The next generation of 911
Although residents can use their cell phones to send text messages, videos and pictures to each other, they do not yet have the option to use those tools to reach 911. The technical fix, however, is not far off. Over the last few years, national associations, local governments, vendors and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) have been working on ways to connect public safety answering points (PSAPs) to residents using the latest communication technology.
Last summer, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) conducted a proof-of-concept study to test the viability of its Next Generation 911 Initiative, which would allow callers to send text messages, videos or pictures from cell phones to emergency call centers. PSAPs around the country, including King County, Wash., participated. The study included a variety of test calls using a custom computer aided dispatch system to enter the nature of the problem, the caller’s location, name and other details, King County Assistant Director of Emergency Management Jeff Bowers says. “We had several opportunities to make, receive and transfer voice only, video and voice, text and instant message calls,” Bowers says. “The experience was very positive and left us with little doubt that Next Generation 911 could technically be realized.”
Though emergency officials see the benefits of Next Generation 911, Bowers says there are many obstacles to overcome. Existing Enhanced 911 networks must be upgraded with new equipment capable of interfacing with an IP network and handling additional data. In addition, 911 databases and mapping systems that display the locations of the 911 calls also must be upgraded. The Arlington, Va.-based National Emergency Number Association and other national standards groups are developing a set of technical standards necessary for the new systems and expect to release them by 2010.
In the meantime, last month Black Hawk County, Iowa, became the first PSAP in the country to accept text messages sent directly to 911. Currently, the service is available only to residents who use one of the local wireless providers, but county officials are working with other providers to offer the service.
Black Hawk County’s E911 board Chairman and Waterloo, Iowa, Police Chief Thomas Jennings says Next Generation 911 will greatly improve emergency services. “The technology is here, and you have to move forward with it,” he says.
Annemarie Mannion is a Willowbrook, Ill.-based freelance writer.
SO, WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
Next Generation 911 systems are designed to improve the outcomes of emergencies. At its Web site, www.its.dot.gov/ng911/ng911_ex.htm, the Washington-based Research and Innovative Technology Administration offers scenarios representing responses to the same emergency using today’s 911 systems and Next Generation 911.