REALLY? Don’t call 911??

At the earliest age, we are taught three life-saving digits. 9-1-1.

We are taught this is the emergency number by our teachers, our parents, and our grandparents. 9-1-1 is plastered on the side of every police car, fire truck, an ambulance that we see. We are taught that 9-1-1 will bring help no matter where we are, or what we need. But recently, a disturbing trend has been emerging that changes the core message of 9-1-1 from “Anytime, Anyplace, and Any device”, to one that states “UNLESS . . . a particular situation exists, then dial some other number.”

We expect large companies with large facilities to have internal security departments. Some may even have a company nurse or medical facility. And yet others, due to the nature of their business, may even have a firefighting team on hand that can instantly respond to an urgent event. While we expect these companies to have some mechanism in place to summon the services, we still expect that 9-1-1 still works as advertised and is not intercepted. Unfortunately, that is not always true.

In November 2015, Business Insider published an article in their tech section claiming that they had come in the possession of an internal Amazon document that tells workers “Do Not Call 9-1-1 !” in the event of a medical emergency, according to a company policy document obtained by the Huffington Post.

Last year, the United States Postal Service changed its no 9-1-1 policy after being criticized after the death of Samuel Macasieb, who was found unconscious inside of a facility in Oakland California. USPS policy stated that employees needed to contact the United States postal police for emergencies, who would then assess the situation and contact emergency services if required. But in this case, an ambulance took 53 minutes to arrive, and Mr. Macasieb never regained consciousness.

While it’s easy to blame companies for improper emergency services policies, we expect our public safety agencies to know better than to circumvent the 9-1-1 networks. Although it is not steeped in current technology, and capable of multimedia communications commonly used by devices today, the network does provide resiliency, redundancy, and a known level of reliability designed to ensure that calls are delivered. The network provides for PSAP inter-flow functionality, PSAP overflow functionality, and PSAP rerouting functionality during peak periods and congestion. These are all attributes that are not normally available on telephone lines offered through the public switched telephone network.

Why then, would a 9-1-1 PSAP advise the public NOT TO CALL 9-1-1 from their cellular telephones?

While it might seem difficult to believe, that is exactly what citizens in El Dorado County and Oakland California have been instructed to do. In both areas, a local 10-digit number is published for citizens to call to reach public safety officials directly. Why? For whatever reason, the Wireless network is purposely provisioned to send cellular calls from the cell sectors in these areas to the California Highway Patrol. There, the calls are triaged based on the location of the caller, and then transferred back to the appropriate agency for emergency dispatch; obviously adding response time to the call, and delaying first responders.

Why take the long way around the block for emergency calls? Several reasons likely contribute to the logic used here. They may be financial in nature as centers want to maintain their call volumes at levels that warrant the funding they receive; they may be geopolitical or based on data that was relevant at some point in time, but may have now changed. When cellular phones first became popular,  usage was primarily by citizens in vehicles, where routing to CHP likely made the most sense. Today, cellular penetration has exceeded 100% in the US, and many have ‘cut the cord’ in their homes, dropping wireline services altogether. With this phenomenon, new data needs to be collected and evaluated. For example, a 2007 report from CalOES, the Governor’s Office Of Emergency Services identified that 42.4% of the 11.6 million wireless 9-1-1 calls that occurred in California, failed to connect properly. It was these horrific statistics that kicked off the RED Project (Routing on Empirical Data), which consisted of several phases to remediate the issue across the state by readjusting the cellular sector routing. The RED project would utilize special satellite imagery that was coupled with the origination location of 9-1-1 wireless callers. Based on this data, the routing of each cellular tower sector was adjusted to route correctly to the local PSAP agency. After just six years, wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy was improved dramatically, wherein 2013 only 0.9% of cellular 9-1-1 calls needed to be rerouted, despite the volume of calls increasing to nearly 16.4 million a year.

Despite this improvement in location accuracy and routing, several communities still refused to take this additional call volume, even though wireline calls are decreasing in numbers. Some communities actually go out of their way to tell local citizens to reach them on local numbers on administrative phone lines. Unfortunately, these calls do not transit special Selective Routers in the carrier network, and therefore, the pANI record that provides the lookup key for the location information isn’t provided so that the caller can be located as they would if the call was delivered on a 9-1-1 trunk.DontCall911-Pic01

Residents are just blindly doing what they are told by authorities, and likely have no idea they have circumvented the entire 9-1-1 system that was designed to locate them and provide access to pubic safety. As an example, advises residents to program a 10-digit number into their cell phones to ensure emergency calls get to them.

This raises some burning questions:

  • Have Public Safety officials lost all trust in the 9-1-1 network?
  • Are they , refusing to implement technology that is openly available to them?
  • How can we possibly expect to set an example for citizens to follow suit in their local MLTS businesses?

Even more disturbing is the mass hysteria market that has been created where companies are targeting the fear in people by selling Apps that actually circumvent the 9-1-1 network and deliver the call to where THEY feel it should go, not where Public Safety has decided the call should go, be it right or wrong.

Should we expect the public to pay for Apps like this?

Personally, I take issue with a company trying to charge me $20 a year for an App to route my 9-1-1 calls when I am already paying a monthly 9-1-1 service fee for that same service, and a bit less I might add. Tech Insider reported that the Bluelight App wants to offer an annual plan for, “$20 a year, Oakland residents will be able to press a single button in an app that dials 9-1-1 and provides an Oakland dispatcher with their location all at once. It takes about 10 seconds (minus the time it takes to open the app).”

How does this App dial 911 differently than the user? How does the app get the data to the PSAP? These important piees are conveniently not mentioned in the article. And there lies the rub.

While the smart device has all of the information you could possibly want from GPS and WiFi BSSIDs and even carrier cellular towers it can see, there is no way to get that information to the PSAP. An intelligent connection capable of passing data simply doesn’t exist in that environment. Inevitably this makes the application a bit of a brick in my book. Of course, you could staff a call center, intercept the 9-1-1 call and then manually capture all of the data and verbally provide it to police, but then you are intercepting all 9-1-1 calls, taking responsibility for the proper call handling and procedures, plus adding time between the caller and they help they need.

I have been looking at NG9-1-1 ‘solutions’ for a decade. While great ideas have emerged, much work has been done, and NG9-1-1 networks have been stood up and tested, there has yet to be a full implementation of NG9-1-1 where the origination point generated a SIP-based emergency call, with PIDF-LO, routed intelligently through an IP network, and delivered to the PSAP on an IP infrastructure with additional data embedded in the INVITE message, or behind a URL enclosed in the header.

It comes as no great surprise that enterprise businesses make poor public safety-related decisions, like the United States Postal Service policy. At the end of the day, it may actually be administrators compensating for the lack of functionality in the local public safety networks that is being denied to them based on a fear and misunderstanding of current technology capabilities. While none of us likes to be overregulated, there comes a point where legislative guidelines are there to protect our well-being. The speed limit on my street is 25 mph. Not because there was a tragic death, not because there is any statistical history that dictates it. It is that way because children are playing in the area. While most people know, and respect that fact, the speed limit is there to promulgate it and create an enforcement mechanism should someone decide they know better. It all goes back to the old saying, “Laws exist for when ethics fail.”

Is it time we have some ‘laws’ that cover what NG9-1-1 actually is? And what it actually does? Without a consistent adhered to reference architecture, NG9-1-1 will remain just a fantasy of the future.

Follow me on Twitter @Fletch911
Read my other AVAYA CONNECTED Blogs

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.


    1. Thanks for the comment Steve.
      I am not aware of anyplace that tracks this data. Maybe this is something that can be added to one of the TFOPA Workgroup reports.
      Again, this is something that was done for a good reason when it was first a problem. But the problem has shifted, and policies put in place that remain in place, can certainly start to have a negative effect if they are not updated with the technology and the times.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s