Every day it seems there is a new smartphone app that will improve personal safety. The sheer volume of these apps demonstrates a need for improved safety and greater protection. However, the majority of these public safety apps do not fully consider the impact the app has on the 9-1-1 system. In fact, this oversight will put some users in danger.
The Reality of Public Safety Apps
An estimated 240 million calls are made to 9-1-1 in the U.S. each year. (source: NENA.org)
In most areas, 70 percent or more of 9-1-1 calls are made from mobile phones. In many areas, this figure is more than 80 percent. (source: NENA.org)
It is estimated that nearly 29.7 percent of all U.S. households rely solely on a mobile device as their primary telephone service, as of December 2014. (source: CTIA.org)
More than two-thirds of adults aged 25–29 (69.2 percent) and aged 30-34 (67.4 percent) lived in households with only wireless telephones. (source: CDC)
Leading wireless carriers are enabling consumers to be able to seamlessly and automatically reach 9-1-1 over WiFi, in the event that cellular network service is too weak or unavailable. For more information, click here (source: FierceWireless and Carrier web sites)
Mobile app considerations
Did you know a phone’s location services must be enabled for an app’s 9-1-1 location functionality to work? Many users turn off location services to conserve battery life and forget during a stressful emergency. When you call 9-1-1 directly, the 9-1-1 network is able to locate you even if you turn off your phones location services.
Does the safety app dial 9-1-1 directly? The 9-1-1 system is subject to stringent reliability and redundancy requirements and government oversight that commercial networks are not.
Is the app endorsed by your local responder agencies? For example, Smart911.com is endorsed by agencies across the country. Smart911 doesn’t require an app download and it clearly provides the ability to search for Smart911’s availability on its website.
Does the app slow the process of calling 9-1-1? Many apps require additional steps that slow the user’s ability to contact emergency services. Remember that the stress of an emergency will make what seems simple very difficult.
Does the app claim it can pinpoint a user’s location? If you’ve used a navigation app before, you know that it takes some amount of time to locate you and is often inaccurate indoors or in very dense urban areas. While the wireless carriers’ work to improve the accuracy of 9-1-1 location and do so in a way the does not adversely impact the amount of time required to connect an emergency phone call, public safety app providers do not have a” magic solution,” warns the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (APCO) via the FCC.
Did you know not all 9-1-1 call takers have Internet access? To keep the 9-1-1 network secure, it is partitioned off from outside networks. Any app that requires a call taker to access information over the Internet will not work in many locations.
Most 9-1-1 centers cannot receive photos or videos. Even if an app provides a method to send multimedia, the majority of 9-1-1 centers will not be able to receive this information.
Does the app set unrealistic expectations that emergency services will act on something with which they aren’t familiar? According to the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (Apcointl.org), BEWARE of apps that say “it allows you to communicate directly with first responders,” “it’s always available to law enforcement,” or “the app allows law enforcement and first responders to identify people and their locations.”
Does the app cost money? This could violate state or local laws. In fact, many apps charge money to simply connect a call to 9-1-1 which is provided as a public service to telecommunication service users.
Third parties that answer your call simply add steps to the response process. Ultimately, 9-1-1 will be dispatching help to you. Having another answering service between you and 9-1-1 just means another step and the added potential of errors in verbally transferring information.
What the Experts Have to Say
“From my experience leading homeland security and disaster preparedness efforts, I can tell you that it is critical for citizens to easily, and as quickly as possible, connect with 9-1-1 during an emergency. Our country’s 9-1-1 telephone infrastructure remains one of the most reliable pieces of technology available to us and I recommend that consumers always call ‘9-1-1’ from their phone when they need help.”
Juliette Kayyem: Kayyem is the founder of Kayyem Solutions, LLC. She serves as a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She also is a member of a number of organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission. Her memoir, “Home Sweet Homeland: The Education of a Security Mom,” will be published in 2016. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.
“Many new mobile apps are developed with a high degree of creativity and innovation, but may not fully consider the impacts on 9-1-1 and public safety during the development process. We are encouraged by emerging technologies that can help our nation’s 9-1-1 Centers and first responders respond more effectively, but strongly encourage citizens to direct dial 9-1-1 in the case of an emergency. Nothing is more proven or reliable.”
Brian Fontes: Fontes has served as the Chief Executive Officer of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) since 2008. As CEO, his primary objectives is to ensure that Americans have access to reliable 9-1-1 service. Fontes serves on the board of directors of the 911 Institute and the Quello Center for Telecommunication Management, Policy and Law. He also co-chairs the Commerce Department’s Spectrum Management Advisory Committee and serves on the FCC’s Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council.
What Consumers Have to Say
Consumers are becoming increasingly more aware of the real dangers of public safety apps. Doing a quick search in the iTunes or Google Play store for “911 App” yields many concerns including “How do I know this will work” “Does not work for my location.”
The screenshots below are taken from the iTunes store reviewing an app titled “Advanced911” (click to view larger)
NENA- the 9-1-1 Association – Public Safety Considerations for Smartphone App Developers
APCO Intl. – Whitepaper: The Status of 911 Apps
Is 9-1-1 Still the Number to Call in an Emergency?
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.
Wi-Fi Calling to 9-1-1: Testing Results and Implications
Recently, mobile carriers began enabling Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calling on specific devices, where the device is connected to a Wi-Fi access point. Such VoIP calls are placed from the phone’s native dialer, yet are completed over Wi-Fi rather than the carrier’s traditional mobile phone network. Of the “Big 4” TMobile was an early adopter, followed quickly by Sprint and then ATT and Verizon. Each of the carriers has taken a slightly different route to enabling devices on their networks, turning it on different operating systems and specific handsets, but the net results is the same: an increasing portion of calls are being off-loaded from the carriers networks to VoIP.
Rave Mobile Safety Warns Consumers About the Dangers of Deceptive Claims by Safety App Vendors
Public Safety Technology Leader Urges Consumers to Thoroughly Investigate Any Public Safety Application Before Relying on One to Save Their Life; Dialing 9-1-1 Directly Is Still the Most Effective Way to Reach Public Safety in an Emergency