The Future of 9-1-1

Archive for August, 2008


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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