Nine-one-one: three little words, three big issues
Over 250,000 times each day dispatchers ask the question: “9-1-1. What is your emergency?” For 25 years people in need of help have relied on the emergency 9-1-1 system that first began in the small town of Haleyville, Ala., in 1968, shortly after AT&T reserved the three-digit number 9-1-1 as a national emergency service code number.
The simple act of dialing 9-1-1 initiates a series of actions involving state-of-the-art telecommunications technology, backed by sophisticated informational databases. Industry terms such as Automatic Number Identification (ANI), Automatic Location Identification (ALI), Master Street Address Guide (MSAG) and Selective Routing refer to specific system components that make up the 9-1-1 system.
TYPES OF 9-1-1 SYSTEMS
There are two types of 9-1-1 systems: basic and enhanced. Basic 9-1-1 merely allows the caller to dial 9-1-1 instead of the seven-digit number(s) for police, fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
With basic 9-1-1, the dispatcher must still get information from the caller regarding the type of emergency and location of the caller. With enhanced 9-1-1, however, the dispatcher must only get information from the caller about the nature of the emergency – a sophisticated database tells the dispatcher via monitor the address of the caller based on information provided by the serving telephone company. That same database knows which police, fire or EMS. department to send to the caller’s address.
Systems also vary among urban and rural areas. Some metro communication’s centers in large cities can handle millions of calls per year.
In urban areas, call-takers receive the call initially in primary Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), and they download the calls to a secondary PSAP, which handles the emergency dispatch of police, fire or emergency medical service personnel.
In rural areas, the 9-1-1 system has necessitated “rural addressing,” a process whereby each dwelling unit is assigned a street address or road number in addition to the road name. Rural addressing involves the use of an X/Y coordinate-based process to assign the street address or road number.
Nationwide, the 9-1-1 system averages one call per year for every two people. A county of 35,000 residents to 40,000 residents can expect 50 calls per day, and a city of one million residents, 1,500 a day.
Yet for a number of reasons, many rural areas still do not have even basic 9-1-1 service: the local telephone company may not have proper switching equipment, the area may not have an organized program to bring 9-1-1 to the area and/or the county may have inadequate funding to support the 9-1-1 system.
Ironically, even though 9-1-1 is a household phrase, nearly 20 percent of the population in the United States still does not have the system. On the positive side, many states are working toward statewide 9-1-1, either through state funding or by passing legislation that will allow counties to fund 9-1-1 through local property taxes, local income taxes or phone bill surcharges.
Despite the lack of 9-1-1 service in rural areas, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) estimates that $2 billion to $3 billion has been invested in 9-1-1 systems and upgrades since 1968. The industry, however, must respond to several emerging issues that will dramatically affect the ability to continue providing acceptable 9-1-1 service.
For instance, wireless technology is revolutionizing the way 9-1-1 calls are dispatched. Today there are more than 30 million cellular phones in use in the United States and within the next three years to five years, experts predict that personal communication services (PCS) will equal or surpass cellular phones in the number of units in service.
But, unlike hard-wired telephones that allow phone companies to establish a database of locations, the cellular and PCS units do not lend themselves to location identification. Consequently, if the caller is unable to speak due to heart attack, choking or stroke, or if the caller is unable to describe where he or she is, the dispatcher cannot know where the call originated.
And, without a location, it is impossible for response agencies to answer distress calls. This is a problem because in cities with large numbers of cellular phones, the number of 9-1-1 calls from these users is increasing exponentially, often comprising nearly half of all emergency calls.
The solution to the wireless problem is two-fold. First, technology must be perfected to allow determination of the location of the wireless caller within an acceptable range.
Second, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must require the technology to be in place by a specific date. To facilitate adoption of technology NENA the National Association of State Nine-One-One Administrators, and the Associated Public-Safety Communications Officials International have entered into a consensus agreement with the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) that designates a specific time frame for the location technology to be in place.
If adopted by the FCC, Phase I of the plan would allow wireless companies 18 months to develop the capability to provide cell site information to PSAPs. This would allow calls to be routed to the PSAP with jurisdiction over the cell site from which the call originated.
In Phase II, wireless companies would have five years to provide X, Y, Z (3-D) location within approximately 125 meters. Ideally, the location technology will not require any additional parts on wireless handsets but will use signal strength or time-difference-of-arrival to determine location. This will allow 9-1-1 calls from the 30 million cellular phones and PCS phones, as they come available, to be identified by location.
LOCAL DIAL TONE PROVIDERS
The expected proliferation of companies providing local dial tone may also become an issue. Alternative Local Exchange Carriers (ALECs), such as cable companies, long distance carriers and start-ups, will join incumbent phone companies in offering local dial tone.
The issue is primarily a political one, whereby states and/or counties must require new entrants to provide reliable and constantly updated databases consistent with national standards for database formats. Otherwise the ANI/ALI database, the backbone of enhanced 9-1-1, will lose integrity over time.
Number portability then comes into play. This allows the customer to maintain his or her old phone number even though service is from the ALEC that assigns a different seven-digit number within the system. The importance to the 9-1-1 system is that both numbers will need to appear on the ANI/ALI screen since both may be used in the handling of an emergency call.
GUIDELINES FOR TRAINING
A third issue facing the 9-1-1 system involves human resources. To ensure adequate training of telecommunicators, NENA has focused on four key issues:
1) support of state standards for telecommunicators;
2) development of a certification program for emergency number professionals;
3) scheduling of training courses and materials, including publications and videos for administrators and telecommunicators; and
4) improvement of public education programs to reduce unnecessary calls to the system.
NENA has initiated a resources program to survey all state legislation regarding standards. The intent is to provide useful information to states and counties in their efforts to initiate appropriate legislation.
Only a handful of states have mandated training standards for dispatchers, but a number of states are introducing legislation for mandated standards, which include minimum dispatcher training of 40 hours of classroom attendance.
Dispatchers must also complete simulated emergency phone training and take actual 9-1-1 calls with a qualified partner. Larger cities have more training for telecommunicators, including as much as 200 classroom hours and stress management courses.
However, incidents involving inadequate training have made it clear that dispatcher error can have severe consequences with regard to the public’s safety and confidence in the system. Thus, telecommunicator liability is also a concern for administrators in city and county governments. Most states have built-in public worker liability, whereby public employees cannot be sued for doing their jobs, and 27 states limit liability for telephone companies that provide customer information and for providers of 9-1-1 equipment and service.
As the number of dispatchers needed increases, mandatory regulations will become a means for protecting the pubic and for safeguarding local jurisdictions.