Help is on the way

Dispatch: “4 Charlie, 911 Wireless, area of Main and 1st, nothing heard, no answer on call back.”

4 Charlie: “4 Charlie copy.” A few minutes pass. “4 Charlie in the area of the 911 wireless. Nothing seen or heard. Code 4. 10-8.”

Each day, units all over the nation are dispatched to 911 “hang up” calls. Traditionally, they come from phones that had a static, physical location. When the caller dialed 911, the call came through and the automatic location identification (ALI) information provided a physical address of 1234 Main St. with the phone number.

Technology has changed, however; now callers have mobile cellular devices and Internet-enabled phone technology, neither of which requires a phone to be mounted to the wall inside a residence or business. This change has affected the way 911 centers handle these types of calls.

A decade of 911

Ten or so years ago, cellular phone users who dialed 911 would typically be routed to a public safety answering point (PSAP) communications center whose dispatchers had to determine where exactly the caller was so they could route the call to the appropriate city/sheriff’s communication center. This process caused untimely delays in emergency situations.

Technology has advanced and laws have since changed for the better. In 1999, the Enhanced 911 (E911) Act was put in place, which mandated a two-phase responsibility for wireless carriers:

Phase I required carriers to be able to provide the ANI (automatic number identification) and location of the cell site or base station from where a call originates.

Phase II required carriers to be able to provide the ALI (automatic location identification) information for mobile 911 calls with greater precision — within 50 to 300 meters.

Unfortunately, the process of transitioning to this program is not exactly simple or fluid. Technological change is often hindered by money and infrastructure. The 2002 “Report on Technical and Operational Issues Impacting The Provision of Wireless Enhanced 911 Services,” prepared for the Federal Communications Commission, expressed concern for E911’s success, given sadly outdated infrastructure and technology that was incapable of handling Phase II’s demands.

Many carriers were unable to meet those demands or the deadlines associated with them, and were fined in 2005. Deadlines were then extended to 2008, then to 2009; now a full compliance date is set for 2012. Yet the FCC and wireless companies continue to haggle over an appropriate length of time to meet the standards.

Problems with mobile devices

As communications centers find ways to deal with the lack of full E911 functionality, the FCC estimates that more than 70 percent of emergency calls now come from the nearly 300 million mobile phone users in the United States. What does this mean for E911?

When a wireless call comes in now, it can be either Phase I or Phase II. The responding agency likely treats Phase I and Phase II calls the same way. If the call comes in and is still active, the operator listens to discern whether there is really a problem. If the caller hangs up before or after connecting, the operator returns the call to confirm whether the situation is OK, or an emergency.

Units are automatically dispatched for calls that disconnect before the operator makes contact. For Phase I calls, the unit is provided with the area around the tower from which the call originated. For Phase II calls, the unit is given the closest geographical area as provided by the carrier. Either way, however, it’s rare for the actual incident location to be pinpointed. At best, Phase II calls may indicate locations that are one building away in one case, and a street over in other cases.

The resulting delays are not unlike they were 10 years ago. These problems are compounded in rural areas, which are still getting the worst of the technology. Phase II rollouts have not been completed as carriers and the FCC focus on more urban settings. This, together with already extended response times in rural areas, continues to make emergency response difficult.

Yet even in urban settings system failure has occurred. The FCC is looking into a mass failure in Maryland during a January 2011 snowstorm. Verizon’s circuits failed and more than 10,000 emergency calls could not be made. The questions to other PSAPs, service providers, and individual users: 1) Was this a limited, rare occurrence? 2) Will this type of failure affect other locations in the future?

The VOIP challenge

Mobile phones are not the only E911 challenge. New complications are sprouting as more users begin to use Voice Over IP (VOIP) technology in the home and office. VOIP technology allows users, in essence, to turn their Internet access into a phone line. This capability, coupled with cellular availability, has led to land line services being abandoned in droves. A 2011 CDC report indicated that 26 percent of households are wireless only, representing an eight-fold increase over the past six years.

Rather than solve problems with location during an emergency, however, VOIP has compounded them. The reason: Internet service assigns users an IP address, not a physical address. Information related to the user’s actual physical address is maintained by the Internet service provider.

The FCC has taken steps to enhance VOIP 911 call effectiveness. For users that have interconnected VOIP, which allows subscribers to make and receive calls using a normal telephone network, the FCC has placed restrictions on providers. First, the provider must make the subscriber aware of the limitations involved with using VOIP technology for 911. Additionally, subscribers cannot choose to “opt out” of 911 service for VOIP.

Most importantly, the service provider is responsible for obtaining the physical location where services will be in use, prior to the services’ commencement. Part of this is making it easy for the subscriber to easily update any address changes. This information, plus the phone number, must then be capable of being provided to the appropriate PSAP when the subscriber calls 911.

But what if the subscriber does not update his or her address? For example, if the subscriber unplugs his modem and takes it to a new physical location within the service provider’s territory, typically that subscriber can plug the modem in and it will work. The issue now, however, is that the physical location is not the same as what the service provider has on file for the subscriber. The subscriber’s failure to update his address creates an problem for 911 services, because his call will route services to the original physical location.

Internet service providers do have the ability to track down individuals who use their services illegally — for example, to download illicit content. They can even narrow IP/MAC address usage into a specific node, a roughly 300-subscriber area. But tracking subscribers during a criminal investigation is different from tracking them during a 911 call. Assume the subscriber can be heard involved in some violent domestic dispute — and emergency services are going to the wrong physical location, based on old address information.

Additionally, VOIP technology is not yet a perfect application. A Southern California agency admitted to receiving a VOIP emergency call from Germany and at least one or two other foreign countries. Response time to these incidents would be painfully slow. For more domestic calls, it is necessary to involve the provider — which can still slow response times to undesirable lengths.

Discussion of the potential to enhance IP technology to include the transmission of geographic location information would help eliminate this concern. Additionally, some cable providers are now adding GPS into their modems for better management of their equipment. There is hope that the same capability can be expanded into VOIP equipment and utilized to better assist with location. But again, like with wireless callers, infrastructure and money will limit this technology.

911: The next generation

The next generation involves an incredible change in emergency response. Some of the advances are coming as a result of the ways consumers are utilizing their mobile devices. Others are a result of agencies trying to find ways to communicate more effectively with citizens during both emergency and routine situations.

As phones have evolved from telephonic style communication to a computer in the user’s hands, the expansion of communication possibilities has increased ten-fold. Whereas 10 years ago, a user could dial 911 and only tell the operator what was occurring, users can now text, send a photo message, video message, e-mail or even contact an agency via some form of social media. (While using social media is not recommended as the choice for reporting an emergency situation, it can be an effective way for police to update citizens about emergencies.)

On the other hand, PSAPs need the technology to accommodate these new reporting capabilities. Not all next generation technology has worked smoothly in real-time situations. During the Virginia Tech shooting, for example, text messages sent to the 911 center were not consistently received. Since then, the FCC together with law enforcement agencies has aggressively approached these issues to the extent that this avenue of expansion offers a solution much more than it creates a problem.

The expansion of technology has led to a need for rapid changes to 911 services, if they are to remain effective. No one side holds the solutions. Service providers, public safety services and consumers need to work together to continue to develop, maintain and improve these technologies’ capabilities and efficiency. Infrastructure has to be updated and technology enhanced for public safety service providers to be able to respond to emergencies. Great steps have been taken, but leaps are still needed.