911 Needs an Update

Jan 21, 2014, 11:21 AM

A nine-year-old girl staying with her mother and siblings in a hotel room in Texas last month was unable to reach 911 to save her mother from an attack by the woman’s estranged husband because the child didn’t know to press “9” in the hotel room before “911” in order to reach an outside line. That death has led to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) inquiry into how wide that problem is at U.S. hotels and is just one of many facets of the 911 response system that experts say needs updating. Other pressing issues include:

  • Call 911 from a land line and responding operators can usually track your location, which is crucial if a person is being attacked or collapses before completing a call. However, most centers don’t yet have the technology to track 911 calls placed from a cell phone. Current FCC rules call for wireless phones to have the needed GPS technology to allow 911 centers to track call locations by 2018.
  • While many people assume they can and do send 911 requests by text message, few 911 centers can access text messages currently and so most of those texts go unanswered. The four largest wireless telephone companies—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon—have voluntarily committed to make texting to 911 available by May 15, 2014 in areas where the local 911 center is prepared to receive the texts. The FCC maintains a list of communities that can respond to 911 text messages which includes all of Iowa, Maine and Vermont, and some counties in a few other states.

“Our 911 systems today are pretty much voice-centric, last-century technology,” says Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Fontes says that “the ability to have 911 communicate in the manner in which the public is communicating among itself today, is critically important.”

In addition, according to emergency experts new technologies would enhance the 911 response in many ways, including letting first responders see video and photos of an accident victim; demonstrate a needed emergency action, such as CPR, to responding laypersons; and even access medical records such as a victim’s medications, which could improve the response

A modernized 911 already has a new name—Next Generation or NG 911—and pilot tests have begun in certain parts of the country. What Fontes says is desperately needed are funding; wider adoption and training for a new First Responder wireless broadband network, called FirstNet, that will let 911 operators communicate in voice, video and data just as consumers do; and integration of 911 centers with other emergency services, such as poison control centers, when responding to calls.

One issue is how to fund the new system. Currently, landline users are charged a 911 fee each month on their phone bill, but as consumers shift from land lines to cell phones—whose bills don’t have a 911 fee—money for 911 is decreasing.

“New funding models are needed to develop and maintain the Next Generation 9-1-1 system,” says Fontes.

In addition to pilot testing, 911 response centers are working on internal infrastructures to make enhanced digital 911 services available to consumers, and NENA and other organizations are also developing training for 911 professionals to respond using multiple technologies.

NENA expects 911 centers to be integrating very sophisticated technology for emergency response within a decade. For example, smart phones are currently being designed with sensors in different parts of the house, and those sensors could be designed to communicate with a 911 center. For example, a shower might be designed to automatically contact 911 if the system senses that a person has fallen. 911 experts say that can vastly speed up response time over current systems which rely on a person available to place a call.

One thing the current technology can do is let you know it’s not very advanced. Since September 2013, attempts to text 911 where the response service hasn’t started have received an immediate "bounce-back" message that text-to-911 is not available, with instructions to contact 911 by voice call or by telecommunications relay services (TTY) for people with speech or hearing disabilities.

And while AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon have voluntarily committed to provide text-to-911 service by May 15, 2014 wherever there’s a 911 center prepared to take those messages, the FCC has also proposed rules for public comment that would require all other wireless telephone companies and certain providers of text messaging applications to do the same.

>>Bonus Link: Read an FAQ from the FCC about “text to 911.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.