Fragile-Handle with Care

Among the list of things that firefighters expect to be reliable are our rigs, our tools, our personal protective apparel and our breathing apparatus. Undoubtedly, these all have a significant bearing on our safety. However, few give much thought to the...


Among the list of things that firefighters expect to be reliable are our rigs, our tools, our personal protective apparel and our breathing apparatus. Undoubtedly, these all have a significant bearing on our safety. However, few give much thought to the reliability of the most important tool in...


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Among the list of things that firefighters expect to be reliable are our rigs, our tools, our personal protective apparel and our breathing apparatus. Undoubtedly, these all have a significant bearing on our safety. However, few give much thought to the reliability of the most important tool in the public safety arsenal: the 911 emergency number.

Without quick and easy access to public safety services, requests for assistance would be routinely delayed and our citizens would be in a proverbial world of hurt. After all, the whole concept of 911 revolves around creating an easy to remember three-digit number that saves time during the earliest and most critical stages of an incident.

Over the years, the 911 system has served us well. Since its inception in 1968, it has grown to handle an estimated 240 million calls annually, and now covers 99% of the U.S. population. In addition to calls from traditional telephones, it currently includes service to cellular and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) devices. However, this combination of age and diversity has begun to conflict. While Next Generation 911, or NG 911 (see "Next Generation 911 — It's Not Your Father's Emergency Number," Firehouse®, August 2007) promises an almost endless list of ways that a citizen may dial for help, the reality is that the current networks — designed around technology a half-century old — aren't up to answering the call.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has pledged "Emergency help, anywhere, anytime, any device," but in the present configuration neighboring Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) can't even transfer basic data like Automatic Number Identification (ANI) and Automatic Location Information (ALI) to one another if they are served by different telephone companies, let alone include a real-time video provided by the caller. So much for 911 being a "universal" number. We don't often associate the term interoperability with telephones, but perhaps we should.

However, this is just a single example. Another prime problem comes from the push to add texting to 911 services. In theory, it's a great idea. After all, an entire generation has made having opposing thumbs a communications requirement, and texting is a perfect mechanism for anyone with a speech or hearing impairment. Unfortunately, current texting routines don't play well with the 911 system, and those cities that started to receive text and photographs early on have done so by the use of an alternate number that typically lacks the integrity or location capturing capacity of true 911. There are some systems recently placed on line that are doing a better job of it, but the technology is still in its infancy.

Another hit on wireless comes from the allowance of what are known as "non-initiated handsets," or what some term as "legacy phones." These once belonged to active accounts, but have now been passed on to mothers, children and even battered women for use in emergencies. This comes as a result of an altruistic albeit problematic ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that anyone picking up a telephone ought to expect to be able to use it to get help, and takes it roots from a feature called "soft dial tone" that allowed conventional users to call the telephone company business office and 911 even if their service had lapsed.

The first problem with these handsets is that in a true emergency they will not automatically pass along usable data to assist the dispatcher in locating the victim. The second problem is that when used to phone in a false alarm, they also will probably not pass along useful information to help track down the culprit. So, when the abused woman gets the phone ripped from her hands, and when the teenager calls in a bogus explosion at the trauma center, both calls will be next to impossible to trace. Tennessee and other states have lobbied for a reversal on the current ruling, and telephone security can occasionally track down repeat offenders, but most 911 centers fervently wish for the contact to be complete before the connection is lost in the first example, and for the battery to go dead in the second. For the mischief-minded, the non-initialized handset has become the modern-day equivalent of a pull-box on a dark, deserted corner.

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