The Future of 9-1-1

Pipes and Stovepipes

Posted by sip911 on October 2, 2008

Yikes! Pipes!

We were excited to see a very thoughtful and informed post by David Aylward at COMCARE about, amongst other things, how we need to move from a transport-oriented approach to one that puts a much greater role on the application layer,  I highly recommend reading the entire article, here.

Here’s part (emphasis mine)

“For the past several years, in the emergency space there has tended to be a very strong focus on the transport layer, almost ignoring the application layer. This translates into “building interoperable emergency networks and systems” as opposed to “linking legacy systems with software.” The first is very expensive, and can’t be the solution anyway as all the relevant organizations are never going to all be on the same network. But yet we continue to pour billions of dollars into building new pipes, while starving the application side.”

And his prescription for change?  Use IP and open software to allow interfaces to occur between systems and not try to connect together just the endpoints

“…the only way to make rapid progress on inter-domain, inter-jurisdictional, and inter-everything else safety information sharing is to focus on the application layer: convert every communication into Internet Protocol and focus on what needs to happen “in the middle” and with “interfaces to the middle” instead of the end points”

Hear, hear!

When technologists, like Henning and his team at Columbia, tackle this problem, the solution is simple:  use software, IP and the SIP protocol to interconnect systems to deliver 9-1-1 calls to the endpoints while allowing those systems to interface with each other.  Detailed approaches have been offered.  Early trials have occurred.

So why aren’t we, the industry, further along?  Well, again, I think David makes a strong case:

“The safety market is relatively small, and so balkanized in its decison making and purchasing (120,000+ individual agencies), that it is not an easy market to crack. Nor are the individual domains (EMS, 9-1-1, fire, police, transportation, emergency management) calling for integrated emergency information services amongst all of them. Nor can I find anyone in power in government taking that overall view.”

In other words, we’re organized as stovepipes and our solutions emphasize telecom pipes.  We see this every day as we read the discussions on ListServers, watch jurisdictions plan for their future solutions, read RFPs and make purchasing decisions.  Let’s hope that folks like David continue to write and talk about this issue and can further influence this industry for change!


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NYC enables Pictures and Video with 9-1-1 calls. Kinda.

Posted by sip911 on September 23, 2008

NYC Press Conference

NYC Press Conference

I was excited to see that the largest city in the U.S. is enabling 9-1-1 callers to include video and pictures.  Articles are here and here.  Video is here:

“The long-term goal of enabling 311 and, along with 911, to receive pictures and videos is not only to better adapt these channels to the preferences of our customers by keeping them fresh and technologically innovative, it’s to help the City better deliver services,” said Paul J. Cosgrave, chief information officer of New York City.”

Kind of.  Sort of.

“The police operators that staff the 911 call center have been trained to enter a special code in the Police Department’s internal communications system every time callers offer photographs or videos in connection with their emergency.

The operators have also been trained to inform callers that a detective will be contacting them directly.

The coded entry into the communications system automatically alerts the Real Time Crime Center and provides the 911 caller’s telephone number.

A detective from the Real Time Call Center will personally call the victim or witness and provide a Real Time Crime Center address to which the photograph or video may be sent.”

So, I have an emergency.  I call 9-1-1.  I have useful information in the form of a picture or video.  I offer it to the call taker.  And then I wait for someone to call me back.

The mayor says (and I paraphrase):

“We don’t want to have the information sent with the calls.  We’ve separated the functions for recording and dispatch.”

Sure, this will work in some scenarios, but in others, like I wrote about last time here, where time is of the essence, it’s value is limited.  I’m curious how much of this is an operational decision.  I suspect that the technology doesn’t exist in NYC to handle this as part of one event.

Still, I give NYC credit for moving forward in this direction with the best tools they have.  Every step that demonstrates the potential will benefit callers and responders.

I’ll end on my soapbox by saying that our guiding principle should be: “Voice, video, text and other data should be sent to the PSAP in one message set and all should be transferred as needed.”

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Posted by sip911 on August 13, 2008

A caller dials 9-1-1 with an emergency. She whispers into the phone. The call taker tries to understand the nature of the emergency but the caller becomes silent. A video image of the caller appears and she looks frightened. She looks over her shoulder. She puts one finger to her mouth to indicate that she can’t speak. The call taker brings up an instant messaging window and types a message to the caller. The caller writes that she has been a victim of domestic assault and her husband is threatening her with a baseball bat. She’s afraid to leave the bedroom as she’s not sure if he is awake or passed out. The call taker responds that help is on the way and instructs the caller to remain quiet. The caller shares, via IM, that the man does not have a gun and is very, very drunk. She also writes that the back screen door is probably open but the front door is locked. The call taker sees that the woman is pretty badly bruised and bloodied and also sends for an ambulance.

Police arrive, quietly, enter through the back, and arrest the passed-out husband. The caller thanks the call-taker and hangs up as she’s assisted by the EMTs.

The situation is resolved, partly because technology that many of us use regularly was available for a 9-1-1 caller. In this example, the caller’s ability to communicate without speaking, using video and instant messaging, allowed responders to deal with the situation safely.

For those not familiar with 9-1-1 technology, the example seems pretty straightforward and obvious. They’d be surprised, I imagine, to know that the capabilities described above are not available in today’s 9-1-1 systems. We can’t, typically, support video or instant messaging. That caller would have to speak to communicate, and speaking is the last thing she feels safe doing.

We built our 9-1-1 system with the tools that were available in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when computing technology and communications technology were separate. (For a great time line on the history of 9-1-1 systems, check out the work of Dispatch Monthly Magazine here.) It worked because we had simple copper wires connecting each home to a central office and our locations were fixed. We didn’t take and make calls on the go. Sure, there were many challenges, but the telecommunications environment was predictable.

Then came wireless. And VoIP. And SMS and instant messaging. Quite simply, our communications technology has greatly outpaced our E9-1-1 systems. Now, we need to fix it.

Let’s Moonwalk

Not this


JFK didn’t say “let’s put a man on the moon “as fast as we can”. No, he said the we must do it in 10 years. The same opportunity exists to move our 9-1-1 systems into the 21st century. I challenge everyone to ask whether the policies we make and the investments we choose are simply incremental compromises that are equivalent to putting a man on the moon “as fast as we can.”

Specifically, I think it requires us to forget the original paradigm of E9-1-1 and consider some guiding principles.

(Ok, I know that it’s difficult to get from the current environment to an “ideal” state. Where’s the funding? The authority and governance? The technology? Smart people are working on all three of these problems. NENA is leading the charge generating positions and guidelines while staying in front of Congress. Technology is being tested by the Department of Transportation. )

Recognizing all the challenges, I’ve put together what I think is a good start

Guiding Principles for a NG 9-1-1 system:

  1. Voice, video, text and other data should be sent to the PSAP in one message set and all should be transferred as needed
  2. SIP 9-1-1 calls can contain all location and caller information in the call requiring only reference databases to determine the mapping of location to PSAP (and thereby eliminating most ALI, MPC, or SR databases)
  3. Each call event should be captured and stored as a single record, with communications – regardless of media – captured in that record
  4. Location-intelligent devices will be able acquire and store their routing instructions prior to a call or determine routing in-call
  5. SMS, Satellite 9-1-1 calls, Instant Messaging and other new communication types should be easily supported.
  6. 9-1-1 systems, like other technologies, can be built on low-cost open software and industry standard Linux hardware. Proprietary technology is unnecessary.
  7. 9-1-1 Authorities can offer a managed service where PSAPs can subscribe to a solution vs. buy all the hardware and software themselves

A number of dedicated people are working every day to build solutions to the problem of improving our 9-1-1 system. Let’s make sure we get to the moon and not just halfway there.

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Heck, the IRS did it.

Posted by sip911 on July 28, 2008

Don't be scared of the internet

We should not be scared of the internet

Update 1 is below

When I hear about the challenges of moving 9-1-1 into the future, privacy and security are at the forefront. My question is this: are the unique demands of securing 9-1-1 information so different than our other personal information, like our financial information? Should we apply a higher, more stringent standard for safeguarding customer location information? Why?

I paid my taxes on line this year. Every single step, from submission of my W-2s, to my deductions, to my signature was entirely electronic. I was able to link to my records and even submit my payments to the IRS. Financial information used to be so private and the internet so scary that many thought we’d never get to the point where we’d make such a transaction on line. In addition, the IRS is regularly knocked as an unchanging behemoth that moves too slow.

We trust the internet more than ever before. We do our banking online. We can buy just about anything online. We post our families pictures, videos, blogs, and other personal information out there in record numbers.

Ok, sure, in this age of electronic commerce we do face more risk of identity theft. It’s a problem. But is it one that should limit us in providing the highest level of emergency services? One study from the FTC reports that 3.7% of the population surveyed, equivalent to 8.3 million people experienced identity theft in 2006. That compares to measures of 4.7% in 2003. However, the 2006 study emphasizes that the difference is not statistically significant and surveying methods could explain the decrease. In any case, it is accurate to say that identity theft did not increase from 2003 to 2006. We’ve become more aware of it and more protective of our information. In addition, suppliers of services have put in place more tools to safeguard our information.

More interestingly, a recent story in the Washington Post tells of a study by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy and Research, a consulting firm for the financial services industry shows that the internet is not where most of the theft is occurring!

…most of the compromised data is not taken through the Internet. In fact, the traditional offline channels, such as lost or stolen wallets, checkbooks or credit cards, continue to be the primary source of ID theft. What’s more, almost half of all identity theft is perpetrated by someone the victim knows: friends, neighbors, family members, in-home employees, etc. And with nearly 70 percent of consumers shredding documents, trash also is not a great source of compromised data, the survey says.

Are Americans willing to give up the conveniences of the web because of this increase in identity crimes? It does not seem so. In fact, we are sharing more. Based on the continued increase every day in on line usage and recent trends to share more about themselves, it sure seems like we are not afraid. Hundreds of millions of users (at least 350M+ according to Morgan Stanley) publish more and more about themselves in places like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIN, etc. That doesn’t even touch the millions that blog. The internet empowers us to make connections and share information in ways never imagined before.

My challenge to the trendsetters in the 9-1-1 community is to challenge positions or policies that the internet has no place in the future of 9-1-1. It sure seems that we are at a place where it can’t be dismissed out of fear or history. There are tremendous technological and economic benefits to embracing the advances of the web from cutting-edge software development to rapidly-advancing security options. In addition, the web provides unlimited tools to help make critical information available to call takers when they need it and offers callers a way to make their personal information available to responders.



Just to clarify, current thinking in 9-1-1 is that we utilize an Emergency Services Network, or ESINet, to keep traffic and information secure.   I’m not necessarily advocating going away from this concept to use the Internet instead.  It does make sense, though, to consider what level of engineering and security is required for the ESINet given the relative success some have had in using the internet for secure, private transactions.  And, if you want to make the leap to discuss using the internet for 9-1-1, that would make a real interesting discussion.

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9-1-1 + innovation = opportunity. Is anyone grabbing it?

Posted by sip911 on July 16, 2008

Not so long ago....

E9-1-1 has never been a place for innovation. This is for a variety of reasons: lack of capital, lack of funding, lack of motivation, or lack of demand. Advances in Public Safety Communications have been forced by changes in consumer technology and not innovation by service providers. (Some basic history and background is here and here.) The system served its needs to locate fixed-location callers but did not advance at the pace of other technologies. The first new demands on the system started with the Telecom Act of 1996, which opened up the industry to greater competition and the number of CLEC service providers exploded (and later imploded). Side note: I remember being a part of the initial efforts to connect CLECs to the exisiting 9-1-1 update process and having to explain why MSAG files were being provided on magnetic tape. The CLECs were flush with cash, new technology and tons of bravado and had to spend money to send files over a dial-up modem? I remember a CEO or two shaking their heads.

In addition, new breakthroughs in cellular technology has made the cell phone ubiquitious. Unfortunately those darn callers moved. Adding support to mobile callers dramatically impacted the 9-1-1 system creating opportunities and challenges for industry leaders like Intrado and TCS. Solutions were created, adding more capabilities on top of the existing 9-1-1 system, leading to diagrams that look like this (click on image if you really want to read it, although I don’t recommend it):

Not pretty

Not pretty

It worked. It gave cellular 9-1-1 callers a level of service and we moved on. However, with the continued advancement of mobile phones, VoIP plus new challenges like the popularity of SMS text messages. E9-1-1 systems are at a breaking point. Don’t take my word for it. The 9-1-1 Alliance put out a report on the health of the 9-1-1 system and very first finding is “Consumer technology has surpassed that of the 9-1-1 System,” It goes on to say:

Most agree with me that we can’t keep layering more one-offs on top of the existing system (besides, there’s no more room on the diagram.) We, therefore, (a) have a problem, (b) can solve the problem with new, existing technologies AND (c) these new technologies can make things better for emergency responders. That, if I recall my B-school market strategy classes, is called an opportunity (ding, ding ding! – 10 points for me) So where’s the flood of energy and money and technology to take advantage of this opportunity? Where are the major announcements of breakthroughs? Whose beating who in raising gazillions of dollars from Venture Capitalists?

Um, well, I’m looking for it. I’ll be writing about it here in a weekly series.

One place to check out is Emergent Communications, my employer and creator of this blog. We’re pretty biased, but we think we got something pretty cool here.

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9-1-1 as critical infrastructure

Posted by sip911 on July 8, 2008

Improving our “Infrastructure” has been a low, steady drumbeat by some in the local, state, and national press lately. Many aspects of life we take for granted are badly in need of repair like roads, bridges, and schools . The recent flooding in Iowa and before that in New Orleans reminds us of how important preventive systems are and how much we rely on emergency response when crises occur. 9-1-1 is infrastructure too. And this infrastructure can’t fail. It’s imperative that we become part of this conversation.

I’ll write more on this in the future.


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We’re on the air….

Posted by sip911 on June 25, 2008

Welcome to the Future of 9-1-1 blog. We intend to write regularly and share interesting information, stories, and certainly opinions on the movement to create a next-generation 9-1-1 system. We strive to offer our perspective on all callers and their need for a highly efficient and effective means to request help. Whether the caller is on a traditonal landline phone, using wireless, VoIP, a satellite phone, or sending an SMS message, we have the means to know where these people are and get the best people nearby there to help them.

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