Clearly the digits 911 are a brand that is recognized worldwide. For anyone living in the United States, we are taught at a very early age that these numbers can, and will, provide you with assistance in a dire emergency.
They are so ingrained in our culture, that for many, the very first instinct is to dial 911. With the massive explosion of subscribers of cellular devices exceeding 100% in the US, most calls today originate from these devices; this also holds true for calls to emergency services. This leads to a recipe for disaster, as the present day 911 network has unfortunately stagnated in its evolution of technology, or at least severely lagged behind the common communications modalities that we have become accustomed to, and use on a daily basis.
When cellular phones first came on the market, they were typically installed in vehicles and not portable in nature. At best, your “bag phone” that could be carried with you, but impossible to fit in a pocket. While your location was still an issue with 911 calls from these devices, most calls to 911 were related to motorists reporting incidents on highways. Based on this statistical reality, it was common to route cellular 911 calls to the state Highway Patrol where they could be triaged and re-routed accordingly. The state of California was no different, and at first, all cellular 911 calls were directed to the California Highway Patrol (CHP) station close to the caller.
With cellular phones starting to become portable, easily slipping into pockets, their use is no longer limited to motorists in vehicles, everyone carries them. Therefore, routing cellular 911 calls to CHP may create a problem where there is a high residential population, as residents who need the Sheriff’s Department, will now first reach CHP. While CHP gathers the information about the caller, and determines the agency that needs to handle the situation, precious minutes are lost. To combat this situation in El Dorado County California, the Sheriff’s Department @ElDoradoSheriff is recommending that residents avoid calling 911 on cell phones, and instead call 530-626-4911, a number that goes straight to the 911 call center.
Has 911 location discovery from cell phones finally reached a point where it is now so epidemic that we have actually instructed citizens “NOT TO DIAL 911?” Have we really decided to go down this path of potential disaster? I believe this problem can be improved, but unfortunately, it will take a little bit of work from the cellular carriers, and of course work is not free, and carriers rarely do anything that costs them money without attaching an invoice to it.
Let’s look how basic “Phase 1” cellular call routing works. Each cellular tower has three antenna faces servicing 120° of the compass, creating three sectors as shown below. Plotting the coverage area of each sector on a map will yield a rough estimate of the appropriate community covered by this sector.
Each community will have a designated 911 center assigned to receive emergency calls. Any calls received from that cellular sector are routed to this designated 911 center, based on the location of the caller and the antennae face they hit. While admittedly this is not 100% accurate, and areas of overlap can and will still exist, the idea is to groom the routing so that the majority of 911 calls for that particular area are routed correctly the first time, minimizing any calls from being misrouted but easily transferred if needed.
Unfortunately, this is more work for the wireless carriers. Not only do they have to make the changes, they have to research the data to determine what the changes should be. And all of that as a cost associated with it. It is also possible that another “sleeping giant” could be awakened by this exercise. A few years ago it was suggested by a company that was tracking and matching cellular 911 data and call dispositions, that many of the cellular tower listings in the database, were actually incorrect, as seen by many calls being rerouted after being answered.
While admittedly, nothing can be perfect 100% of the time, as a public safety industry, we must strive for excellence in everything that we do. Lives are on the line, and even the slightest misinterpretation can lead to tragic results that cannot be undone.
At the Federal Communications Commission headquarters this past Friday, Chairman Tom Wheeler himself stated, “we’re just not cutting it as a nation”, referring to the technology we have deployed in our emergency services network, and our overall transition into next generation 911 services. While the reason for protecting our critical infrastructure surrounding emergency calls is clear and evident, we cannot bury our heads in the ground, and ignore commercial best practices that have been established over the years as our nation’s banking and financial institutions, as well as global retailers, have built large-scale resilient and secure networks, that it expanded our modern economy.
If we’re going to move public safety into the next paradigm of technological existence, we need to take a good long look in the mirror and leave our Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil attitudes at the door. Our safety and well-being globally is in the hands of a small group of dedicated, well-trained, and passionate emergency call takers. Let’s do our part, and give them the tools that they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
Mark J. Fletcher, ENP is the Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions at Avaya. As a seasoned professional with nearly 30 years of service, he directs the strategic roadmap for Next Generation Emergency Services in both the Enterprise and Government portfolios at Avaya. In 2014, Fletcher was made a member of the NENA Institute Board in the US, in 2014 – 2015 he served as co-chair of the EENA NG112 Committee in the European Union, providing valuable insight to State and Federal legislators globally driving forward both innovation and compliance.