2010: The State of Fire Service Communications

As we end the first decade of the 21st century, it is an appropriate time to take a look at the issues that have impacted fire service communications over these past 10 years. Many of the deficiencies in current systems — as well as many of the benefits — were put into the spotlight on 9/11/2001.

In August 2008, the Department of Homeland Security released the National Emergency Communications Plan, setting goals and a timetable for developing disaster response communications. According to the plan, "By 2010, 90% of all high-risk urban areas designated within the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies…By 2011, 75% of non-UASI jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies…By 2013, 75% of all jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within three hours, in the event of a significant event as outlined in national planning scenarios."

Now that 2010 is here, where do we stand? It depends on who you ask and how. In November 2009, Sprint conducted a survey of 353 public safety answering points (PSAPs), call centers for fire, police and emergency medical services. While 68.8% responded that they provided interoperability for their users, only 40.9% said that this interoperability was state or nationwide. Even more troubling was the fact that 72% confirmed that they had areas of poor coverage. It is difficult to tell whether these 353 facilities are representative of the more than 6,000 such facilities nationwide; however, they do present a large enough sample to raise concern.

On a positive note, the 2009 International Fire Code contains provisions dealing with requirements to provide interior radio coverage, which should help reduce some of these dead spots. Interior coverage is an issue with many repeated radio systems, but especially with 800-MHz trunking. Placing the responsibility on the building owner to provide bi-directional amplifiers or other solutions can be compared in some ways to the need for sprinklers, and relieves the burden on municipalities from having to build additional radio sites during these lean times.

One battle for additional frequencies continues. The so-called "D block" of the 700-MHz spectrum presents an untold opportunity of broadband communications for public safety and potential for a nationwide emergency communications system. This issue has placed normally friendly organizations into occasionally oppositional positions, and failed to generate as much revenue as expected during auction. Several plans have been put on the table, and hopefully a reasonable solution can be reached without further delay.

"Social media" continue to be an increasing element of public safety communications. These tools lend themselves to a variety of applications, including recruitment and mass notifications. Searching the phrase "fire departments" on Facebook, for example, returns over 1,600 entries. Some agencies are using the Twitter application to post live call information. Coupled with Google Maps or other free or low-cost services, these can provide a graphic display of regional activity.

The burgeoning use of these forms of communication has also forced 911 centers to develop new policies and procedures for call handling. One growing concern is how to best handle "third-party" calls from concerned individuals who come across messages for help posted to social networks. When the author's location is known, it is not uncommon for someone to contact the local authorities with what may be either lifesaving or prank-producing information. Regardless of the often-anonymous aspect of the Internet, these calls must be taken seriously and have had many positive results. Last year, a Tweet to the actress Demi Moore that contained suicide threats led to the tracking down and hospitalization of a California woman. As far back as 2003, a family in West Virginia was saved from carbon monoxide poisoning by an Internet chat buddy in the United Kingdom. These represent only a few of the many verified incidents that had a positive outcome.

Social media may also be the places where citizens now turn to get information, according to Jeannette Sutton, a sociologist at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, for example, much information was informally exchanged by students through their Facebook accounts well in advance of official releases. There are also reports coming out of Haiti that social networking has filled in the gap created by the destruction of government infrastructure during the earthquake. Such networks represent a largely untapped resource when it comes to public safety.

The use of "texting" is doubtless the fastest-growing phenomenon when it comes to wireless phones. According to Forbes.com, the number of daily text messages sent in the United States went from 400 to 4.5 million during the last decade. It has become so invasive that some states have enacted bans against texting while driving. However, there is a deeper problem than that. Most telephone users expect everyone — including 911 — to be able to receive text messages. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. One underlying issue slowing such service has been the inability to attach verified sender and location information to text messages. This is a critical component in emergency calls. In August 2009, the Black Hawk County 911 Center in Waterloo, IA, became the first in the nation to receive text messages, a move obviously hailed by the deaf community as it opens up a new and broader means of access. But don't look for a massive rollout of this technology soon. There are still a number of issues to work out.

High upon the to-do list of any fire-service administrator today is finding the money necessary to continue operations. As the economic belt tightens, station closings and layoffs regularly make the news, demands for services increase. As dispatch centers move toward new technology, they are finding that pools of money originally earmarked for this purpose are being diverted elsewhere. According to the 911 Industry Alliance, more than $200 million has been redirected from 911 funds in a number of states.

What's the impact? According to Craig Whittington, president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), "The reallocation and misuse of 911 funds puts our citizens at risk and violates their trust. When monies that are supposedly collected specifically to support 911 are diverted for other uses, 911 authorities are often left unable to bear the burden of the technical and operational costs of current systems and/or to begin building the 21st century, IP-based, Next-Generation 911 system that the public expects and deserves. If public safety cannot keep pace with changes in consumer communications, then the public is put at greater risk and in the end may well be harmed and ultimately the 911 system will not survive. This is why all funds collected for 911 purposes must be used as such."

But progress aside, we have been mightily challenged to even keep up with the pace of existing technology. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created docket 94–102 which dealt with the compatibility of cell phones and the 911 system. Specifically, much interest rested in the ability to provide enhanced 911 services that delivered caller location to the dispatch center. This function had been a critical piece of the conventional telephone system for more than a decade. When the locality was equipped to handle such calls (which normally required an equipment upgrade), they were to notify the wireless carriers who were given six months to comply. Now, years after the fact, it is estimated that 94% of PSAPs and 88.1% of U.S. counties have some form of enhanced wireless 911. While this covers 96.3% of our population, the numbers show some significant gaps.

Sometimes, these gaps come to light in the national media. On Dec. 23, 2009, in upstate New York, an outdated telephone system was cited as the major contributing factor to lengthy delay in response to a fatal house fire. The original wireless 911 call was routed to another answering point, which then relayed it to the appropriate authorities. Since no contact was made other than an initial female scream, it was treated by protocol as a hang-up call, which generated a law enforcement-only response. This is consistent with accepted procedure in many jurisdictions nationwide as the majority of 911 calls are for police matters. Unfortunately, this time officers arrived at the scene of a structure fire at a residence that due to its smoldering state and setback location further stalled discovery. Since that incident, there have been several statements issued — some of them confusing — about the cause of the delay and how long the delay actually was. While many of the procedures did work as designed, this is a classic case of how fates can conspire with less-than-perfect technology to create the perfect storm.

As we move into the next decade, we will have even more technology with which to deal. Existing issues such as digital radio clarity and the 2013 deadline for narrowbanding will be early contenders for our attention. What will follow is anyone's guess. However, with rapid changes in the way we communicate, there may be more such storms on our horizon.

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.