The 3 Big Questions for 911 Startups

The safety of our nation’s schoolchildren is something that is at the top of everybody’s list.

Unfortunately, there are those who try to capitalize on the fear and uncertainty that surrounds these horrific incidents in the news. Seemingly highly credentialed individuals step forward touting decades of service in public safety, and tagging along with them is their brand-new application that they would love to sell you.

The problem is, many of the benefits they promote about their products are the same ones on a list of bad ideas, as published by current public safety officials. So who is right? The retired cop selling his idea? Or current officials who establish policies and procedures for law enforcement agencies today?

Ty Wooten who is the Director of Education and PSAP Operations at NENA

To help answer that question, this week, I am turning the keys of the Avaya CONNECTED blog over to my good friend and colleague (as well as fellow ENP) Ty Wooten who is the Director of Education and PSAP Operations at NENA.

Maureen Will, RPL, and Director of Emergency Communications at Town of Newtown, CT

Joining him and contributing on this blog is Maureen Will, RPL, and Director of Emergency Communications at Town of Newtown, CT, where the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy occurred just 18 and 1/2 short months ago. I believe what they have to say will be extremely relevant and enlightening.

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Beyond understanding the need to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency, many people are not familiar with how emergency dispatch works. Unfortunately, this is also true for many school administrators who are tasked with evaluating and implementing technologies and procedures for use in active shooter scenarios.

It is strongly encouraged that school administrators work closely with their local law enforcement agency and 9-1-1 center to develop a solution that works best for their specific situation. With this in mind, the following are a few key points to consider.

In the United States, 9-1-1 calls are routed based on the caller’s location to one of approximately 6,400 public safety answering points (PSAPs). Depending on a school’s locality, 9-1-1 calls from different facilities in a district may go to one or more different PSAPs. Those calls are answered by professionals trained to quickly analyze the situation and dispatch the correct resources to the correct location.

The 9-1-1 call-taker /dispatcher answering the call has access to all of the different responders in the area (law enforcement, fire and EMS) via radio and other communication tools. Many centers also have tracking systems which allow the dispatcher to see locations and statuses of all those responders in real time.

Most don’t realize that within seconds of receiving a call for help, and while still asking questions of the caller to better ascertain the situation, the dispatcher is already directing the necessary resources to the scene of the incident and engaging others are needed. It is important to understand that 9-1-1 is effectively “incident command” for the length of most active shooter scenarios (the average lasting less than 12 minutes). 9-1-1 is skillfully coordinating the response as units arrive on scene, assess the situation, report back and request additional resources.

There are three key points regarding the dispatching of first responders which should be carefully evaluated with local 9-1-1 and public safety agencies when considering a safety solution for a school:

1.  Call 9-1-1 Directly

Interfering with someone’s ability to communicate directly with 9-1-1 delays response and adds confusion. Direct verbal communication with 9-1-1 is ideal. In order to effectively manage the response, it is critical that the PSAP have direct communication with those involved in the incident that can provide real-time information.

Alarm interfaces are helpful in providing a warning but do not provide the level of “eye witness” information needed to most effectively coordinate response. Solutions that impede direct communication with 9-1-1 via a third party monitoring center, or first go through a school administrative contact, are also discouraged. Direct communication is the fastest and most effective way to get the right resources dispatched in the most expedient manner.

In some locales, landline and mobile phones may actually route to different PSAPs, affecting the response process. When determining a response plan for a school (or business, for that matter), coordinating with 9-1-1 and public safety to understand how calls are routed locally, as well as understanding response procedures, will significantly enhance the response should an incident occur.

2.  Self Dispatching is Strongly Discouraged

Self dispatching is the process of officers responding to an incident without having been directed to do so by a central dispatch/incident command point. A growing number of apps claim to improve law enforcement response times by alerting users of the app to an incident. This is dangerous and leading public safety agencies strongly discourage the practice:

  • “The use of self-dispatched resources is highly discouraged.” – FEMA, NIMS resource manual
  • “The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) discourage the practice of self-dispatch among emergency response personnel to emergency incidents without notification or request.” – IAFC Policy Statement, August 2002
  • “Self-dispatch can be common practice in many areas but it is unacceptable. When mutual aid agreements are effective, needed units will respond properly and unsolicited aid will only get in the way. Dispatchers should prohibit units listening in from self-dispatching to the incident scene. Only units properly responding to a mutual aid or automatic aid agreement should be allowed to participate in incident response.” – Department of Homeland Security, Lessons Learned Information Sharing

Some would argue that notifying a “trained” passer-by who may be the closest responder is saving valuable time. While this may be beneficial for getting trained bystanders to the side of an individual in cardiac arrest, the facts show quite the opposite for a rapidly-evolving and violent incident.

From a 2012 shooting of an officer by another off-duty officer in New York who had self-dispatched based on an overheard radio transmission, to an overwhelming number of armed “strangers” flooding the Sandy Hook area long after the shooting was over, an uncoordinated response by armed individuals, even when trained, is dangerous.

“If you have people self-dispatching who are not in uniform, you increase the risk of blue-on-blue shootings, and you end up with more people calling the police to report that they saw someone with a gun, which can add to the confusion,” said Howard County (Maryland) Police Chief William J. McMahon when providing lessons learned on the January 2014 Columbia Mall Shooting.

Furthermore, unaffiliated responders are normally not familiar with the location or specific procedures of the facility and can be easily mistaken by those in the school or outside of it as an assailant. According to the Director of the Office of Unified Communications in Washington, D.C., Jennifer Greene:  “While luckily no one was killed as a direct result of self-dispatch during the Navy Yard Shootings, it definitely added an extra dimension of risk and overhead to the entire response as we attempted to identify and manage unknown armed individuals that were on scene.”

3.  Custom Processes Introduce Risk

In an emergency, people tend toward what they know and are familiar with doing. This is the same for both people in an emergency and those answering their calls for help.

The implications for an active shooter situation are twofold. First, remember that many people will call 9-1-1 for help. It is ingrained. Second, keep in mind that a single PSAP may support many schools. If each creates a custom process, the chance for error is high because it is rarely used. Any solution put into operation should be as much a part of daily operations as possible.

Expecting a 9-1-1 dispatcher to remember to do something different for each school in a large area is adding risk. Where-ever possible, ensure existing dispatch and call-taking procedures are leveraged. Where custom workflows are needed, make sure they are consistent for 9-1-1 and responders across a region as much as possible.

9-1-1 is a critical component of an effective active shooter response plan. When working together as a team, 9-1-1, responders and school administrators can create solutions that improve reaction time to incidents and reduce complexity by creating consistent processes used by responding agencies. It is strongly encouraged that school administrators coordinate with local PSAPs and public safety agencies while developing a holistic school safety plan.

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E911’s Fatal Flaw is Lack of Location Data—How Avaya Breeze Can Solve

The night of her husband’s death, Alison Vroome did everything she knew to be right. She grabbed her phone, called 911 and told the operator her address. Then she repeated her address a second, third and fourth time.

The call went to a different North Carolina county; the operator couldn’t understand her address. It was more than 10 minutes into the 911 call before paramedics arrived. Like anyone calling 911 in an emergency, Vroome expected her call to go quickly and smoothly, but it didn’t. Vroome’s call was one of 5.7 million 911 calls that come from wireless phones in NC—about 74% of all 911 calls in the state according to data from 2015. Yet 911 call centers rely on the cellular carrier to provide a cell phone’s location data. The legacy 911 network is voice only and cannot pass any data from the device. Instead, they can only receive the location data from the tower pinged by the call, something not nearly as accurate.

No one can say for certain if Vroome’s husband would be alive today had paramedics arrived sooner, but there isn’t any doubt that the current technology used in E911 emergency situations fails citizens. And this isn’t an issue isolated to the U.S. With the rise of mobile devices, countries and communities around the globe face the same technological flaw—the lack of location information.

As Avaya’s Jean Turgeon addressed in his recent blog on the current state of public safety and E911, accurate location information is one of, if not the most important piece of information that an emergency responder needs; and resolving this fatal flaw requires proactive urgency.

How Today’s #Tech Can Address E911’s Fatal Flaw

My Avaya colleague Mark Fletcher, ENP, recently wrote that when it comes to significantly improving public safety and E911 response times, tech is king. He’s right.

Case in point: In Europe, the introduction of EU eCall to become an integral element of the European emergency number 112 is solving the GPS precision challenge for new passenger vehicles sold in the EU after 2018. In an emergency, an eCall will relay a vehicle’s exact location, time of the incident, and direction of travel to emergency personnel, as sourced from the device, and very accurate. This is done automatically by the vehicle or can be triggered manually by the driver by pushing a button inside the car. That’s technology in action! While we have about two years to go before it becomes available large scale, we’re heading in the right direction.

In addition to eCall, there’s another remarkable solution called Advanced Mobile Location (AML). When a person in distress calls emergency services with a smartphone where AML is enabled, the phone automatically activates its location service to establish its position and then sends this info to emergency services via an SMS. The current downside to this is that AML is only compatible with Android mobile devices (R3.4 or greater). But still … it’s a huge step forward, and sets an excellent example for others.

The concept of AML was developed in the UK by BT’s John Medland in partnership with mobile service provider EE and handset manufacturer HTC initially. First tests were so promising that the European Emergency Number Association (EENA) began to promote AML, which sparked the interest of Google, ultimately getting AML introduced into Android natively. Talk about a ripple effect!

As the world’s leading software and services company, Avaya understands there are better ways to deliver public safety and emergency services, and we’ve been innovating these same capabilities in many commercial arenas for years. Our efforts there have set off their own ripple effect across the public safety industry, urging government agencies around the globe to harness the power of technology to enhance public safety services for citizens. What’s more, our teams are leveraging the Avaya Breeze™ Platform to intelligently link the location data to the incoming eCall or AML call and make it available to the E911 responder. Recently, in partnership with Engelbart Software and Oecon, we’ve developed a flexible and scalable solution for this type of enhanced emergency calling scenario and the results have been positive.

In fact, eCall is looking more and more like a potential game changer, and here’s why.

Let’s look at the technology side of the overall process:

  • A car is involved in an accident.
  • Sensors in the car trigger a sequence of events performed by the In-Vehicle System (IVS).
  • The SIM card registers to the strongest mobile network to raise the emergency call to the EU E112.
  • A modem kicks in, coding the GPS data and other car-related information as audio tones into the voice channel.
  • Immediately following the data transmission, the IVS switches to the hands-free communications system allowing the people in the car to communicate with the E112 responder.

What does this mean for the emergency responder?

  • The E112 responder picks up a call from a mobile device, immediately receiving precise location information. That’s new!
  • The E112 responder can be sure that it’s a serious situation because the airbags have been deployed, which triggers the emergency call sequence to start. So no one is left to wonder the seriousness of the call.
  • Most likely there’s no one for the E112 responder to speak with in the car. Why? Because this is an automatic call, not a call voluntarily initiated by a real person. And while the modem is beeping its data to the Public Safety Answering Point, the passengers might already have stepped out of the car and can’t hear the E112 responder’s “Are you OK?” Or they simply can’t respond because they’re unable due to the severity of the accident.

So are we still talking about a normal emergency call? From my point of view, this is the Internet of Things (IoT) plunging right into public safety and emergency services: sensors, data, processes and integrations. IoT under the disguise of a voice call … this IS a game changer!

At Avaya, we leverage our Breeze workflow engine to tie together voice calls and the IoT. Even though eCall is an initiative in the European Union, we see the concept of telematic calls being discussed around the globe, in public safety as well as in private businesses like the automotive industry. And, yes, we strongly believe that this approach of integration building on Avaya Breeze can also work to help overcome E911’s same fatal flaw, location.

I’ve delivered a series of Avaya Breeze webinars with my colleague, Andrew Maher, featuring Engelbart Software developers. Together, we demonstrate how to deal with eCall and AML. Have a look to learn more about the capabilities of Breeze and its impact on public safety. The demo starts at 00:19:30.


When Is Enough Actually Enough? Exploring the Lagging Face of Public Safety (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, Avaya Vice President and Chief Technologist for software-defined architecture Jean Turgeon opened up a much-needed conversation about the current state of public safety and E911 (which, for the record, doesn’t look good). Just consider that a 2014 study of 1,000 public safety answering points (PSAPs) found that only 18.7% are confident in the location data they receive from wireless callers.

It’s no surprise that technology is vital for improving public safety. The way I see it, this is like a three-legged stool. We need:

  1. Originating devices to support location accuracy

  2. 911 call center networks capable of receiving the information

  3. A Public Safety Emergency Services IP Network to connect them

PSAPs must ensure all three legs are sturdy and of equal length, otherwise fundamental capabilities will be severely limited or missing altogether.

Let’s take a look at the networking side of public safety for a moment. Today in the U.S., there are life-threatening complexities associated with dialing 911 for no other reason than the restrictive legacy networks that transport these calls.

That’s a terrifying thought.

Many times the system programming in hotels and office buildings has similar restrictions. This is why I fight tirelessly in support of Kari’s Law, a U.S. Senate bill introduced earlier this year designed to improve 911 services for multiline phone systems. The law is named in honor of Kari Hunt, who was killed by her estranged husband in late 2013 at a motel in Northeast Texas. One of Hunt’s children tried repeatedly to dial 911 from the motel room’s phone, but wasn’t able to get through because the motel required people to dial 9 to get an outside line. This is a fact I continue to repeat, as I still find people who have not heard of this tragedy, or gave it a second thought.

At the same time, the majority of the emergency call centers today have a serious problem with grade of service. It’s something that’s often in the news, constantly talked about, but rarely acted upon. Our public safety networks are something rarely thought about. Consider the fact that there are somewhere close to 6,000 911 call centers across the U.S. today. Given this, what do you think is the average number of positions staffed in those centers? You likely think dozens, and maybe even hundreds. In actuality, that number is a sparse four people.

So, what happens when all four employees at the average 911 center are tied up because 20 people are calling about the same car accident? Those calls will likely overflow to a neighboring town or city, which then also immediately becomes tied up. This cascading effect starts to immediately make sense how quickly several local governments can be taken out of service. This becomes a serious issue when a person is having a heart attack and dials 911 only to get a busy signal or to be put through to a city 10-20 miles away. A more nefarious problem is how easily it would be to disrupt the U.S. 911 network via Telephony Denial of Service (TDoS) attacks, something the FBI and Public Safety worry about daily.

Overcoming Today’s Greatest 911 Challenges

In Part 1 of this series, JT mentioned a few reasons why PSAPs may overlook infrastructure upgrades. In my opinion, there’s only one primary reason: it’s cost-prohibitive. Why? Because at one point, a handful of businesses in the industry decided they wanted to capitalize on the market by creating very specialized and expensive equipment. Because so few people understand 911, these cost-prohibitive solutions (which run on old technology with massive limitations) are widely believed to be the only options available in the market today.

It has never been more evident that almost every 911 center is currently grappling with technological, financial and operational challenges that seem difficult to overcome. As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said July 12 in a congressional testimony: “Unless we find a way to help the nation’s [911 centers] overcome the funding, planning and operational challenges they face as commercial communications networks evolve, NG911 will remain beyond reach for much of the nation. Let me be clear on this point: 911 service quality will not stay where it is today, it will degrade if we don’t invest in NG911.”

But remember the three-legged stool, and the originating network, or the enterprise customer. For example, we recently worked with a large customer based in New England that boasted more than 25,000 network endpoints across 700 locations. This included everything from small two-person offices to regional medical centers all the way to large teaching hospitals and universities. The 911 solution this customer was originally going to deploy was estimated at $650,000 in CAPEX, in addition to a monthly recurring operational cost of about $25,000.

Thankfully, this organization came to Avaya before signing the contract and asked if we could assess the situation. After consulting with them, and examining their workflows, we engineered a new operational model that only cost $130,000 in CAPEX, and would be less than $1,500 a month in recurring operational costs. With Avaya functionalities along with technologies delivered by our trusted Select DevConnect Partner Conveyant Systems, Inc., we were able to hand this customer a half a million dollars back in CAPEX, and decreased their OPEX by $282,000 annually. The result of building an efficient 911 solution was the organization now being able to allocate hard-earned dollars towards other top-priority initiatives that had previously gone unfunded. That’s the beauty of it all.

The lesson learned and the key to easily and cost-effectively upgrading your 911 infrastructure is to not accept the status quo, and partner with the right provider for your needs. At Avaya, we know there’s a better way to deliver 911. We take pride in our commitment to driving awareness around this need. It gives us great honor to be advocates for those whose voices must be heard or whose voices have been silenced, like Kari Hunt. We’re dedicated to teaching organizations and our customers that there is in fact a way to seamlessly overcome today’s greatest 911 challenges. We hope that you’ll join us in this very important mission.

When is Enough Actually Enough? A Hard Look at the Lagging Face of Public Safety (Part 1)

When we talk about the state of public safety today, we unfortunately have to recognize the devastating tragedies that have forever affected our communities, schools and businesses worldwide. Research shows that we’re currently experiencing four times as many terrorist attacks globally than in 1990. This month alone, there have been 120 confirmed or suspected attacks—an increase from around 95 in January.

People are being targeted based on their religious beliefs, ideologies and even identities. In France, for instance, we’re seeing new laws that ban certain cultural garbs for fear of terrorist-related threats. Meanwhile, in the U.S., we’re seeing a divide between law enforcement and the very citizens that officers have sworn to serve and protect. In the Middle East, we continue to see unthinkable devastation as violence escalates daily. I understand these aren’t things we want to talk or hear about, but it’s important that we do in order to improve communication infrastructure and transform the global state of public safety and emergency response.

To this end, we’re seeing technology rapidly evolving to a point where there are next-generation solutions available that can help get us to where we need to be. For example, consider the all-new, reopened Sandy Hook Elementary School. On Dec. 14, 2012, the Newtown, CT-based grade school suffered the deadliest mass school shooting in U.S. history. Last month, however, the school reopened its doors equipped with extraordinary technology that ensures next-generation protection for children and staff this school year.

The new design boasts advanced security features that are hidden in plain sight, improving natural surveillance of the grounds. The technology also offers increased situational awareness through a series of impact-resistant windows. Overall, the hope is that the rebuilt school will be the first within the state of Connecticut to be compliant with a new state school safety code, the School Safety Infrastructure Council guidelines.

The redesigned Sandy Hook Elementary School proves that technology can reimagine the possibilities of public safety, if only we allow it to. Examples like this make it really difficult for me to accept that our current state of public safety lags so much. At Avaya, we’re doing all we can to actively bridge this gap. One massive inadequacy we’re especially passionate about improving is the accuracy of E911, or Enhanced 911.

E911 was designed to allow emergency responders to determine the location of a caller based on the caller ID. Today, however, devices have become nomadic and the phone number to location correlation is no longer a valid assumption. Fortunately, there are alternative solutions available that can detect the exact location of a device, an IoT object, or an individual by leveraging smart devices, wearable technologies, and more.

This combination of advanced technology (i.e., Wi-Fi triangulations, GPS, wearables with NFC capabilities) is a key to overcoming 911’s greatest flaw: lack of location data. These advances in technology make it possible, for example, to detect a child that has left a secure area and then immediately send an alert to emergency response teams. These different mechanisms make it possible to save lives. Imagine if someone was suffering a heart attack in an office complex. In this case, standard 911 will enable first responders to locate the building the person is in, but how do they know if the person is on the fifth floor, the 40th floor or in the basement? This same scenario applies to any suspected or proven terrorist.

All of this sounds great, but there’s one problem: for many, deploying these technologies isn’t top of mind. Just consider findings from a 2015 national investigation conducted by USA Today. After sorting through hundreds of pages of local, state and federal documents, it was discovered that:

  • The average chance of 911 getting a quick fix on location ranges from as low as 10% to as high as 95%.
  • In California, 63% of cell phone calls to 911 didn’t share location in 2014.
  • In Texas, two-thirds of cell phone calls reached 911 without an instant fix on location during 2010 to 2013.

No two ways about it: the reason why so many emergency calls today reach 911 without an accurate location is because there’s a severe technology issue at play. Public safety access points (PSAPs) still rely on technology that was designed to locate landlines, despite the fact that the number of 911 calls that come from cell phone networks is 70% to 80% and growing.

Users are evolving from land lines to wireless technologies, but PSAPs continue to remain behind, locked into technology designed in the 1960s. Despite technology being readily available, it isn’t being implemented. Why does this travesty exist? The reason for this is simple: because providers choose not to. Because it’s too costly. Because it’s too much of a hassle or inconvenience. Meanwhile, the reason for implementation is and always will be more important: because lives hang in the balance when archaic infrastructure remains in place.

The bottom line is this: there needs to be a greater movement towards next-generation methodologies of tracking one’s location. PSAPs need to effectively keep up with today’s pace of innovation in order to better serve the general public. It’s great to have a caller’s general location, but responders need richer and more relevant caller information to elevate public safety to where it needs to be today. We need to create proactive urgency around this issue—otherwise, we’re going to keep suffering preventable tragedies until someone finally decides that enough is enough.

Coming up: In Part II of this series, Avaya’s Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions Mark Fletcher will dig into specific technology deficiencies and how to overcome them by easily and cost-effectively upgrading your 911 infrastructure.