Because the call was coming from a landline phone, and because the telephone company knew the location of the landline phone, the ability to match telephone number to address existed — the missing element was how to pass the data to the PSAP. This problem was solved in January of 1980 with systems in Orange County, Florida, and St. Louis, Missouri. The Automatic Line Identification (ALI) database was created, which maps a phone number to a street address, and this street address is passed to a PSAP in response to a query from that PSAP with the phone number of the caller as the key.
The buck stops with the PSAP
With all of this attention focused on getting the information to the PSAP, very little attention was paid on how to get the information out of the PSAP and to the first responder. As a result, the PSAP evolved into a bifurcated response model: One side would take the call from the citizen in trouble and pass it to the other side that would dispatch the emergency response.
Often, information would be read off of one screen and typed into another. Perhaps the need to automatically pass this information was not recognized since the dispatch was done verbally over a radio. In any case, the result was the data stopped at the PSAP and did not automatically flow to the first responder — a firewall was built that inhibited the flow of information.
Fast forwarding to the present and looking to the future, new forms of communication are emerging, and new types of data are coming along for the ride. Entering the Information Age, the public safety infrastructure is woefully behind the times. First responders could use important information to fight crime and save lives, and yet information fails to make it past the PSAP gatekeeper.
In response to these new forms of communication, a new topic has emerged in public safety parlance: Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1). This public safety infrastructure evolution uses Internet Protocol (IP) interfaces that support transporting both voice and data rather than the traditional telephony interfaces that primarily support voice. Unfortunately, it is not clear that this solution reaches all the way to the first responder. There is a concern that the infrastructure upgrade will do nothing to bridge the data chasm.
Using NG 9-1-1 to build the data bridge
The public safety industry, under the leadership of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International (APCO) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), has defined interfaces that would support a broad range of data and voice services as they flow into the PSAP. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is investigating how text messaging and other forms of data can be delivered to the PSAP.
Vendors have been actively working with public safety industry leaders to define protocols and transition plans that would allow these new forms of information to reach the PSAP.
As these plans become reality, the challenges raised at the beginning of this article will be answered. The picture from the camera phone will be transmitted to the PSAP. The telematics information, extracted from the automobile at the time of the accident, automatically will be passed to the PSAP. And the 911 text message for help, sent by the speech-impaired individual, will reach the PSAP and initiate an emergency dispatch.
For this to happen, critical information must flow all the way to the first responder. The "data buck" cannot stop at the PSAP.
Three things must happen to make this possible: The data exchange infrastructure must be put in place for first responders; some entity (either the PSAP or a third party) must capture the relevant data information and hold it for use by the first responder; and the PSAP must pass sufficient information to the first responder that would facilitate the querying of the information that has been stored. These elements must be part of the NG 9-1-1 plan.
Thankfully, the data infrastructure already exists, though few first response systems use it today. The wireless public networks already support high-speed data exchange rates and currently have very large nationwide footprints, especially in urban areas where first responders especially need these services.
As the public safety community debates the creation of private communication networks to support law enforcement, perhaps they should consider the use of existing wireless public networks since they may find that all of their current requirements can be met and they would benefit from the evolution of future enhancements that will come from the inevitable improvements of the infrastructure.