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 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.

But it's just not the special features of wireless communications that potentially degrade the emergency system. The sheer volume of 911 calls generated by a visible incident can easily overwhelm even large facilities. The reason here is that there are choke points throughout the entire process that can get clogged by the sudden localized demand for service. In some smaller communities or exchanges, this can occur at the telephone company central office itself. There are also a finite number of dedicated 911 trunks that deliver calls to the center. When the number of calls exceeds the number of these lines, they are typically rolled over to seven-digit numbers or diverted to another agency.

Of course, in the first case, the data associated with these calls is lost because they are now received just like a conventional phone call. In the second, they are received at another 911 center and the information must be obtained and somehow relayed back to the proper jurisdiction. Regardless of this, the final — and most critical — weakness that enables caller overload is simply the lack of staffing in many facilities. With turnover rates around 20%, and minimal manpower to begin with, the thing that's broken most may not be a thing at all. One major city was about 25% below their authorized staffing when they began furloughing employees as part of a citywide mandate. The shortage of trained people looms large in problems that desperately need to get fixed.

Another potential weakness can be found in what's known as Customer Premise Equipment (CPE). As the industry as a whole migrates toward VoIP inside the dispatch center, many managers wonder whether this technology is truly ready for prime time. (In fact, I talked to the head of one agency that had its system for almost a year and still hadn't paid for it due to recurring performance problems.)

Digital 911 systems experience more than their share of reliability complaints, as well as issues such as low volume and echo. Their technical sophistication, while providing a full set of features, is relatively complex to install and maintain; even something as simple as improperly addressing a key component can cause a crash. Why? Because these internal components are actually computers rather than telephones and, as such, come with a whole new set of rules. While digital telephones are doubtless part of both our present and our future, they bring to the table issues similar to those of digital radios; a subject with which the fire service has become well acquainted. Complaints about audio clarity, echo and the handling of background noise arise here as well, and early on in their life cycle the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International expressed concern over the ability of telecommunicators to adequately recognize sounds such as gunshots while processing digital calls.

The efficiency of technology can also inadvertently contribute to new challenges. Increasingly, telephone circuits are bundled into single fiber-optic cables capable of carrying millions of conversations. Although redundancy is routinely provided, the dozens of copper wires that these bundles replace, while not as efficient, helped to maintain an additional degree of diversity. Last year, what has been termed an intentional act severed fiber-optics supporting telephone service to tens of thousands of Californians, resulting in a significant 911 outage. Excavation and construction projects have also caused similar service losses elsewhere in the past.

Despite all of these issues, 911 service still remains relatively reliable. However, if significant attention is not given to correcting these issues, it's only a matter of time until that may come into question. The unofficial target of answering 90% of calls within 10 seconds or less remains unattainable in many centers, and the sophistication of consumer electronic devices far outpaces our ability to cope. Clearly, changes must be made. In addition to making the required upgrades and improvements, we must also realistically examine both our and the public's perception of the degree of reliability that is humanly possible.

We all know that not every room-and-contents fire remains a single room and contents, just as we realize that immediate bystander CPR and the access to an AED increase — but do not guarantee — the chances of surviving cardiac arrest. Officials in Pennsylvania called a loss of 911 service there in 2006 "a fluke." Sometimes, despite our best-made plans, the inconceivable happens. When it does, we must do our best to deal with it. But, before it does, we also must do everything in our power to properly protect and staff our sometimes fragile 911 system.

BARRY FUREY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 35-year public safety career, he has managed 911 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2002, Furey chaired the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Nashville, TN, and in 2005 he received an APCO life membership for his continued work in emergency communications.