Is 9-1-1 Still the Number To Call in an Emergency?

February 4, 2016

Todd Piett

Over the past few years, technology has transformed entire industries – from Uber’s rewriting the rules for the ride-for-hire industry, to AirBnb’s impact on the short term rental market, to GPS-based mobile apps that provide directions and nearby restaurant recommendations (putting a huge dent in my duties as my wife’s personal OnStar). This same transformation is coming to emergency communications. The big question is how to reconcile the new communications technologies with robust, proven response processes and protocols. In the end, a key question is if 9-1-1 is still the number to call in an emergency.

emergencyOf course we in the emergency communications industry know the answer is a resounding yes, but I would not hold it against any consumer for thinking otherwise given the increasing “buzz” around smartphone apps that profess to improve emergency response by actually side stepping the 9-1-1 system. Whether a phone app that calls a third party center which then relays a call to a PSAP, an app that dials a local law enforcement center’s 10-digit line instead of 911, or an app that “calls 911” via a 10-digit line routed through a VOIP-positioning center – the reality is that consumers are increasingly being bombarded with a message contrary to the message to “dial 9-1-1 in an emergency” that the industry has spent years cultivating. Further, many of these solutions put an expectation on PSAPs to modify their protocols to accommodate their commercial solution (we all know who will get blamed if something doesn’t work). As Trey Forgety, NENA Government Affairs Director, writes in the Winter 2016 edition of The Call magazine, “a truly universal means of contacting emergency services, regardless of location or affiliation, is preferable… it will become increasingly tempting to opt for quick-and-dirty fixes. Together, however, we have the power to make sure that this dystopian view of future 9-1-1 systems never comes to fruition.”

What is that “dystopian view”? Imagine a caller trying to figure out which app to use to call for help based on their location. Is this supported here? Am I supposed to use my dialer to call 9-1-1? Ooopps… don’t have internet here, I better call 9-1-1 directly now. On the call taking side, you are left trying to interpret call types or special fields and invoke custom processes that are rarely used. That is “dystopian” and a recipe for disaster.

Unlike these “end around” means of contacting emergency services, 9-1-1 system providers are accountable to regulators (one need look no further than the massive fines handed out by the FCC last year as proof), 9-1-1 is ubiquitous and understood by consumers (“911” is perennially one of the most recognized brands), and PSAPs have proven processes for managing emergency calls for service. Additionally, while there is clearly lots to be done to improve indoor location accuracy, and accelerated the adoption of NG911 so that we can better support new call types, the 9-1-1 system is far more reliable and robust than most commercial communication technologies (any Skype user can attest to this fact). The reality is that many commercial technologies upon which these new entries to the public safety market depend, are not designed for the highly availability and fault tolerance necessary for a life critical service. Opening your Google Maps app and waiting for it to hone in on your location is great for navigation, but the time required to fetch an accurate location can seem an eternity while someone is facing a life or death emergency. The current emergency communication architecture, and the improvements being actively worked on by the industry as a whole, have things like redundant location gathering methods and extremely short call set up times as core requirements (meaning – when you dial 9-1-1, there is no delay in the call being connected).

Roger Hixson, NENA Technical Issues Director, refers in the same edition of The Call magazine, to technological disruption “leading to the non-integrated world that predated the adoption of 9-1-1… apps need to be used in conjunction with NG9-1-1, not to partially or completely bypass it.” I couldn’t agree more. We need to work together to help secure the necessary funding and political support to accelerate NG9-1-1 adoption.
9-1-1 is and should be the basis of emergency communications. We have invested countless hours working in NG9-1-1 working groups and committees to help design a robust system that addresses the changing communication preferences and technologies of today’s consumers while providing PSAPs with unique capabilities that provide them flexibility and unique tools under the umbrella of vetted operational and technical standards. In the end, this collaboration both enables innovation while also ensuring the appropriate system robustness.

At Rave, our applications are designed to augment the existing 9-1-1 system and are proven to inter-operate with both E911 and NG911 systems – our Smart911 system touches nearly 10% of calls in the country, Rave Guardian is the most widely deployed campus safety app, and Rave Panic Button is used to connect users at schools and other critical infrastructure settings directly to 9-1-1 while also notifying key on-site personnel. We work with agencies to integrate our solutions into their processes, and make contractual agreements around liability and availability of the solution. We look forward to adding even more capabilities and products and PSAPs come online with NG9-1-1 and the associated enabling architectures in those systems

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