The Rebirth of 9-1-1

May 2, 2007
When 18-year-old Jennifer Koon was abducted, assaulted, and murdered, she had a cell phone. She called 9-1-1. Operators listened as Jennifer's nightmare played out. First responders did not know where she was. 9-1-1 technology failed her.

Emergency communication operators must recognize the inevitability of change. Since the beginning of telephone-based communications, people have wanted to use the technology to reach out to those who help them. Legislators, emergency managers, and telephone professionals listened and changed the face of emergency communications.


9-1-1 has evolved since the first call in 1968. From the "red phone" to today's VoIP, technology continues to progress and agencies must keep up. Citizens expect public safety technology to be state-of-the-art. If people are using cell phones, iPods, and internet video telephonic links, they expect operators to understand and use these communication devices. Brenda Moreland, Communications Manager with the Richardson (TX) Police Department, started in 1976. When Richardson got 9-1-1 services in 1988, she states most communications operators wanted the new technology. "It was something they couldn't get fast enough. We felt helpless. We wanted that tool and more control of the situation." Unfortunately, with the assumption of control came a price. Citizens began to rely on the equipment. Moreland explains, "We faced the questioning of why are you asking me that when you have it in front of you. It's a database. It could have an error. There is no 100 percent accuracy. We don't know except by asking and seeing how reliable it is." As for the public, she states, "They take it for granted. Over the years, they had their landline phones which were associated with their billing address. They didn't think to question, 'How does 9-1-1 work in this environment? ' They weren't thinking of, 'When I need 911, will it work?'" In an age of rapidly changing technology, taking 9-1-1 for granted has become a fatal mistake.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) lists thirteen "wireless 9-1-1 tragedies" on their web site, including the devastating story of 18-year-old Jennifer Koon, who was abducted, assaulted, and murdered. She called 9-1-1. Operators listened as Jennifer's nightmare played out. Her cell phone did not provide a location. When they found her, she was already dead. The question of whether or not 9-1-1 would work probably did not enter her mind when she called for help. The system failed her. Fortunately, people did not accept this outcome, including her father, now a state assemblyman in New York advocating a rapid implementation of E9-1-1 services. There are many other supporters, including NENA and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), a co-chair on the Congressional E9-1-1 Caucus, whose main objective is education and awareness. Unfortunately, many barriers still exist.


NENA Director of Government Affairs Patrick Halley states two primary barriers to gaining 9-1-1 services exist: money and leadership. Funding is particularly a problem in low population, rural areas he says. Although many of these areas have a surcharge associated with their phone service, this charge is often not enough to pay for 9-1-1. He states, "In a lot of areas, they need surcharges and general revenue to get it done." On the other hand, leadership is a huge issue. He says, "It takes making 9-1-1 a priority to get it done." Giving North Dakota as an example, he explains although they have a low population, their local and state leaders know the importance of 9-1-1. He elaborates, "North Dakota has every county but one Phase II capable. They have taken the leadership to get it done." Halley also emphasized that the leadership must be at an upper level. He states, "In an area managed by one person who has five operators, they may not have the time and money to be up on the current stuff. It takes leadership and state-level coordination. Someone who makes others understand what needs to be done."

Although most of the changes occur at a legislative and management level, there are many things emergency communications operators can do to help not only citizens, but themselves.

What Can We Do?

First, operators can educate themselves on 9-1-1 differences and what their agency uses. NENA's website has information explaining Basic and Enhanced 9-1-1 and the various wireless phases. Knowing what your system is capable of can assist you in making decisions. .

Second, educate your callers. Let them know the capabilities of their telephonic choice. Explain there is a difference between a landline and a cell phone when you dial 9-1-1. This education might save their lives one day. And, hopefully, they will pass this information to their friends and family making the time you took to educate them even more valuable.

Third, educate yourself in regard to your personal phone choices and their 9-1-1 capability. Ask your provider. Many have this information on their web sites. NENA lists some providers, including links to their sites. Be especially careful with VoIP phone systems, which can be either automatic or nomadic. Nomadic is like a landline, so when you travel, your registration address is the one your VoIP technology will use to route you to emergency services. Once you get this information let your family, friends, babysitter, anyone who might call 9-1-1 from your phone know its capabilities. Keep the local police number handy. As we all know firsthand, 9-1-1 is not infallible.

Fourth, support E9-1-1 legislation. Stay current reference legislative decisions being made that affect not only your job, but also your personal safety.

So, now what?

Here are a few more numbers to mull over. Although twenty states have 100 percent of their counties E9-1-1 capable, Alaska (54.14%) and Nevada (47.06%), for example, are still way below that. Also, "capable" does not mean "implemented." It just means they have the ability to use E9-1-1, not that they are using it. Fourteen states have 100% of their population with some Phase II (wireless) coverage, but Hawaii (11.03%) and Wyoming (28.18%) fall behind. America is an extremely mobile society. When the unexpected happens and you need help, or you are the helper, a failure in the degree of 9-1-1 technology can be tragic. Harris stated during the Virginia Tech shootings; students had access to their cell phones. Having grown up in a generation where text messaging is more popular than telephone conversations, many students wondered why they couldn't use text messages with 9-1-1. They could have informed first responders of the status of the emergency without the danger of talking on the phone. Why couldn't they use this technology to ask for help? Because it isn't available. Moreland sums this up, "We need to flow with the change. We're not going to stop the next 9-1-1 generation, whatever it is. We're going to have to change."

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