Bridging the Gap Between First Responder and Citizen Caller

A Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) receives a "Good Samaritan" call: Someone has witnessed a crime in progress and took a picture of the alleged perpetrator using a camera phone. How can this be delivered to the police cruiser arriving at the crime scene?

A car hits a tree: The telematics provider calls a PSAP with details. Were airbags deployed? How fast was the car going? Was there a passenger in the front seat? This information is available to the telematics provider, but is there a way to get it to the ambulance that is en route to the accident scene? Can medical information concerning the driver of the vehicle be passed automatically?

A speech-impaired individual is robbed on the street: The individual uses a BlackBerry. Yet, how does this person call for help in a voice-centric world? How can the police officer get information from this person while being dispatched to the scene?

These are common scenarios that first responders encounter daily and that today require the use of creative communication techniques, all involving verbal exchange. Yet the information exists as data. Are there ways to exchange this information automatically, thereby improving the accuracy, speed and thoroughness of the information exchange? Can we bridge the gap — this data divide — between first responders and the citizens who need help?

Perhaps there is an even more disturbing question: After spending millions of dollars to upgrade the public safety infrastructure to automatically pass location information from a wireless caller to the PSAP, why isn't this information automatically passed to the first responder as a point on a map? (See screen shot on Page 79.) After all, this is just another form of data. Apparently, even this fundamental piece of information has been caught in the data chasm. Perhaps it is time to build the bridge across this data divide.

The first outreach to first responders

In response to President Johnson's 1967 Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice report, AT&T created the concept of a nationwide emergency telephone number on January 12, 1968. The intent was to make it possible for the average citizen to reach police, fire and emergency medical services (EMS) by dialing a single, easy-to-remember telephone number.

The telephone system would automatically take care of routing the call to the appropriate facility so the caller would not have to remember the five-digit or seven-digit telephone numbers for emergency services. The emergency would be verbally conveyed; the phone number and location of the caller would be asked; and the appropriate emergency services would be dispatched.

Soon it became clear that the variety of emergency situations would require dispatching different types of resources (police, fire or EMS), and the need for an "intermediary" to handle the call became clear — thus the PSAP was created.

The first pieces of the data puzzle

As the telephone systems modernized, the ability to send the caller's telephone number became part of the infrastructure. Since having the caller's telephone number was important for public safety (if the call was dropped or disconnected, the communication path was gone without the callback number), the callback number was made available for the first time on July 9, 1978. Passing data to the PSAP was an unique event, and the concept of "Enhanced 911" (E-911) was born.

But there was an even more important piece of information that first responders required to do their jobs — they needed the caller's location. Up to this point, it was received verbally. Was there a way to pass this information along automatically, especially in cases where the caller was unable to verbally convey the information?

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.

Since NG 9-1-1 is directly addressing how to get this information to flow to third parties and PSAPs, the second requirement will be met as a natural consequence of the deployment of NG 9-1-1.

But the third requirement — making sure the information key(s) that will be required to query this information are made available to first responders — currently does not seem to have an industry advocate. A disconnect seems to remain between first response and the citizen.

Together, public safety leadership, industry advocates and, most important, the rank-and-file members of the first response community must work together to ensure the vital link between citizen and first responder is strong and conveys as much information as is possible. This link saves lives, and there are few connections that matter more than that.