When mobile meets 911, it's often hit or miss

The 911 emergency call system is all about getting information to first responders who must deal with emergencies, but the rapid evolution of telecommunications can outstrip the ability of the system to deliver that information.

“With landlines, you typically get a good deal of information” because a landline phone is associated with a single address and usually a single family, said Terry Sult, chief of police in Sandy Springs, Ga. “It’s hit or miss with cell phones.”

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More than 80 percent of the 911 calls received in this Atlanta suburb are made from cell phones, so “it becomes more urgent to get more information,” Sult said.

A hosted service called Smart911 helps to deliver additional information to public-safety answering points (PSAPs). It goes beyond location data that can be provided by a number of technologies used by the cellular industry to offer personal and family information that could be helpful to police, fire and emergency medical departments.

“It’s a simple concept,” said Todd Piett, chief product officer at Rave Mobile Safety, which developed Smart911. Information provided in advance by people is associated with a telephone number in a national database and is automatically provided to PSAPs running the Smart911 software. “We don’t touch the way 911 calls are routed,” Piett said, and people control the information they put into the system.

Sandy Springs, a city of about 100,000 on the north side Atlanta, created the Chattahoochee River 911 Authority in collaboration with the smaller adjacent city of Johns Creek to consolidate and update emergency call facilities.

Beyond caller ID

“We stood up a new 911 center that came online two years ago in September,” Sult said. “We were looking for emerging technologies” that could provide additional information to call takers beyond the traditional caller ID and location. Ideally, they wanted the information to be controlled by people so the cities could avoid privacy and legal concerns of gathering personal information.

Smart911 fit the bill, Sult said. “It’s very resource-frugal. It’s almost a ridiculously small amount of server space,” and the cities do not control the information. “The system automatically pops up the information. We can’t go out and get it unless someone calls 911, so they are protected.”

Rave, which provides emergency notification systems to universities, originally created the service to allow students to provide additional information when calling emergency numbers on campus. The company expanded the service when it got requests to tie the system into 911 systems. Smart911 is free to callers anywhere in the country who 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.

The information can be associated with multiple telephone numbers. Because the service is national, information follows travelers away from home and will be available to any PSAP using the service. Callers using cell phones with Global Positioning Service capability can allow PSAPs to use it to provide location information for dispatchers.

“It’s not always useful, but often it is,” Piett said. “Even if somebody is able to speak on a 911 call, it’s not the best day of their life,” and additional information can be helpful.

Emergency calls are routed via the 911 system to the appropriate PSAPs, depending on the location of the caller. When the 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 a 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 then routes the information to the person responding to the call. The connection is initiated only by 911 calls, and PSAPs cannot initiate queries of the database. 

Database security

Three mirrored databases are maintained in secure data centers on the East and West coasts. Piett said data is protected with 256-bit encryption at rest and while transmitted, adding that the data centers undergo an annual security audit.

“It’s our business to keep that information secure,” he said. “If we had a breach, we’d probably be out of business.”

When a caller enters information for a phone number, the system confirms the information by sending an automatic callback to the phone number before entering the information in the database. To avoid having outdated information, the information only lives for six months, when callers are notified to verify or update the data. If there is no response, it is purged from the database.

The technology behind Smart911 is simple, and PSAPs like it. It is being used in about 40 jurisdictions in 15 states. The hard part can be convincing callers to register with the system and provide sensitive information. Some demographics are more difficult to recruit than others, Piett said.

“The healthy 25-year-old single male is invincible,” he said. “He’s somebody we recognize is going to be a hard sell.” But families with small children and high-risk groups such as the elderly and those with medical conditions are more likely to respond. “You’re not going to get everybody.”

Although the service is national and hosted by Rave, marketing is left primarily to the local agencies using it. Sandy Springs and Johns Creek have had Smart911 available for about a year, but they have only recently begun selling it to the communities through schools and other outreach activities, Sult said.

“Once they learn about it, they take advantage of it,” he said. “With the little bit of advertising we have done so far, we’ve got about 4,000 users logged in,” out of a population of 100,000.

He is not aware of instances in which Smart911 has been instrumental in saving a life yet, but Sult said it is making a difference. The additional information can improve response time, getting responders to a site more quickly and better prepared. “We know that seconds matter,” he said. “I know it’s helped.”

Smart 911 is not the be-all and end-all of emergency call center operations, Sult said. The Chattahoochee River 911 Authority would like to be able to take advantage of other communications in its PSAPs, including text messaging, video and data available via IP networks. But Smart911 “is a pretty good piece,” he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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