Tech changes usher in 911 era

Text messaging, multimedia creates new opportunities in emergency communications

The 911 emergency service that you know today is changing, and changing fast, as it keeps up with new technologies and ways of communicating.

The popularity and widespread use of text messaging and wireless technologies are pushing 911 to explore new ways of operating and dealing with emergency calls.

The shift is creating opportunities for companies such as TeleCommunication Systems, who was responsible for the first wireless 911 call, and is now back in action, bringing multimedia and data communications into modern call centers.

The reasons behind the migration to data-based 911 are numerous; the most prominent of them is the use of smartphones and other forms of communications.

As Thomas Ginter, TCS vice president of product management, put it, “the way that the public communicates with each other is markedly changing.”

The company should know. It handles 35 percent of the 2.2 trillion text messages that are delivered each year. It also is the No. 2 provider of wireless 911 solutions, which can grab the location of a caller in real time, and route that data to a center than can handle the information.

The new technologies being introduced into call centers have other benefits besides easier communications, though; they can be safer and more effective.

For example,  if you are in your home when it is being burglarized, it might be best to send a silently transmitted text message instead of picking up the phone, and placing yourself in potential danger.

Additionally, traditional 911 does nothing to help people with speech and hearing impairments, Ginter said.

Text messaging, on the other hand, would provide a means for such people to access emergency and public safety services, just as readily as anyone else.

And moving to this format makes sense, especially, when considering how many wireless carriers are crossing over to the 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) format anyway, “which is multimedia capable from the get-go,” Ginter said.

Senior vice president and chief marketing officer, Tim Lorello, offered another, real-life example—one that occurred just a few months ago: a 13-year-old girl was home alone, and saw a few unknown men pull up to her neighbor’s house and attempt to break in.

The girl called 911, but being as young and nervous as she was, was not able to help the 911 operator identify much about the situation; the operator then broke protocol, and told the girl to take a photo, with her smartphone, of the men’s license plate.

Cell phones are not allowed within the call center, so the operator again broke protocol, retrieved the photo, and was able to give local authorities the license plate number, who then tracked the vehicle down and arrested the men.

As it turned out, the girl’s neighbor’s house was not the first that these men had burglarized.

Ginter also described a more common issue: “over 80 percent of the 911 answering jurisdictions have only one or two call-taker stations.”

The 20 percent with more stations are in large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C., just to name a few. Outside of a big city’s jurisdiction, however, you could be out of luck in an emergency.

Imagine a scenario where you get into an accident, and require medical attention. You call 911, but are put on hold. Meanwhile, witnesses to the accident, also call; however, while they might be trying to be good Samaritans, they are actually complicating the situation.

All of these examples make a strong argument for new technologies in 911 centers and drive the opportunity TCS is pursuing.

A few weeks ago, the company announced a new suite of Next Generation 911 solutions for public safety and emergency response, which is the first fully National Emergency Number Association (NENA) standards-compliant, Next Generation system, according to the company.

In July, TCS paid $37 million to buy microData GIS Inc., to bolster its 911 offerings with more geographic information system offerings.

The company is also publicly supporting the Federal Communications Commission’s vote to adopt the rule that all wireless carriers and providers of certain text messaging applications must implement technology to allow customers to send texts to 911 in areas where 911 call centers can receive such texts.

While the technology required to intercept these multimedia messages is being installed, the FCC also proposed to require what are called “bounce back” messages, instructing the text message sender to call 911, if the call center can’t interact with texts.

TCS has created a cloud infrastructure that can bring new capabilities to calls centers, the company said. This infrastructure is user-friendly, and since it runs on the cloud, “individual counties and individual very small jurisdictions now have access to these technologies,” Ginter said.

“York County, Va., is the first instance to attach to that cloud for next generation,” Lorello said. The county is the first center that can take SMS 911 text messages into their 911 center using standard NextGen protocols.

The features of the system that TCS has developed include a browser that a 911 dispatcher can launch over a secure channel, where all of the 911 texts the center is receiving are presented.

There, the dispatcher can rapidly go through the messages and sort them, while also being able to see a map that tracks the location of the cell phone.
In the future, citizens might be able to log personal information in an off-board database, such as medical conditions, allergies, an identifying photograph, and contact information.

All of this information would be voluntarily submitted, and would remain in a secure environment. But dispatchers and first responders could have access to it in an emergency.

“The public should not change their normal behavior, but the public should be aware that there are new ways to communicate with 911,” Ginter said.


About the Author

Mark Hoover is a senior staff writer with Washington Technology. You can contact him at mhoover@washingtontechnology.com, or connect with him on Twitter at @mhooverWT.

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