Can You See Him Now?

It seems like only yesterday E9-1-1 was the new thing in emergency communications centers, and many agencies continue to struggle with implementation. Regardless, technology continues to move forward. Every day, I'm bombarded with offers to update myself. According to my pre-teen, my cell phone, which sends and receives voice transmissions, is so 1990s. Thank goodness my need to order pizza before getting home does not depend on current technology, or represent a life or death situation. Unfortunately, the ability to communicate with cutting-edge technology can be an emergency. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre and the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse, citizens barraged policymakers and law enforcement professionals with questions about why they couldn't reach 9-1-1 by text or with digital imaging. In response, Next Generation 9-1-1 and the NG 9-1-1 Initiative sprung to the forefront of emergency communications discussion.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), today's 9-1-1 includes:

  • Primarily voice calls via telephone, teletype calls used by hearing-impaired citizens, and an increasing number of voice calls over the internet.
  • Minimal data with the call, optimally containing caller ID and location.
  • No "long-distance" 9-1-1 access.

NG 9-1-1 has:

  • Voice, text or video emergency calling from any communications device via Internet-like networks.
  • Advanced data from personal safety devices.
  • "Long distance" access and transfer and improved interoperability.

USDOT ITS states text, data, images and video in personal communications devices are "critical" and explains the 9-1-1 system incorporated in the 1970s did not address the issues of a wireless, mobile society. The NG 9-1-1 Initiative is designed to bring emergency communications into the 21st century. The Initiative's phases include policies and implementation, as well as describing and documenting the framework of communication.

In a January 2007, "State of the City" address, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced, "this year, we'll begin a revolutionary innovation in crime-fighting: equipping 9-1-1 call centers to receive digital images and videos New Yorkers send from cell phones and computers, something no other city in the world is doing." New York might not be the only city looking to revolutionize their emergency communications centers. According to Greg Sheehan, Director of Marketing of PowerPhone, Inc, a Connecticut-based company offering software compatible with this purpose, "We are in discussion with several large agencies. We are hoping to set up a test site shortly."

Currently, several agencies use PowerPhone's Total Response ® Computer Aided Call Handling(tm) software which is designed to assist 9-1-1 operators standardize questions and determine call priority. Due to using this software, different agencies, such as Douglas County (CO) Sheriff's Office have been cited as having the capability to receive text, image or video from cell phones. Michael D. Coleman, DCSO Bureau Chief, explains, "We don't use it. We have been linked to using it only because we have software from PowerPhone and they are pursuing its deployment." The confusion appears to stem from the intended use of Incident Linked Multimedia(tm) (ILM).

"(ILM) is actually a part of a separate application. We developed it as part of the Total Response®, but it's another software," states Sheehan. "It is designed to help 9-1-1 centers manage the flow of digital images coming off citizens' cell phones." This technology works in two ways: solicited and unsolicited. Emergency communications will be concerned mostly with the solicited. When a caller informs the 9-1-1 operator of their cell phone capability, the operator engages the ILM software, sending a text message to the caller's phone asking for the image. When the image is sent, it uploads directly to the operator's screen. The responding officers also have access to this information via MDT, much like the text information entered into CAD.

According to Sheehan, ILM benefits many people. The community benefits because their 9-1-1 center has more technology to help people, emergency communications operators have more tools to do their job, and first responders have more information. "With ILM, you are giving more information to help the first responders enter a safer scene," Sheehan states. "If you are going in to capture a dangerous person, it helps to have a picture of what that person looks like." NG 9-1-1 and ILM increase an operator's ability to do his or her job efficiently.

One group of citizens views this technology as a necessity, rather than a luxury. According to the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COATS), "there are over 28-31 million persons who are deaf and hard of hearing and several million persons with speech disabilities, many of whom rely on text and/or video to communicate by phone." Although existing laws mandate TTY and telecommunications relay services, pagers, instant messaging and IP and video relay services have become the norm for this population, making the old technology obsolete. PSAPs need to upgrade their systems with ILM technology to provide emergency services to people with disabilities. COATS consists of over 90 national, regional and community-based organizations dedicated to making sure people with disabilities will not be left behind as NG 9-1-1 is implemented and ensuring communication via text and video is incorporated into new emergency technology.

Like all technological changes, ILM brings some disadvantages as well. "The information could become distracting to first responders as well as dispatchers," Coleman says. "Dispatchers will become potentially negatively impacted by scenes they are not used to seeing. They do not typically see destruction or injuries in their line of work." Training to address the added visual stress should be incorporated into agency policy.

In a response to USDOT ITS, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) states, "We recognize, and advocate, that tomorrow's emergency services network includes all emergency agencies, not just PSAPs. Unlike the past, we need policies, architectures, and standards that address the vital interplay across all emergency professions, across jurisdictional lines, and across public/private boundaries. In the past, PSAPs have been primarily call taking and dispatching centers. In the future, they should be emergency communications nerve centers for the agencies and organizations in their communities which are involved in responding to emergencies." When the next emergency occurs, will we be ready?