America’s 9-1-1 System: John Oliver Got It Right (Mostly)

Note: TV Image courtesy HBO’s “Last week Tonight with John Oliver”

An AUDIO VERSION of this podcast is available on SoundCloud

9-1-1 Access still remains the most crucial step to emergency response

For those who may have missed HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on this past Sunday night, there was a humorous but important segment featuring America’s 9-1-1 system. I had gotten a heads up on this earlier in the week, and was anxious, albeit fully expecting this to be the average story, poorly researched and full of inaccurate assumptions around 911.

Fortunately, I could not have been more wrong. I sat back, watching the segment go on for nearly 15 minutes – each second being more amazing than the last – sprinkled with just the right amount of humor to make the important points stand out. I have to commend Mr. Oliver, and his staff, who had obviously did a great deal of homework on the topic. The level of detail, as well as the subtle references, proved that quite a bit of preparation went into this piece, and they had talked to the right people in the industry. While John formulated a ton of pertinent points, accurately describing the sad state of America’s overall 9-1-1 infrastructure, he focused on cellular location accuracy and challenges leading to how we got there. But in addition to this problem, a few other critical points were missed – starting with ‘access.’

For any current 911, or Next Generation 911 system, to function properly – access into the system is first required. Only then can any end-to-end functionality and benefit for citizens be expected.

Universal access to 911 means being able to reach emergency services from any device, at anytime and from anywhere. It means that 911 works both with and without an access code in Multi-Line Telephone Systems (MLTS), as I have covered in Kari’s Law many times. Currently there are House and Senate Bills working their way through the legislative process, and in these, we make the point that about access to 911, followed immediately by on-site notification that establishes situational awareness – bringing the building aware of the fact that a particular station dialed 911, and most importantly, the location of where that particular device is in the building.

We are not asking for internal folks to answer those calls – they are likely not trained to do so – we want them to be aware they happened. Doors may need to be unlocked, elevators may need to be held, and life-saving assistance might be rendered while waiting for public safety to arrive. When they do, that pre-arrival coordination can speed response considerably. Despite the fact that many building operators feel that answering their own 911 calls, is the right thing to do, this is generally not a good practice to follow. When you dial 911 or you dial another established emergency code in the building, the call needs to reach the proper public safety answer point (PSAP) and not intercepted by someone who is not trained to respond properly.

Less than half of the States have current legislation covering this, and only a small few have any penalty for non-compliance. This may radically change if the House of Representatives takes an important next step in ensuring access that will lead to increased public safety by voting on H.R. 4167, also known as “The Kari’s Law Act of 2015.” This Bill sat in committee for only a day before a unanimous vote and 24 Republican and Democratic sponsors brought this to the House floor for a full vote. As most of my readers already know, Kari’s Law was named for “Kari Hunt who was murdered in 2013 by her estranged husband in a Marshall motel room while her 9-year-old daughter tried unsuccessfully to dial 911…because the girl did not know that the motel phone system required dialing an extra 9 to reach an outside line.” After much work in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott enacted Kari’s Law as the first Bill he signed. A similar bill is expected to be signed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam sometime in the next month.

Federally, Kari’s Law in the bi-partisan H.R. 4167 Bill, with a companion S.2553 in the U.S. Senate, will accomplish the following:

  • Amend the Communications Act of 1934 to require phone vendors and individual buildings to ensure people could connect directly with emergency services without having to press ‘1’ or ‘9’ first.
  • Require outgoing ‘911’ calls connect directly to emergency services without local interference.
  • Ensure that on-site personnel are notified that a ‘911’ call was made.

Why does this matter? It matters because countless Americans will finally have protection, confidence and necessary peace of mind that when a 9-1-1 call is made in times when it is needed most, there will be a first responder who will have the necessary information to reach the victim without the many issues raised by you, Mr. Oliver. It will mean that America’s network of phones, an invention created by Alexander Graham Bell in March 1876, who’s first call was actually an emergency call, when he called out to Watson after spilling acid on himself, will finally serve the interests of all Americans nationwide.

So what can Americans do? Call your Congressman NOW at (202) 225-3121 to express your support for H.R. 4167. Support for this initiative has never been so important.

In closing, here’s my personal challenge to you, Mr. Oliver:

Ask your IT telecom folks at HBO if 911 can be dialed from the phone on YOUR desk. If it can’t, I’ll stop by and show you how to fix that for free. Why? Because you made me laugh (not an easy thing to do), and to prove that it’s simple and just the right thing to do.

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. John Oliver did an amazing job. Your efforts regarding Kari’s Law are on target as you know. The NENA ICE events may be a way to integrate various levels of Access with the NG9-1-1 Network and Architecture and test the reality of al access Enterprise and Carrier. Working with NG9-1-1 means we know the realities are harder at times than the theories. Yes, Kari’s Law was not mentioned nor many other important challenges. I for one, think it was amazing that so much technical information was shared in such a short enjoyable important way. Kudos to the NENA staff who supported his broadcast.


    1. Thanks so much Barbara. I am not amazed by NENA’s comments, they simply stated what they have been stating all along, what really amazed me is the comprehension of the Oliver staff! So kudos to the NENA staff for getting the message across. My point was that NG911 is about content. Kari’s Law is about access. Without access, the content is irrelevant, but without content, access is also irrelevant. What is exciting about ICE 7 is that this will demonstrate the end-to-end nature of NG911. Additional data from the originating network, examined and used in the routing decisions, and then used by the terminating equipment in the PSAP to provide better situational awareness to responding entities. I strongly believe the archaic structure of ANI/ALI is something that now is just sucking the life blood out of the public safety network from a financial perspective, and that it is actually detracting the evolution of NG911 services. It has become very evident that those who profit from managing the current arcane architecture really don’t want to see NG911 succeed. Why? It cannibalizes the revenues that are realized today. I believe Mr. Oliver has ignited a fire that has been smoldering for years, but ios about to burst into a huge blaze.


  2. This is an amazing article on the problem. Great piece again Fletch! SO glad that it seems the mass media is listening to you and the concerns you are raising.

    Keep up the great work!



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