911 services face an emergency of their own

Since 911 was set aside in 1968 as a national emergency call number, the service has been upgraded to provide better information for dispatchers and remains the backbone of first responders.

But rapid advances in communications technology, while presenting opportunities for better service, also present a tough test for system, as adoption of consumer devices outpaces the ability of the 911 infrastructure to handle them. Telephones, once fixed in a certain place, are now mobile, and voice is becoming passé in a world where real-time text, images and video are at everyone’s fingertips.

“The communications world is changing so very fast, and staying on top of it requires being very quick to address the new technologies,” said Norman Shaw, executive director of government affairs at Polaris Wireless, a company that provides 911 location services.


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Location services have become increasingly important since telephones have been untethered and phone numbers no longer are tied to an address.

“Wireless 911 calls are about 80 percent of our volume,” said David Lucas, director of Enhanced 911 services for Lexington, Ky.

Two interstate highways, I-64 and I-75, pass through the area, which also is home to the University of Kentucky, so the trend of mobile dialing might be higher in Lexington than the national average. But it is not only students and travelers who are calling from cell phones, Lucas said. Senior citizens are the heaviest users of 911 services, he said, and “I’m surprised how many of them are getting rid of landlines and going to cell phones.”

Cell phone carriers are required to provide basic location information to Public Service Answering Point and to route 911 calls to the proper answering point based on the caller’s location. But pinpointing the location of a cell phone caller can be hit or miss, Lucas said. It varies with the technology that the carrier is using — Global Positioning System-enabled or simple triangulation of the cell signal — the density of the cellular network and the local strength of radio-frequency signals.

“Sometimes it is dead on,” he said of location information. “Some might be off by two blocks. About 20 percent of the time the calls don’t have a location it is just the cell tower.”

On top of this challenge, 911 is a voice-centric system, and many users are replacing voice calls with texting. First responders would like also to be able to take advantage of the video and imaging capabilities now built into many mobile phones, which could provide valuable information. But most 911 systems are deaf, dumb and blind to texts, photos and videos.

The Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan encourages deployment of Next Generation 911 (NG911) networks and emergency alert systems that can take advantage of new technologies, and in September 2011 it issued a notice of proposed rule-making seeking comment on whether and how it should speed development and deployment of NG911 technology.

The FCC also is asking for comment on whether 911 calls should be prioritized when traffic is heavy during an emergency. When wireless or landline infrastructure has been damaged and many people reach for their phones at the same time, telephone systems can become overburdened, cutting users off from emergency services when they are most needed.

There are a number of technologies already in the field that are being integrated into 911 systems to provide additional information to public safety answering points.

Lexington-area PSAPs are using a hosted service called Smart911 to help deliver additional information. It goes beyond location data provided by landline and cellular carriers to offer personal and family information that could be helpful to police, fire and emergency medical departments.

“It allows citizens to go online and make any information available they want to in the event that they use 911,” said Todd Piett, chief product officer for Rave Mobile Safety, which developed Smart911. “We integrate it into 911 call equipment at the answering points where the produce is licensed,” and Smart911 makes the information available to the workstations taking the call.

The information is housed in a national database and can be associated with multiple telephone numbers. Because the service is national, information follows travelers away from home will be available to any PSAP using the service when contacted using either a landline or a mobile phone. Callers using cell phones with GPS capability can allow PSAPs to use it to provide location information for dispatchers.

Smart911 is free to individuals anywhere in the country. They can register online at www.smart911.com and provide information through the website. Information can include home and other addresses, medical conditions and disabilities of family members and others in a household, emergency contact numbers, information about pets, and building schematics and photos.

“People tend to put in things they know are risk factors for them,” Piett said. This can include things such as excess weight for which rescuers would need to prepare, and the location of rooms where children or others might be found.

When a 911 call reaches the PBX or other server handling calls for an answering point using Smart911, the originating number is passed over a serial port connection to the Smart911 server, which is connected to the answering point’s local-area network. The server queries the Smart911 database, and if the phone number has a file associated with it the data is returned to the server. The server routes the information to the workstation responding to the call, where it is displayed in a computer window. Only 911 calls initiate the connection, and PSAPs cannot initiate queries of the database.

One strength of the system is that the information is kept fresh because users must re-register and either confirm or update their information every six months, Lucas said.

Lexington, which has a regional 911 system serving five counties, implemented Smart911 in early 2011 after a three-month test period. Lucas said it is still early in the rollout and that penetration with local users still is small. “We don’t get a lot of Smart911 calls. It’s still a very low percentage.”

Piett said about 80 call centers in 21 states are using the Smart911 service, covering about 7 million people. “In the first year we typically get about 10 percent” of the covered population signing up for the service after the local PSAP adopts it, he said. That increases to about 15 percent in the second or third years. Although anyone can sign up, the level of participation usually depends on the outreach efforts of the local agencies using the service.

Lexington had one public outreach program to encourage public enrollment during the 2011 holiday season, Lucas said. “Mostly we’ve been targeting our high-risk groups,” such as the elderly and those with disabilities who might have difficulties using a phone or people who have special needs that responders could be alerted to in advance.

The city is planning a wider campaign, but that will have to wait for another month or so, Lucas said in March.

“It’s basketball season here,” he said. Not only were high school tournaments wrapping up, but the local University of Kentucky had made it to the NCAA finals (which it would eventually win). “If you’re trying to get a little press time, it’s hard to do.”

Although Next Generation 911 is more concept than reality at this time, Kentucky already is looking toward multimedia NG911 capabilities. “We don’t want to get caught behind the eight-ball like we were with wireless,” Lucas said. Young people, especially, expect to be able to text or use other media for emergencies. “We don’t have the infrastructure for that. Building that network is what we’re working on right now.”

That effort began three years ago with three central Kentucky counties and now has expanded to 12 counties on a shared regional Internet Protocol network built with the help of state matching funds. The new network help will not only support NG911 services but will also be a money-saver, Lucas said. “Once we got it up, we saw a 40 percent drop in our network costs.”

A new network can help ready the call centers for new media, but the challenge remains of accurately locating calls made from mobile phones outside the home. Information provided by the cellular industry is becoming more accurate as networks become denser, allowing better triangulation, and as new technologies such as GPS are leveraged.

Many devices today are GPS-enabled and can provide detailed location information under ideal conditions. The problem is that conditions seldom are ideal. A technology called Assisted GPS can improve location data by providing stored satellite orbit data where satellite signals are not strong and by using an assistance server to help calculate cell phone location. This can help improve poor performance but does not ensure good performance.

Polaris offers a product to improve location data by combining multiple sources of information. OmniLocate uses information from existing location services and adds Wireless Location Signatures, which are RF profiles of an area. Algorithms compare the RF characteristics of a call with Wireless Location signatures in the area to locate the call’s point of origin to within 50 meters.

Fifty meters is still a considerable margin of error, but “at this point it is the best you are going to get with any location technology on a consistent basis,” Shaw said.

The FCC also wants to include vertical data in call location information, so that responders will be able to tell which floor with multistory building a call is coming from. But, Shaw says, “to think that elevation [location] is something that is achievable soon is a mistake.”

That does not mean that technology will not improve. The big challenges to expanding and improving 911 capabilities are policy, politics and funding rather than technology.

“It’s the requirement that different parties come together to share capabilities,” Shaw said. “The answer is the use of collaborative bodies to bring together the carriers, vendors and public safety agencies and compel them to work together to evaluate the capabilities and methods for leveraging these new technologies.”

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