritchard's 11-year-old son, Jake, was unable to describe their location to 911 on his father's cell phone. If not for a quick-thinking Solano County dispatcher, who used Google and Facebook to learn about the family's outdoor plans, the seriously injured Pritchard might not have been found in time.

With NG-911, the Pritchards will have the option to send a photo or even a video of their location and a text message describing their emergency. NG-911 calls can even be transmitted by automated systems such as MedicAlert and Advanced Automatic Collision Notification.

NG-911 isn't just about enhanced calling capabilities, though; emergency responders can benefit, too, by being able to view case-specific images and patient history.

"It's a push-pull arrangement between the caller, the call-takers and the responders," said Fontes. "As a 911 call is received, operators can capture any text or images from the caller, pull other data relevant to the call, then push it all through to the responders."

Deploying NG-911
Work on NG-911 concepts began in 2000. Today, according to NENA, eight states have transitional NG-911 and at least another 20 are pursuing related upgrades. Fontes said that extending NG-911 to the entire United States will take a while.

"NG-911 isn't widespread; it's emerging," Fontes said. "Like any new hardware/software environment, there'll be improvements, but the fundamental technology exists today. The biggest challenges are leadership and funding."

"It takes commitment by community and state leaders and 911 authorities to implement these new tools while legacy systems continue to run.

"Phasing out antiquated 911 equipment could take a few years for well-funded systems and a lot longer for others," he said.

The Vermont experience
One state ahead of the curve is Vermont. David Tucker, executive director of Vermont’s Enhanced 911 Board, says governance is the biggest issue for NG-911 newcomers.

"Deciding who’s going to participate in managing a shared resource like 911 center is a critical first step," Tucker said. "Without that, it would be impossible to decide what type of system and how big a system you need."

Tucker says call-routing flexibility is the biggest advantage to NG-911 his state has seen so far.

"In 2011 we had to shut down part of our system during Tropical Storm Irene, but we didn’t lose a single 911 call because they were automatically rerouted," he said.

Training call-takers to operate such IP-based systems should focus on using the technology, rather than on the technology itself.

"It's about managing information, about recognizing the options represented by on-screen icons and knowing who needs to see what data," said Fontes. "We're a nation of 314 million people with 336 million wireless connections.

"NG-911 is a way of using that widespread technology to benefit the public."

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