Next Generation 911

Barry Furey discusses how much of the current 911 network is becoming outdated with new technology demanding change.


Since 911 was introduced as the North American emergency number in 1968, billions of calls for assistance have been made. In fact, according to recent statistics, people in the United States dial these three digits over 500,000 times on an average day. As the volume of calls increases, the...


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Taking and sending still photographs and movies with cell phones has become a common practice - so common that many establishments concerned with security ban the open carrying of cell phones on their premises. Websites and even the evening news often display photos and videos captured in this manner. Reporters in Iraq use wireless devices to cover stories where camera crews are unavailable, and disturbing images of the Virginia Tech shootings were obtained by a cell phone camera.

Unfortunately, this common ability does not extend to 911. You may be able to send your friend a snapshot of your new car, but you can't send a picture of the car fire you are reporting to the local dispatcher. New York City is one of several jurisdictions where authorities are trying to tap into this technology; however, these current attempts are not completely seamless. In NG 911, photos and videos will be received concurrently with the voice call and interfaces to computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) will enable the instantaneous transfer of this information to first responders. If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, embedded images may well prove their value as a means of letting firefighters begin size-up before they even leave quarters.

Another popular feature of cell phones is text messaging. An entire culture has developed surrounding this ability for silent chat. While some schools raise concerns that surreptitiously sharing typed answers could become a means of undetected cheating, others are softening their views in the wake of Virginia Tech, wondering whether voiceless communication may provide a covert means of calling 911 in the presence of danger. But, to the deaf, voiceless communications is not a luxury or a passing fad. It is a necessary way of life. For years, the deaf have used TDDs (Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf) to communicate by telephone. While some of the original fixed units were as big as teletype machines, over time, portable TDDs were developed that were about the size of a laptop. Still, this meant that a deaf person had to carry one of these wherever they went in order to make a phone call, and there have been ongoing compatibility issues between TDDs and wireless access. Enabling 911 to accept text messages would kill both of these birds with a single stone. Boston and Chicago have expressed interest in developing this capacity, but as in the case of New York City, these proposals rely on utilizing the cellular network to augment 911, rather than creating an integrated system as envisioned as the next generation.

Regardless of how we get there; get there we must. A recent survey indicated that a majority of people under the age of 25 do not own a conventional telephone. Twenty-five years ago, wireless telephones weren't even an issue. Another more recent addition to the mix is Voice over Internet Provider (VoIP). Simply put, VoIP uses the Internet to generate dial tone and to allow access to telephone service, including 911. There have been and still are numerous issues with VoIP, including limitations in some communities on true enhanced location services, and the fact that certain Internet phones can operate in both fixed and mobile modes. Given that there are over 750 VoIP providers nationwide, and that the World Wide Web functions in a manner different than the conventional telephone network, it is easy to see how problems can arise.

Still VoIP is not a totally bad thing for public safety. In fact, many PSAPs are installing VoIP-based systems in-house and researching Internet-like networking to provide shared communication. This is because, in the future, a 911 call will not be limited to just voice; it will be a multimedia experience. The equipment required to properly process this increased information must be totally digital and able to transmit packets of data at high speed without cumbersome conversions to and from analog. Emergency dispatch centers in different communities and served by different telephone companies must be able to immediately and seamlessly transfer all of the information associated with an incident to one another; something that often cannot be accomplished now. Technology and protocols developed for data management on the World Wide Web will play a significant role in our immediate future.