Council formed to improve access to emergency phone services

Modern communications technology has outstripped the current abilities of emergency phone services to accurately handle many kinds of calls, so a dozen organizations supporting different pieces of the system have banded together to promote interoperability and access to the suite of services provided through N11 and 8XX numbers.

The N11/8XX Essential Services Interoperability Council (NESIC) was created last month to pursue common solutions to common problems.

“The key issue we face is that calls be routed correctly, going to the right call center,” said Rick Jones, operations issues director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which represents the 911 community. “We all have routing issues.” The issues are largely due to the increasing mobility of communications devices, such as cellular and Voice over IP phones.

N11 service codes are administered by the Federal Communications Commission for special services. The best known is 911, which is used nationally for emergency police, fire and medical services. Other service codes recognized by the FCC are:

  • 211 for community information and referral services
  • 311 for non-emergency police and other governmental services
  • 511 for traffic and transportation information
  • 711 for telecommunications relay services to link persons with hearing and voice disabilities with the phone system
  • 811 for protecting pipelines and utilities from excavation damage

Several other codes not recognized by FCC are in common use, such as 411 for local directory assistance and 611 for repair service.

The 8XX numbers are common toll-free numbers used nationally for services such as poison control centers and suicide hotlines.

Many of these services were set up when traditional wireline phones were the dominant, if not only, way to make a call. But communications have become untethered to a single address.

“Wireline always knows where you are” because the phones are fixed and routing the call to the appropriate answering center is relatively easy, Jones said. “Wireless phones have cell sites,” so they can guess a location. But VOIP has no fixed end-point location. Because of a lack of information, calls can go astray. The largest miss-routing NENA is aware of is a 911 call made from a VOIP phone in Seoul, South Korea, which was delivered to an answering point in Illinois.

“None of these organizations have national call centers,” Jones said. “We have national numbers, but we have state and local call centers,” so directing a call to a common national number to the proper local center is essential.

Related to routing is the issue of access. Because of the lack of clear location information, many VOIP services do not provide access to many of the N11 numbers. Communications services such as instant messaging, text messaging and e-mail, which have become common in recent years, do not access these services at all.

Solving these issues involve a combination of technology, governmental policy and internal operational issues.

“It technically and economically makes more sense” to settle on a single technology solution for all of the services, Jones said. Steps are being taken in this direction. The FCC is promoting the use of Next Generation 911 services which integrates a variety of media, and Texas last month released a Next Generation 911 Master Plan.

“The current 911 system, while working well today, is approaching the end of its useful life,” says the plan, issued by the Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications. “The existing system is based on technologies that were established decades ago and is a barrier to creating an integrated emergency call management system that would have the ability to exchange voice, data, text, photographs and live video through the 911 emergency communications center.”

The system will be implement a state level Emergency Services IP-enabled Network (ESInet) that will interconnect regional ESInets and individual PSAPs. The ESInet will enable call access, transfers and backups among and between PSAPs within Texas, and eventually, across the nation. The program will begin with building out IP networks to and between public safety answering points, followed by the implementation of applications to provide functionality.

“Implementation of NG911 will entail significant investment, detailed planning and close cooperation among the public and private sector entities responsible for the operation,” the strategy says.

“That could be a common solution,” for other service codes as well, Jones said. Leveraging technology being deployed for 911 makes technical and economic sense, but will require coordination and possible changes in legislation and government regulations. NESIC plans to work with government on these issues. “We’re optimistic it won’t be tough” to get the required changes.

A third issue is interoperability between the various services

“Today, we don’t always interoperate too well,” Jones said. He called that a big deal, both on a day-to-day basis and for disaster response. Social services providers, poison control centers and traffic information services, for instance, might all have to interact with 911 services. This will be an operational goal of NESIC, Jones said. “We want to help promote that.”

In addition to NENA, organizations forming NESIC are:

  • The Alliance of Information and Referral Systems.
  • The United Way.
  • 211 US.
  • The 511 Coalition.
  • The National Association of State Relay Administration.
  • One Call Systems International.
  • The Association of Public Safety Communications International.
  • The National Association of State 911 Administrators.
  • The American Association of Poison Control Centers.
  • The National Hopeline Network.
  • Link2Health Solutions.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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